Rania Habib reports on the mall culture in Abu Dhabi

The mall is one of America's biggest exports. A place for family outings on weekends; a fashion fairground for serious shoppers; a social hangout for teenagers or a playground for children — the mall has become the centrepiece of many peoples' lives.

The mall culture has spread happily to Abu Dhabi's sandy shores and no one seems to be complaining.

"Malls are a great way for people to kill time in the city," says a university student on holiday in Abu Dhabi. "Even if you have nothing to buy, you can still get carried away by window displays and cafes or just read a book on a bench."

With the addition of the Two Greats — Abu Dhabi Mall and Marina Mall — the UAE capital has become a pretty exciting shopping destination. It is now host to international brands and stores that we could have only dreamed about a decade ago.

They undoubtedly brought a welcome change to Abu Dhabi's dreary shopping landscape. "Generally, malls are a good thing as they have given people more options," says Ziad Mikhael, also a university student.

"Before Abu Dhabi Mall and Marina Mall came about, we used to buy all our clothes abroad because there was nothing to buy from here."

Malls have created a cool counterpart to the great outdoors: the great indoors. A place where visitors can shop, dine, be entertained and people-watch at their leisure, in the comfort of temperature-controlled spaces that provide the latest trends in everything.

"I like the concept of malls because it is an indoor space and air-conditioned, and everything you need is in one place," explains Rima Zaabri, a shopper.

A recent craze

The Middle East only recently caught on to the mall craze; both Marina Mall and Abu Dhabi Mall were established a mere four years ago, and their old and haggard ancestors, Hamdan and Hamed Centre, paled in comparison.

Everyone embraced the spacious, cool, clean and funky new stores with the trendy cafes and ever so popular Starbucks joints. 

While malls are mostly enjoying a good rep, they are at the centre of love-hate relationships with their customers. Although widely entertaining, malls are also regarded as a waste of otherwise valuable time.

"Malls are nice, but I'm sure I can always find something better to do with my time," says Mikhael. "On the other hand, things to do in Abu Dhabi are pretty limited."

When polled, most people promptly replied there was nothing better to do in Abu Dhabi but to hang out in malls. Is this because there's nothing to do or because there's no desire to find something more educational?

"I don't think it's attributed to a lack of things to do," says a student. "You can go to the beach, do some water sports, go sand skiing etc. But people don't go out and do these things."

Having lived in North America for four years, Rima explains that she never went to the mall as much as she does here. "Over there, I never went to the mall except when I needed to buy something. Even in cold cities where the malls are made to protect you from winter, I never went to the mall because you have other options like boutiques and cafes outside the mall."

"Going to malls is a social thing in Abu Dhabi," agrees Rima. And there will be more malls soon to hang out in. "There are way too many malls in Dubai," says Mikhael, "but it wouldn't hurt if there were a few more in Abu Dhabi."