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Sun 2 Nov 2008 05:28 PM

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Global downturn challenge to Dubai Mall success

Downturn could hit UAE residents' purchasing power and tourist numbers, analysts say.

The vast Dubai Mall shopping centre is finally set to open for business on Tuesday but the success of the $20 billion project is far from certain amid the global economic crisis.

The mall will be one of the world's largest with 1,200 shops and it will be a tough call for the owners to meet their target of 30 million visitors in the first year.

"The impact of the financial crisis is being felt everywhere, and that includes the United Arab Emirates, where the appeal of shopping centres could suffer from restrictions imposed by banks on the use of credit cards," said economist Eckart Woertz from the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre.

In addition, "the purchasing power of the residents of Dubai and Abu Dhabi has dropped in the the past few years due to the surging cost of housing," he told newswire AFP.

Dubai Mall is situated at the foot of the Burj Dubai - already the tallest building on earth at around 700 metres and still under construction.

The mall is scheduled to house branches of some of the world's best known retail chains, such as Marks and Spencer, Galeries Lafayette and even Bloomingdales, which has never before had stores outside the United States.

However, the inauguration has been repeatedly delayed. The centre was initially supposed to open by the end of 2006, but the date was postponed to August 2008 and then to Oct. 30 before being put back to Nov. 4.

Local press reported on Thursday that even the new date may not be met due to final-touch glitches.

When it does finally open, many shops will remain shuttered for a long while to come. Bloomingdales is not timetabled to open until 2010 and Galeries Lafayette is earmarked for February next year, according to the mall's website.

The Westfield centre, Britain's third biggest mall, opened on Thursday to mixed reviews, attracting a large crowd of visitors but with many people just window shopping rather than spending money, British newspapers reported.

The Dubai project's owner Emaar Malls, a subsidiary of the Dubai-based giant property developer Emaar Properties, remains optimistic about its prospects.

"Customers demand a different shopping experience from malls, particularly in the Middle East, where malls have become lifestyle and entertainment destinations," said Yousif Al-Ali, general manager of Dubai Mall.

As in every other city in the oil-rich Gulf region, where the temperature is too hot for outdoor shopping most of the year, malls in Dubai have become centres for social life.

As well as its 1,200 shops, a gold souk and a 250-room luxurious hotel, Dubai Mall will feature a 10-million litre aquarium, Olympic-size ice rink and 22 cinema screens as well as 120 restaurants and cafes.

Emaar is diversifying into the retail sector after pioneering Dubai's construction boom by creating new communities in the emirate's desert.

Although it has been a publicly listed company since 2000, Emaar still has the government of Dubai as its largest single shareholder with 32 percent of shares.

Emaar shares led a freefall in Dubai's bourse this month amid the global financial meltdown, though it is not clear whether the challenging prospects for the new Mall contributed to the stock's plunge.

Woertz of Gulf Research Centre is among analysts asking questions about the need for yet another huge mall in a city that already has several giant shopping centres, just as the world economy hits a trough.

Tourism has been a major factor in Dubai's economic growth and there are plans to more than double the number of tourists to 15 million by 2015.

But Woertz said: "The current financial crisis could reduce the number of visitors, especially Westerners.... Even if tourists continue to come to the UAE, they will be spending less than before."

Some commentators are still confident the mega mall can be a big success.

"Dubai, where one can find 35 to 40 percent of the shopping centres in the oil-rich region, remains a destination of choice for shopping in the Arab world, Asia and Africa," analyst Ibrahim Khayat told AFP.

"Despite the global crisis, there has not been a drop in hotel and travel reservations," he added, pointing out that Dubai is not just a popular destination for families and businessmen, "but also for rich clients who look for the latest in fashion."

The wealthy governments of the Gulf region remain confident that their economies will weather the global crisis and have stepped in to provide liquidity assurances to banks and financial institutions, amid huge losses in their stock markets.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is forecasting only a slight drop in the rapid growth of the mostly oil-export driven economies, from an estimated 7.1 percent this year to 6.6 percent in 2009.

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