In honor of my upcoming trip to Dubai, I thought I’d share a blast from the past. I last visited Dubai in 2010 and at the time I kept a travel blog for whom the sole audience was my mother. I’ve come a long way since then (the expanded readership now includes my Mom and Ines’s Mom!), but I still love this story of an evening spent wandering the Gold Souk. It’s an experience that everyone should have in Dubai, and I can’t wait until I can visit it again.
A search for the perfect souvenir had led me to Dubai’s Gold Souk. It was my evening off from hawking patient education pamphlets at the U.A.E. International Dental Conference and Arab Dental Exhibition, the Middle East’s largest dental trade show, where crowns and fillings were the only gold I encountered. In a desert land that boasts the world’s tallest building, an indoor ski resort, an A.T.M. that dispenses gold bars, and an annual, month-long Shopping Festival to showcase luxury goods, finding a memento to meet the budget of a humble purveyor of dental wares was a challenge.
One of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai began as a port with fishing and pearl diving as its main industries. Today it is a larger than life hub of international banking and IT companies. Only 20 percent of its population is native Emiratis. At the height of Dubai’s pre-recession construction boom, in addition to expat professionals, the remaining 80 percent consisted of as many as 250,000 foreign laborers who formed the backbone of both the construction and hospitality industries. Most of these workers are of South Asian descent.
The Gold Souk is located in Dubai’s Deira area. Its narrow, winding streets are lined on both sides with approximately 300 jewelry shops. Estimates place 10 tons of gold in the souk at any given time. It is an ideal place to buy gold because the base price is calculated by weight and current market price, and the buyer and the jeweler then negotiate an additional amount for the craftsmanship of the finished piece.
Yusuf spied me gawking in the window of his shop and waved me in. Knowing I’d be poorer for entering, I went inside.
Yusuf’s western-style suit belied our location on the Arabian Peninsula, where men often dressed in billowy, white robes called dishdashas and headscarves known as ghutras. He wasted no time. “We’ll start with these.” He went to a case behind the counter, gathered no less than 30 gold chains, and looped them around his arm up to the elbow, shaking them slightly to untangle them. He pulled off several of differing lengths and laid them on a rubber mat on the counter. We narrowed them down to about five, when he noticed my hands. “You have very delicate wrists,” he said.
“In Turkey, they told me I needed to eat more,” I said.
He looked closer. “You know, I think I have something you will really like.”
Yusuf ducked behind the counter and emerged with a brilliant 18-karat bracelet. My mouth dropped. “They call this the diamond cut because the gold is cut to sparkle,” he said as he fastened it around my wrist. And sparkle it did. “Wait a minute. Let me get you the matching chain.” I nodded, and he returned with a thick, twisted rope of solid gold. I didn’t quite feel like Mr. T, but I was getting close. “And we have a thicker one,” he announced and quickly went off to find it.
As time passed, Yusuf and I became quite chummy. I pointed to a delicate, layered filigree necklace behind the counter, conceivably worn by a Middle Eastern bride as part of her dowry. It weighed around one pound. “So how about that one? Can I try it?”
Yusuf, happy to humor me, unlocked the glass case and fastened the huge necklace around my neck. “Beautiful!” he declared, smiling as my neck bent beneath its brilliant heft. “Can I add it to your bill?”
“Yes, “ I said. “How much?”
“For you, ma’am, only $15,000.00.”
“And if I make a run for it?”
“Do you see all these cameras,” he asked, pointing to multiple, wall-mounted video cameras aimed in my direction, “as well as those guards by the door?” I nodded at several uniformed men. “Ma’am, I have a feeling you would not get very far,” he said, his smile unwavering.
I finally decided on the bracelet and a snakeskin chain. Next was the haggle. Haggling over prices is a Middle Eastern tradition that spans millennia. It is a delicate nuance of words and gestures, and keeping your eyes on the prize and your emotions in check.
Haggling is more productive with a cup of a tea and a smile than with overt force, and patience and flexibility are your best bargaining tools. Balancing these with practical information, such as gold’s current price per ounce and a defined budget, keeps your emotions from taking over. However, the most important element of a successful haggle, besides keeping your cool, is never being afraid to walk away.
Yusuf gave me a price for the two pieces. I countered with a price 50 percent below his initial offer. He feigned a heart attack and went off to get me a soda. We haggled some more. He punched furiously on his calculator and slid it across the glass counter. I looked at the numbers, snorted, made my own frenzied calculations and spun the calculator toward him. He shrugged and ruminated on my offer.
“Hmmm,” he sighed thoughtfully. “To approve this, I will have to get my manager.”
The manager, a thin, gregarious man in a well-cut suit, came over. The calculations began anew until we reached a point where neither of us would budge. I asked if the price included a car. Sadly, it did not. Instead, we agreed to halve the difference and shook hands.
Yusuf asked for some ID and made a quick photocopy on the copier behind him. “Is this so you’ll always remember me?” I asked, playfully batting my eyes.
“This,” he replied “is for the bank to prove it was really you who bought the jewelry.”
“Oh,” I said, dragged back to reality by my deflated ego.
I handed him my credit card, and squeezed my eyes shut as he swiped it. Although I had stuck to my budget, this was a much larger investment than a t-shirt or a fake pashmina. I opened my eyes and Yusuf returned my card and a receipt to sign. “There,” I thought as I signed it and exhaled the breath I had been holding. “Painless.” I was almost convincing enough to fool myself.
Walking to the taxi stand, I clutched my glossy red shopping bag, nervous until I realized that my purchase was merely a glittering drop in Dubai’s gold bucket. And that tomorrow, it was back to fillings and oral hygiene pamphlets.