It’s noon on a Wednesday and the Manolo Blahnik boutique at Dubai Mall, in the United Arab Emirates, is full of women dressed to the nines and trying on shoes from a capsule collection marking the 50th anniversary of the luxury brand. The night before, Tiffany & Co. showcased one-of-a-kind pieces including a necklace with the 80-carat Empire Diamond at a gala dinner. The necklace, refashioned from one first seen at the 1939 World Fair in the United States, is among the most expensive pieces of jewellery made by the house, with a price exceeding US$20 million. This year the UAE is celebrating its 50th anniversary as a nation, during which time it has managed to transform itself from desert to modern tourist destination , and is hosting the Expo 2020 Dubai , in which fashion plays a big part. The event, delayed by a year because of the pandemic, is expected to attract 25 million visitors over the six months to March 31, and, despite travel restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic, is bustling – although it may not reach that target. Samara Punjabi, the CEO of Times Square, a company that retails and distributes brands including Manolo Blahnik in the Middle East, says: “Dubai is back. It is not just the malls that are buzzing, you cannot get a reservation at a restaurant and the traffic is crazy.” Retail wise, she says things are back to pre-pandemic levels for most luxury brands. “Maybe even a bit better. The only issue, stocks are a bit lower as we did not anticipate this strong comeback.” Last month, Giorgio Armani held a fashion extravaganza named “One Night Only” in the city, Chanel hosted over 1,000 guests at Dubai Creek Harbour to showcase its 2021/2022 cruise collection, and Dior opened a concept store on Jumeirah Beach. Alanoud Badr, also known as Fozaza, a Saudi-Lebanese influencer based in Dubai with over a million followers on Instagram who recently appeared in Carolina Herrera’s beauty campaign, says she is busier than ever – but isn’t too surprised by that. “While other parts of the world are closing down, this region is just going forward,” she says. “They have managed the situation well. [Spending] has always been here, but with everything going on in the world, this region’s importance has been highlighted.” View this post on Instagram A post shared by Alanoud Badr - العنود بدر (@fozaza) Dubai, which celebrated UAE National Day on December 2, has always been considered the fashion capital of the Middle East. Even before the pandemic, international fashion brands were keeping an eye on the city, part of a region where spending power per capita is among the highest in the world, albeit not at China’s level, and which has one of the fastest growing populations of under-25s. Over 80 per cent of the UAE population was fully vaccinated (with two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine ) by mid-September 2021, which meant Dubai saw life move into a “new normal” earlier than most places in the world. As a result, people there also began dressing up earlier than in other fashion capitals. China next for Dubai’s Filipino designers to Hollywood, musical stars The city’s fashion calendar has been packed with events that have provided a much-needed boost to the luxury industry. Figures from management consulting firm Bain & Co show the luxury market in the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council fell in value by 17 per cent in 2020. Now, says Yasmin Al Mulla, the Emirati designer whose label YNM Dubai is a favourite with UAE shoppers, the market is “positively flourishing”. According to the Dubai Chamber of Commerce, retail sales in the UAE are on track to grow by an average of 6.6 per cent a year to 2025 and reach US$70.5 billion. “The United Arab Emirates is [a] captivating multiculturalism of nationalities and ethnicities all living in unity, and this is what makes us stronger,” says Al Mulla. This year, Al Mulla has worked with global brands including Jimmy Choo, Dior and Rene Caovilla . “I am glad that all brands are understanding and realising the importance of regional collaborations,” she says. Like the elite in China, jet-setters in the UAE are spending more at home during the pandemic, and brands are engaging more at the local level than they did pre-Covid-19. Still, Dubai has always depended on attracting visitors from overseas – who, Bain & Co reveals, accounted for 60 per cent of luxury market spending there before the pandemic struck. Punjabi says: “I feel, until at least summer, we can expect sales to stay strong.” She admits to being a little worried about what happens when the Expo ends and whether travel will begin to return to normal, since resident HNWIs (high-net-worth individuals) usually spend the summer months abroad. Their departure could be balanced by the flow of inbound tourists – if borders open up. For luxury, it is Chinese tourists that are of the utmost importance. According to Reuters, the number of foreign overnight visitors to Dubai increased by 5.1 per cent, to 16.7 million, in 2019 – helped by a rise in Chinese tourists that offset a fall in the number from India, the biggest source of visitors to the UAE. “When the pandemic started, we were left with surplus stock of smaller shoe sizes. We had kept a wide range of styles in these sizes to cater to Asians,” says Punjabi. If international brands are able to navigate the Arab market and plan past the pandemic, Dubai – fast becoming a prime destination for high-spending Asian tourists – could really live up to its nickname of “City of Gold”.