After last year's high-profile armed robberies in shopping malls, many people asked where the security guards were.
However, apart from reporting what they see to the authorities, security guards cannot actually take any action against shoplifters, thieves or people causing a nuisance in Dubai's malls. Gulf News Reporters Abbas Al lawati, Kevin Scott and Alice Johnson found out how mall security guards are effectively powerless watchmen.
Dubai Ugandan national Moses, 23, is a security guard currently posted at a Dubai mall.
He says once a violation is spotted, he has limited authority to act. "I usually go up to them and ask them to comply with the rules, and might have to ask them to leave, but I can't do more than that," he says. If the visitor refuses to comply, Moses or his supervisor have no authority to enforce compliance. "We can call the police if we want," he says.
For Moses this is a temporary job that gets him by and he expects to return to Uganda when his contract ends, where he gained a university diploma in agriculture. However, Moses speaks of his job with pride. He sees it as a serious responsibility to maintain security in the mall.
"We keep track of people's movements in the mall, for their own safety and that of others. I know where people go and what they do. It's important to make sure rules aren't being violated," he said.
Sri Lankan security guard Tasleem, 31, says if he notices a theft being carried out, he is required to "politely" ask the thief to allow him to inspect his bags or hand over the stolen item. "If they say no, then we can call the police," he said. If the thief runs, he added, security guards have no authority to physically stop him or her.
Security concerns in malls are not very serious, he says, since security breaches are rare. The most serious violations witnessed in malls, says Moses, are small fires or rare cases of shoplifting.
Although the security breaches in Dubai's malls in recent years make security guards nervous, they don't feel the need to carry arms. "The police can handle that. Maybe some malls with expensive shops should have them, but I don't think others should," said Purna, a Nepalese security guard.
The training guards like Purna have received allows them to conduct first aid, put out small fires and operate closed circuit television (CCTV) systems. "We get training to keep the property and people secure. For serious incidents, we are required to call the police."
Their job is to keep an eye on events
Security services companies say a security guard's job is to be vigilant and keep an eye on events in his area of operation, nothing more.
"Security guards are there to give eyewitness accounts to police in emergency situations. Their job is to be alert and report any kind of suspicious activity," says K.M., general manager of a Dubai-based security company that employs 80 guards.
K.M. said although the high profile robberies in malls last year and the year before had made security companies nervous, Dubai police's vigilance has been reassuring.
"We know some malls might need to be extra careful, especially those that have luxury stores, but we can rely on the police to react immediately if there are security breaches.
He said his security guards were only given radios and torches. "Arms are out of the question. Responsibilities change completely if we give out arms. It would be quite complicated. We're not interested in that," he added.
The head of another security services company, M.M., said "The main concern for malls is the protection of property and shoppers," he said. "Security guards are there to notify the police if there are any security breaches. They are supposed to report to their superiors and give the police eyewitness accounts in such situations."
M.M. said, "We encourage them to speak English, Arabic and Hindi, but we ensure that every guard deployed in malls is able to speak English."
Security guards make anywhere between Dh900 and Dh1,300. An entry level security guard can be promoted to team leader or supervisor if he performs well, which would mean an increase up to Dh3,000.
The Mazaya Centre on Shaikh Zayed Road employs 18 security staff.
Manager Mustafa Shihab said that the main problem facing security guards was teenagers engaging in silly behaviour.
"The only real problems we encounter are from youths sliding down the escalator and generally fooling around. Our guards try and deal with customers in the right manner and very seldom have to involve the police.
"Our security staff are all fully trained to cope with an emergency situation. They were trained by a very good company and also have first aid skills.
"There is no need for the guards to be armed, particularly in a shopping mall as small as ours. I would feel uncomfortable if we were forced to arm our guards.
"We have a good relationship with the police but fortunately we don't have to call on them too often.
"We have two entrances for residential flats and our guards check people entering them. We also have numerous cameras looking on to the car park because some people leave their vehicles there for two or three days.
"All the guards speak English and the majority of them also speak Hindi.
A spokesperson for the BurJuman Centre said the coordination between malls and the police was a healthy one.
"We have in excess of 50 security officers working dayshift and nightshifts.
"All our security officers attend the Enforce Security Services Induction Course which includes basic training in terms of our disciplinary code of conduct, public relations, hygiene, fire fighting and emergency and evacuation procedures. The security officers also receive a fitness evaluation on a quarterly basis.
"The police (CID) patrol most malls and most Security Companies have a good relationship.
The security officer is effectively representing the mall therefore good public relations skills as well as good common sense and courtesy take preference in these cases.
The main goal for the security officer is to act as a mediator, to contain the situation until Dubai Police arrive to deal with the issue. According to UAE law no security officer may make an arrest on any person.
Ibn Battuta Mall
Colin Fenton, Manger of Ibn Battuta Mall, said he liked to appoint guards that are more customer orientated.
"We don't have as many security guards as other malls. We like our guards to know all the facets of the mall and understand where all the stores are located. They are more hotel-like in their approach.
When I first took up the position at Ibn Battuta the guards used whistles to get customers' attention. It was one of the first things I changed. Most of the guards enjoy it here as it is a pleasant working environment."
Guards at Ibn Battuta participate are in an intensive training programme in conjunction with Nakheel.
Fenton said: "A lot of our guards have a military background and they are used to discipline and thorough training sessions. But it is important they adopt a more personal touch so we train them on that aspect of the job."
All in the numbers
Average education: Post secondary
Nationality: Indian, Pakistani, Nepali, Ugandan, Kenyan
Average salary: Dh900toDh1,300
"I feel safe in Dubai's malls because Dubai is a very safe place generally. I do think the security guards are there to protect me though, as well as the shops, but I don't think they should be armed. I mean, I wouldn't let my children go to the bathroom on their own in a mall but that's the same in any country. Is it the case that I think people will steal from my handbag? No."
"I think security guards should have more power. I do feel safe in Dubai's malls but I think that security guards should be armed. They should be trained to use weapons and be armed after the two big robberies last year. They are there to both protect me and the shops
they are in."
"I mostly always feel safe in Dubai's malls because of the general make-up of Dubai and its non-existent crime. I think security guards do stop truancy in malls among teenagers but I haven't had any first-hand experience with a security issue in a mall. I'm not with my children today but I do feel safe taking them to malls. Security guards can reasonably carry a baton but as for arms I think fire attracts fire."
Have your say
How often do you visit shopping centres? Have you ever witnessed an incident where security personnel were unable to stop a crime? Do you think that mall security should be given more freedom to confront suspicious behaviour or would that lead to the harassment of mall visitors? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org