Benghazi, Asharq Al-Awsat—Commercial activity in Benghazi has hit new highs since Libya’s revolution, with shopping malls and other smaller commercial outlets opening throughout the Mediterranean city that was the beating heart of Libya’s uprising against the decades-long rule of Muammar Gaddafi.
Before Libya’s revolution, there were no malls in Benghazi. But a number have opened since Gaddafi was overthrown in October 2011, the first of which were the Hayah and Venice malls. Three alone have opened during the past year, with another three currently under construction.
The buildings housing the malls range from three to six stories, with some hosting more than 60 shops, most of which are clothes shops selling apparel from countries including Italy, France and Turkey.
Malls are not the only commercial outlets opening up in the city. Since the revolution, over 200 small shops have opened on Benghazi’s central Venice Street, with a noticeable presence of Turkish traders.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Hassan Ahmeeda, a trader who owns a shoe shop on the street and imports his wares from Egypt, said: “Before the February 17 revolution there were no large malls or shops here for imported food, clothing and footwear to satisfy the demand of the people . . . People in Libya are hungry for foreign brands.”
Amr Ferkash, chief executive of Ouia Libyan Investments, told Asharq Al-Awsat that improving economic conditions in the country since the fall of Gaddafi, as well as the latent demand for such outlets, were the main reasons for their emergence. “There is growing purchasing power among Libyans. Salaries have increased since the start of the revolution by at least 250 percent. And even though this may lead to inflation, the current situation is certainly better than before,” he said.
He added: “The whole idea of malls in Libya is based on the fact that the country imports 75 percent of its food from abroad . . . Right now these malls are the result of efforts by individual investors and companies, but once the state begins to pay more attention to, say, the real estate sector, this will provide great scope for work” such as building shopping centers.
Ferkash said he believed Libya would see a growth in economic and commercial activities in the coming years that were not present during Gaddafi’s 42-year-rule, and that a number of investment companies from the UAE, Egypt and Turkey are currently stepping up their activities in the country.
He believes this can only be good for the city. “The sector creates jobs both during the construction [of the malls] and after, when commercial activity begins,” he said.
An official from the Benghazi Municipal Council told Asharq Al-Awsat the number of people looking for work in the city had increased recently. The Benghazi Municipal Council now has “a large number of applications for work in the city, both from Libyans and foreigners, but we must wait until decisions are made regarding the organization of employment and investment in the city,” the official said.
Adel Al-Raghee, owner of the Hayah Mall in Benghazi told Asharq Al-Awsat that he had the idea to build the mall 10 years ago, and that the wait was due to “delays in labor and electricity, all of which were simply attempts at delay by the government.”
Raghee said he believes the delay in such outlets emerging across the country was the fault of the Gaddafi regime: “During the previous regime, investors were worried about opening commercial projects here [in Libya], fearing that the government would interfere or seize their investments—which in fact used to happen.”
Another mall owner, Mohamed Ali, whose Mazaya Mall will be opening soon in the east of the city, told Asharq Al-Awsat he would be focusing on food and drink outlets to draw visitors to his new mall: “Two floors [of the mall] will be for global food chains such as KFC, McDonald’s and Hardee’s, and one will be for café chains such as Cilantro and Costa,” adding that he expected great demand among Libyans for these restaurants and cafés, which were “unable to enter the Libyan market before.”
Raghee sees the malls as good for the city. “We see this as an excellent step, even exceeding our expectations . . . People in Libya were extremely bored before and were really desiring this [the malls],” he said. “Things are finally getting better. The worst is over . . . There were certainly scary moments over the last few months [security-wise], but we did not close the mall even once.”