Of all the cities of the global urban landscape, no other receives more diametrically opposed opinions, praise, and criticism than Dubai. For many, it is a cacophony of bling and bad taste, of disproportionate skyscrapers, and a society perfumed with an air of artificiality thicker than the sands of a desert storm. For others, it is a futuristic metropolis setting the standard for luxury, innovation, and technology as evidenced by the Emirates’ almost herculean commitment to their 2020 World Expo engagement. But for true aficionados of the Middle East, who see beyond the veil of popular opinion, Dubai and the entire GCC is truly the birthplace of refined luxury, boasting a level of sophistication, elegance, and hospitality that renders other regions pale in comparison.
“There is a global shift occurring that will reposition the Gulf as an international epicentre of luxury that celebrates native talent, culture, and quality craftsmanship…”
What is not seen beyond the heights of the Burj Khalifa or the glittering halls of the Gulf’s splendid palaces, is the rich tradition of craftsmanship and creativity that has been omnipresent in the region for hundreds if not thousands of years. Each country, despite its natural resources being limited due to the climatic and geographic conditions, has a unique link to pottery, basket weaving, gastronomy, and yes fashion. Whether you look to the Gulf’s view of apparel as a cultural nuance or a religious doctrine, Arabia has been often portrayed by westerners with a certain Orientalist flair, evoking images of flowing garments, jewels, precious oils and perfumes. And though this may be a hyperbolic and romantically bloated vision of Khaleeji style, it does remain its principle unique selling point. Situated on the apex of the silk, spice, and perfume routes for millennia , the Arabian peninsula has always had a relationship with luxury. Whether through luscious dates from Saudi Arabia, cardamon laced coffee, pearls from Dubai, or the deliciously sacred scent of Oman’s principle export of frankincense, Arabian culture has either traded, cultivated, or produced some of the most expensive raw materials in the history of luxury.
So what does this mean in today’s context? Are we to continue to digest a force-fed diet of media driven perspectives of Gulf craftsmanship and design; a world filled with cultural clichés and glitzy but poorly made abayas? Or can we look to the region as being the up and coming centre of contemporary design and innovation? What we see today, emerging from the GCC countries, is not only great design, but also a pride in Arabian design. Some of these creators reflect their native culture, others do not. Some are inspired by the past, others by the future. Yet there are many questions that flood the luxury arena in the Middle East. Questions of production, logistics, marketing, shopping habits, fashion trends, and of course, the role of e-commerce in the luxury consumer’s client experience. Is it multichannel or omni-channel? Is digital the future or does brick and mortar still offer the luxury consumer what they are truly seeking. What are the expectations of the future luxury consumer in the Gulf and how will native brands then conquer beyond the threshold of their own country?
As we enter into a new era of GCC politics and cultural evolution, particularly in Saudi Arabia where the workplace has been marked by gender balancing reforms and international tourism has been introduced through new visa policies, brands are quickly adapting to these new rules of engagement by looking deeper into the demographics and social changes that are shaping the future buying habits of Middle Eastern consumer. Saudi woman now have access to more employment opportunities and thus have more expendable income; they are young (country’s under 30’s represent a staggering 70% of the population), educated, and well-travelled. Other leaders in the GCC community such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai are pioneering new economic models which focus on cultural, sporting, or leisure activities with a luxury angle, attracting the HNWI traveler and consumer. The Chalhoub Group, the region’s largest distributor of luxury fashion and beauty, is setting the example of how businesses need to respond to this need to be global, digital, and strategically positioned to build and retain their international client base. Yet despite the daunting challenge for small brands and retailers vying for local market share in the GCC and beyond, there is a global shift occurring that will reposition the Gulf as an international epicentre of luxury that celebrates native talent, culture, and quality craftsmanship.