When I first arrived in the UAE, I met up with a family friend who’d spent more years in the Middle East than in his native Ireland. Keen to impart some of his local knowledge, we arranged a trip to Dubai’s Global Village where he agreed to verse me in haggling culture. ‘The golden rule,’ he explained, ‘is never to show any interest.’ ‘So, I’m to fain lack of interest in something I’ve got my heart set on?’ ‘Right,’ he grinned. ‘They can’t stand it.’
Clearly, the world of bartering is a confusing place, not dissimilar to that of relationships. But the idea that there might be a ‘golden rule’ was intriguing. It suggested that there might be a science to getting the perfect price. With this in mind, I took a few half-baked theories to the streets of Abu Dhabi.
Don’t be too polite
Born and raised a Brit, I can make vague claims to gentlemanhood. I’m no David Niven, I’ll admit, but I nearly always say please, sometimes even thank you. Armed with this finely tuned sense of what’s what, I stop in at Stan’s Musical Instruments (behind the National Bank of Bahrain, Hamdan Street) to see about purchasing an electric guitar.
‘Hi,’ I blurt, ever so eager, presumably to Stan. ‘How much is that BC Rich?’ ‘That’s not a good guitar, sir,’ he replies. ‘You don’t want that.’ This is unexpected. An Abu Dhabi shopkeeper willing to discredit his own produce? I’m knocked off my stride. Best to stick to the rehearsed script: ‘Can we negotiate, please?’ I push, brain no longer working. He looks at me, rightfully so, as though I’m suffering a bout of idiocy. ‘Sir, if you can find a good guitar you like, then we can, er, “negotiate”.’ The last word hangs in the air like a vile belch. I don’t stick around to see how quickly it would dissipate.
Don’t be afraid to ask
Gathering myself together, I cross the parking lot and go in through the back entrance of Hamdan Centre (Hamdan Street). As Abu Dhabi’s original shopping mall, the Hamdan must have seen its fair share of eye-to-eye bartering. This will be like learning from the pros.
The self-professed King of Perfumes has a shop on the second floor. He does a decent sideline in cheap watches, so I began browsing. Casio seems to be his speciality. Nothing flashy.
‘I’m after a decent Rolex,’ I tell him. He quite clearly doesn’t deal in Rolexes. ‘I have Rolexes,’ he smiles. Reaching beneath his till he pulls out a ripped and peeling cardboard box full of loose metal. ‘Rolexes: Dhs120.’ I inspect his horde. They’re certainly convincing, though, in truth I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a real one. ‘Dhs120,’ I repeat. ‘Is it water resistant?’ ‘Noooo, sir!’ he laughs. ‘Normal use only; maybe washing hands.’ So we’re on the same wavelength now, and the bartering can commence. ‘Dhs90,’ I offer. ‘Dhs110, best price,’ comes his retort. ‘Dhs100, last price.’ He tilts his head and smiles. I strap on my new Rolex. My skin starts to itch.
He who flinches, winces
‘Damascus blade, bone handle, easy to carry in suitcase.’ I’m in a bric-a-brac shop a little further along the corridor. I’ve got my eye on an Arabian dagger. In my peripheral vision I can see an ornate wooden helicopter, hand-carved, and a scorpion delicately presented in a heart-shaped paperweight. This man obviously knows a thing or two about flogging junk.
My confidence up, we start right in. ‘Dhs3,400,’ he proffers. ‘Is that your best price?’ ‘For you, sir, I can give a discount – 15 per cent.’ I know enough not to feel privileged. ‘15 per cent? What’s that, about Dhs2,500?’ ‘No sir. About Dhs2,800.’ ‘About Dhs2,800 is Dhs2.500.’ I fix him with a cheeky look and realise I’ve just entered into a staring competition. We hold each other’s gaze like two sweethearts fresh in love, but he blinks first and looks utterly crestfallen. ‘Okay sir,’ he whispers. ‘Would you like a bag for your dagger?’
Play the field
It may look like a fairly standard shopping centre from the outside, but Al Mariah Mall (Bani Yas Najda Street) is a haggler’s haven. At Petz’n’Stuff, on the first floor, you can actually barter for life. In a matter of seconds I secure a couple of budgerigars, down to Dhs250 from Dhs300 (cage be damned). But I didn’t come here looking for birds.
I find what I’m after at Abu Dhabi Electronics; a PS3 with Dhs1,350 stamped on its label. I ask the guy what he wants for it and he immediately quotes Dhs1,250. Not a bad start, but he won’t go any lower than Dhs1,100, and he doesn’t seem too bothered when I pretend to walk away. So I keep on walking.
The second floor is choc-a-block with electronic stores, and I wonder if I can use my current quote as leverage. Heading into Sky Electronics, he starts me at Dhs1,250 for the same machine. ‘Best price?’ I ask him, and he knocks off an entirely random Dhs17. ‘Your neighbour is doing Dhs1,100,’ I tell him. ‘Okay,’ he says without thinking. ‘Same, same.’ ‘Maybe I’ll get a better deal elsewhere,’ I say, and walk off. ‘Sir!’ he cries. ‘1,090! 1,090!’ My work here is done.
The less said the better
There’s a sense of desperation that hangs over the Carpet Souk. In the early evening, the shopkeepers – many of whom are flogging identical produce to their neighbours – rouse themselves and call urgently for casual visitors to check out their wares. Picking which shop to enter feels a bit like choosing the lesser of umpteen evils.
I plump for a guy displaying handwoven rugs in his window, who seems mildly less excitable than his comrades. As soon as I’m in the shop, his partner arrives and stands in the doorway. I mention that I’m uninterested in machine-made carpets and he starts unfurling a collection of exquisite pieces. I gesture towards the one that appeals the most, and the process begins. This time, however, it’s entirely one-sided.
‘Dhs4,000,’ he barks optimistically. There’s no way I’m paying that, so I suggest we give up now and make for the door. His lackey blocks the exit, spread-legged. This is beginning to feel unpleasant. ‘How much you pay, sir?’ he asks. ‘I’m not interested,’ I tell him. ‘I’d just like to leave.’ ‘Dhs3,000, sir,’ he says, shaking his head as though I’ve already taken him for a ride. ‘I’m going now,’ I repeat. ‘Dhs1,500, sir. Best price.’
This bizarre exchange continues until he’s bartered himself down an extraordinary 80 per cent. ‘Dhs800; special price for you, sir.’ He looks miserable. During the five minutes of bartering, I haven’t mentioned a single price. I don’t know whether to pay him or offer to share my new-found methods – it seems like he could use a few tips.
Originally published on Time Out Abu Dhabi