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Al Attar Shopping Centre: Why this Karama mall is a Filipino goldmine

#Pinoy revisits one of Dubai's oldest shopping centres to find out why expats still love it

Image Credit: Irish Eden Belleza/Gulf News
T-shirts emblazoned with colours of the Philippine flag are among hot sellers at Al Attar Shopping Centre.

Dubai: No one can't quite remember when the Al Attar Shopping Centre opened in Karama.

All everyone knows is that over the years, despite the rise of swankier new shopping districts in Dubai, the 5-storey building still attracts a swarm of shoppers, particularly Filipino expatriates.

A mall representative said the trade licence was issued in 1984, "which means it should have been opened that same year". That makes Al Attar Shopping Centre 34 years old!


Video by Irish Eden Belleza

But what makes this unpretentious gold-coloured shopping centre such an expat shopper's goldmine?

It was already a busy, all-in-one centre back in 2001 even when there were fewer Filipinos in Dubai. It was the go-to place for shopping, check-ups with Filipino doctors or dentists, and the hub for web chats with families back home in the now defunct internet cafes.

Those cafes, of course, have now been replaced by more shops, #Pinoy noticed when we visited the iconic shopping centre on Tuesday. 

Divisoria of Dubai

In a lot of ways it has morphed into a Filipino-themed shopping hub, with more than 100 shops selling everything from walis tambo (traditional Baguio broom) to taho, a traditional Filipino snack made of soft tofu and tapioca pearls. Second hand clothing shops Filipinos call Ukay-Ukay have also taken up residence in this small space.

No wonder Filipinos call it the Divisoria of Dubai. Divi, as Filipinos call the commercial centre in Tondo in the Philippines, is popular among shoppers for its low-priced goods; the same theme in Al Attar Shopping Centre.

Al Attar Shopping Centre in Karama

Foodie's haven

When it comes to food, this place is a foodie's haven. There are six Filipino restaurants with specialty food. Cucina has a meal named after a popular Philippine fiesta, as well as streetfood like isaw, chicken intestines in skewers, at a 3-for-Dh10 offer. There was more street food at Turo-Turo Cafeteria, Pugon Bakery and Cabalen Snacks.

Al Attar Shopping Centre in Karama

Shops and more shops

Other expats come here, too, for the plethora of mobile phone accessory shops and fashion stores. That's not counting the 27 kiosks open inside the building selling everything from skin whitening soaps to gold jewellery. 

Al Attar Shopping Centre in Karama

“Karama and Al Attar in particular.. this used to be the hub for shopping and dining," recalls Carlo Sobingsobing, manager of Cucina restaurant, which his mother opened in 2006.

Sobingsobing compared the shopping centre to Divisoria in the Philippines "because of the stalls, the feel and the vibe".

"You get a lot of small shutter stores, with different varieties of products on offer, even food shops like ours. And the price is not heavy in the pocket," he said, adding that the price value is what attracts expats the most.

Read more #Pinoy stories in UAE

Ghie Osea, an entrepreneur, said that although her family lives in Al Ghusais, she travels to Karama to shop in Al Attar. "Because everything is cheaper here and all the Filipino products that I need are here," she told #Pinoy.

Charmaine Adante echoed the same sentiment. We caught the Filipina receptionist buying a pair of pants. "I need a new uniform," she said. She makes a trip to the shopping centre at least five times per month. 

"There's a lot of kabayan, the price of the items here are very cheap and there are a lot Filipino products," Adante said.

We spotted Philippine-themed stickers, guitars from Cebu, Filipino streetfood, and who could miss those karaoke sets? There were also Philippine-themed t-shirts.

Al Attar Shopping Centre in Karama

Romantic Perfumes, which staffer Reggie Hernandez said has been open for the last 20 years, said majority of their customers are Filipinos looking to buy everything from expensive brands by the bottle to cheap perfumes in bulk which they plan to ship home as gifts. Perfumes for Dh5? Check.

Expats also come here to pamper themselves in one of the 25 beauty salons, says Lilibeth Bulala Bathan, a sales executive at Classic N Style, one of the longest-running beauty salons in the building. 

"People come here to shop, and they eat and then they have a hair treatment or a massage. It's very affodable," Bathan says, adding that customers can get bundle offers on hair treatments for just Dh100 that might cost upwards of Dh500 in other salons. At one shop, a haircut costs Dh20.

Al Attar Shopping Centre in Karama

A sales promoter who goes by the name Barbie sums it up: "Dubai is a shopper's paradise and when we come here to shop for items for ourselves or to bring home, it's just nice knowing that there is a small building in Karama that offers us just that little piece of home."

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