A visit to Deira's once-vibrant shopping centre Souk Al Marfa paints a bleak picture. The retail destination, which was bustling with activity last Ramadan, has a deserted look with barely any visitors. Most shops have been shut down and the few that are open have very little business.

There have been talks that the mall, which stretches for 1.9km along the waterfront of Dubai Islands, could soon be shut down or be relocated.

In a brochure of the redeveloped Dubai Islands sent out by Nakheel to property agents, Souk Al Marfa does not feature. In its place, there is a stretch of a waterfront residential community as well as a Destination Art and Cultural District. Khaleej Times reached out to Nakheel for a comment but has not yet received a response.

A little further away from the location, there is a planned circular mall next to the Urban Island Community. It is unclear whether Souk Al Marfa will be relocated here. The waterfront destination located on Dubai Islands opened in 2021 and was home to over 400 shops. Its location within the island connected it directly to Mina Rashid, making it an apt destination for shops with a re-export model.

One shopkeeper said it was her final few days inside the mall. “The mall management offered us alternate shops in Dragon Mart as well as Waterfront Market,” she said. “The rent in Souq Al Marfa was very low. It was roughly around Dh40,000 for a year, which is less than half of shop rents in Dragon Mart and Waterfront Market. However, some of us were offered kiosks in Dragon Mart starting from Dh20,000 for a year. So everyone got a good deal and we are happy about it.”

Dubai Island is a man-made island off the shores of Deira which, when completed, will cover 17sqkm across five isles – one of which is an exclusive sports country club island. According to the plans released by the developer, the completed island will feature waterfront villas, high-end resorts, community parks and a 18-hole golf course.

No signboards

On the way to the centre, there is no signboard indicating the location of Souq Al Marfa. The signage on the mall itself has also been removed. The verified Instagram account of the destination has been inactive since October 2023.

Businessman M.S. is one of those who has already shut his shop in the shopping centre. “I have other shops in Naif and Deira,” he said. “By late last year, our business there was dwindling. I had heard from other shop owners that many of their contracts were not being renewed for the year. So when time for my quarterly rent payment came up in January, I cut short my contract. The management was very understanding and even offered me some alternative locations but I decided not to take any of those.”

Souk Al Marfa is the latest in a series of other high profile closures in Dubai to make way for bigger developments. In 2022, the popular beachfront destination La Mer was shut down with the developer announcing that there would be a brand new J1 beach in its place. In May last year, Nakheel sent eviction notices to shops and restaurants at The Pointe on Palm Jumeirah, which gave them time until May 2024 to vacate. The destination is expected to be redeveloped into waterfront residences.

'Used to be like a festival'

Not all shopkeepers were happy with the options they were offered. Some said they were heartbroken. “We took this shop soon after the Covid pandemic,” said one. “At the time, we had the option to pick a location in Deira or here. We chose Souq Al Marfa. Now, we are at a loss what to do. We can’t go to Deira because shop owners are asking for huge amounts as 'key money' and we can’t afford that. For now, we are trying to sell our products online through Amazon. That is the only way we are surviving.”

Emirati Aisha was one of the handful of people at the centre on Tuesday night with her friend for a late night meal. “We live close by,” she said. “We used to come here a lot especially for the Thai food court. Last Eid, it was like a festival here. There were outdoor markets, live food counters and entertainment like Tanoora dance. I used to come here with my family and sit outdoors. But now, it is like a ghost town with practically no one here. I heard the place is shutting down soon and I think it is true.”

However, another frequent visitor, Manju Sreekumar said that she visited the centre only for the wholesale supermarket located in its vicinity. “There were some good deals at the supermarket however, I was never too fond of the shopping centre itself,” she said. “I never found any shop that made me want to go back there. Also, there used to be a RTA bus that used to stop right outside the centre. That was discontinued in the last couple of months so it became harder for people to get there.”

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