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Dubai has a reputation as a modern, cosmopolitan city. In Dubai, bigger is better: world’s tallest building, world’s largest mall, etc. However, in Bur Dubai and along the banks of the Dubai Creek, you hear the echoes of the old Dubai. In the heart of this area, we encountered the Dubai Gold Souk and knew we’d stumbled on some something truly special.
To appreciate this area, cruising up Dubai Creek on an abra boat is a must. From this vantage point, you can see the bustling level of activity as the dhows and abras cruise up and down the river engaging in commerce. Men stand on these floating barges yellowing to people on shore. Prices are negotiated and then the goods are loaded off and carried in the local Dubai souks. There are cafes lining the creek, which are also a great place to grab a falafel snack and enjoy the bustle of activity.
Our first local experience was the Bur Dubai Souk – a mixed bag of cheap clothes, housewares, convenience goods and not an insignificant amount of tourist merchandise. A few vendors were trying to push art, but the market seemed quiet. While there is something for everyone at the Bur Dubai Souk, there isn’t an everyone for the something that is sold there. The Bur Dubai Souk is definitely skippable.
However, on the other side of the Dubai Creek, in the Deira neighborhood, things get more interesting. Near the creek is the entrance to the Dubai Spice Souk. This was once a vibrant, local market, but now seems to cater mostly to tourists. The spices were nice and beautiful all stacked up. Old men lazily pushed their wares begging us to buy, but not in a pushy or aggressive way. It was kind of charming actually.
All of our wandering was just the preview of the main event: the Dubai Gold Souk. We’re read about this place in the 1,000 Places to See Before You Die book. The gold souk is steeped in history and mystery. There’s a rhythm and flow to market that took a while to understand and appreciate.
In the Dubai Gold Souk, the streets are lined with narrow shops and each shop window is packed full of reflective, deep yellow gold. In Dubai, the preferred item of choice is 22 carat gold. It’s a deeper yellow than we’re accustomed to in the United States. But Americans are not the primary buyers in this market. The Dubai Gold Souk caters to the tastes of patrons from Asia, particularly India. As we eavesdropped on some of the conversation, we learned that it is common for families to travel to Dubai and buy large quantities of gold jewelry as dowries for their daughters.
The Dubai Gold Souk also caters to buys who come from parts of the world where local currencies have little value. Nearly all the shops in the gold souk sell small gold bullion bars. These are a far more stable way to retain value outside of the banking systems.
At all the stores in the gold souk, there are two prices post. The first price is the market price for gold based on weight. That price is uniform across all vendors. The price of gold is the price of gold. The second price is the negotiated price for craftsmanship of the piece, whether it is earrings, bracelets or something else. This craftsmanship price is the one you haggle on.
If the brightly colored 22 carat gold isn’t your style, the gold souk of Dubai does have other items available. It is possible to get some items in 18 carat gold – more common and more acceptable to Americans and Europeans. Yet the gold souk doesn’t sell only gold, as we quickly learned.
Several years ago, my wife and I saw a beautiful sapphire pendant necklace in the Cayman Islands years ago. We didn’t buy it – and we’ve regretted that decision every day since. In the Dubai Gold Souk, we found the perfect sapphire pendant at a store. We spent several hours drinking tea and haggling for perfect deal. We learned quickly that there are no “deals” at the gold souk – they always make money and have sophisticated negotiating strategies. However, in comparison to stores in America or Europe, it was an extraordinary value.
The local souks in Dubai offer a rare opportunity to experience some of the traditional trade culture from this region. Traders have been dealing in spice and gold on the shores of the Dubai Creek for generations. The Dubai Gold Souk is also an opportunity to witness two strong trends in emerging economies: the storage of value in gold and the need to transfer wealth. The gold souk in Dubai may well be one of the most important financial institutions in the world.
Visiting Information for the Dubai Gold Souk
Where is the Dubai Gold Souk
Along Sikkat Al-Khail Street, near the Suq Deira.
When to Visit the Gold Souk in Dubai
Stores are generally open Saturday-Thursday from 10:00am-10:0pm and Friday from late afternoon to 10:00pm (Friday hours seem a bit flexible).
Dubai Gold Souk Tips
While all stores accept major credit cards, you will find favorable terms for cash.
Cover image courtesy of Joi Ito (CC by 2.0).