DUBAI — For years the glittering emirate’s many superlatives have made it a novel place to visit.
One can ski inside a mall, spend the day at a glossy beach club on a man-made palm-tree-shaped island and finish off with dinner atop the world’s tallest building. Dubai’s sun and sand juxtaposed against its notable modern skyline, high concentration of fine dining restaurants, luxury malls and some of the world’s best hotels have made it a coveted place to escape to, and never more so than during the pandemic.
Luxury brands have gravitated toward the emirate for its spending power and incredible retail infrastructure, but more recently, for the sense of safety it provides. At a time when the pandemic limited how brands could interact with customers, Dubai positioned itself as a safe haven with relatively lower rates of transmission and hospitalization. Tourism reopened in August 2020, a vital move for the government, which imposed strict COVID-19-testing policies on all travelers. For a city heavily dependent on tourists — Dubai International Airport was the world’s busiest airport for international passengers in 2019 — reopening has been crucial to avoiding a catastrophic crash.
Fast-forward one year, the pandemic is still a reality, but Dubai is racing ahead. Expo 2020 kicked off last month, the first world expo to be held in the Middle East and also the world’s biggest in-person event this year, outside of the Olympics. The six-month, $7 billion extravaganza features pavilions from around the world showcasing architectural and technological innovation. The event, which was postponed by a year due to COVID-19-related lockdowns, is already providing a boost to the economy because of the influx of visitors.
Event companies are working in overdrive across the region. And strategically for Dubai, the moment has never been more important to showcase its evolution as a key fashion destination. “Dubai is back with a bang,” said Dipesh Depala, cofounder of the Qode, one of the region’s most established event and marketing agencies, a part of The Independents Group.
“The pandemic had the whole world locked down. Fortunately, in the UAE the situation was managed very well, so we not only resumed a fairly normal lifestyle quickly, things have been very active here. There are restrictions in place, but people see the value and benefit in that. There is this feeling of safety when you go out, people are upbeat and excited.”
One of the most critical factors in reopening for events has been how fast the country has vaccinated its residents. More than 88 percent of the population is now fully vaccinated, according to the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. The United Arab Emirates is the first and only nation to have administered at least one vaccine dose to 90 percent of its 9.9 million population, putting it far in front of the rest of the world in the race to get vaccinated.
The silver lining of course, says Depala, is the economic gains. “Because we have been active for so long, business has been not only moving, but now it’s booming again. That means money and revenue, so of course brands are in tune with that.”
The easing of restrictions by the government of Dubai has made it easier to hold events in the emirate. Concerts and social events are permitted, providing the audience, participants and staff are vaccinated against COVID-19. The maximum attendance for large public events that require permits is 1,500 for indoors and 2,500 for outdoors. Hotels in Dubai have returned to full occupancy, while entertainment venues have capacity limits of 70 percent (up from 50 percent), restaurants and cafés can operate at 80 percent capacity and can remain open until 3 a.m.
Rania Masri El Khatib, founder and chief strategist at RMK collective, a consulting company focused on delivering industry shaping experiences in retail, says there is a convergence of factors in Dubai that are giving it a renaissance moment as a global fashion destination. “Dubai has long been known as a premier shopping destination. Dubai Mall is home to so many of the luxury industry’s top global flagships and innovative concepts,” she said.
“You can’t compare Dubai to a city like Paris when it comes to craftsmanship. And it’s also not solely about spending power, because collectively that is still higher in the bigger markets. But what Dubai can offer is a place to create a spectacular mood, the theater and entertainment that is so vital for these immersive brand experiences. People want to dream,” said El Khatib. “Brands are now seeing an opportunity to tell a bigger story in this part of the world.”
She explained that as brands focus more on connecting directly with shoppers, Dubai becomes more appealing because of the many types of customers who are here. “Traditional fashion shows attract mostly the buyers, industry insiders and press. Customers get invited, but often prefer private appointments. But the minute you take it out of that context, and make it experience-led, it’s very attractive for customers.”
Dubai is now one of those premier fashion destinations, similar to Miami, where travelers come specifically so they can get a certain brand exclusive not available anywhere else in the world.
“The pandemic has shown the rest of the world Dubai is a force to be reckoned with,” said Depala. “We are quite free to curate and produce events here at scales not done elsewhere. From the futuristic expo site to the beaches and desert landscape, Dubai continues to grow at a rapid place and there are constantly new and fantastical locations.”
“The bottom line is the potential of growth for brands because of the many new and interesting ways to engage people here adds a lot of sparkle to Dubai,” says Depala.