Seek out the Souqs!
When I was doing my own research on what to expect when I moved to the United Arab Emirates, I found a lot of references to places like Lulu Hypermarket and Carrefour. Both are excellent one-stop-shop options for those looking to get a Walmart kind of experience in the Middle East, but there are other options that should be considered, as well. The Souqs!
We live in Al Ain where there are a few to explore. You’re not guaranteed to have the person speak English – or whatever other languages you speak – but they will give it the old college try as long as you’re willing and in good spirits. The souqs are a fantastic adventure for those who’d like a little more of an authentic experience, rather than the canned shopping with cart and muzak.
For those of you living in Al Ain, I’ll give you my two favorites: The Bawadi Souq and the Al Zaafarana Souq. Both are amazing souqs to explore, and they offer different things. Here is a breakdown for what we look for at both souqs:
The Bawadi Souq (AKA – Al Qaws Traditional Market)
Located beside the Bawadi Mall and in front of the Camel Souq, this is where you can buy carpets, rugs, couches, drapes, curtains, and any other manner of handcrafted furniture and household items. There are myriad shops offering small trinkets to large pots to boil food for an army. Platters the size of tables and small plastic buckets fight for space within the same small shops, offering a dizzying array of goods to marvel at. Traveling a bit further behind to the camel souq offers a glimpse of traditions that span a thousand years, a brilliant juxtaposition of old and new, with camels and goats being sold with an air-conditioned mall as the backdrop.
The majority of the people in the shops are from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and they are all eager to draw you in to see their wares. This is a place for bargaining, and I’ve found that you can usually talk your way down about 1/3 of the initial price as long as you’re willing to play the game.
The couches pictured above were purchased at the Bawadi Souqs. They were made by Pakistani men (now friends) who allowed us to choose every aspect of what the couch would look like. They were neither pushy nor unattentive but offered us tea and water while we perused patterns and chose the height and length of our new couches (Majlis).
The Al Zaafarana Souq
This is the souq to go to for all of your fruit and vegetable needs. As you walk in you are greeted by stall after stall of fresh produce waiting for you to buy them. Carrots the size of baby’s arms, dates from all over the region in a variety of colors and shapes, and exotic herbs and spices waiting for you to experiment with in the kitchen. The prices here are very inexpensive, with bunches of herbs for three dirhams or less (eighty-two cents U.S.) and the vegetables still have the dirt on them from being dug up by the farmers that ply their wares.
There is a smaller meat, fish, and poultry section in the back of the souq with cheaper prices than you’d find at any of the larger, more famous shopping places that I mentioned above. We were able to fill our fridge for less than twenty-five dollars (U.S.) – and we’re still working our way through the cucumbers a week later. The only problem in shopping here is that you may buy too much without realizing it. Because the food is fresh without preservatives, they turn a little faster than you may be used to, so keep that in mind.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the souqs in Al Ain, nor is it meant to imply that these are the best. These two are the ones that I like and work for me. I have found them to be consistent, cheap, and of good quality – whether goods, services, or foodstuffs.
However, I would be remiss not to mention another souq that has become an indispensible part of living in the UAE: www.souq.com. When you want to buy something from ebay or amazon, but they don’t ship to your address (what address?) and you don’t want to pay for a forwarding service – buy from souq.com. Cheap, reliable, and delivered right to your front door. Who knew?
With all things in the UAE, you can’t go wrong with the souqs. Online or in person, they are the places to be in the UAE.