Mecca, Asharq Al-Awsat- The souks surrounding al Haram al Sharif in Mecca have witnessed a developmental leap to accompany the urban revival of the hotels in the area. In fact; the scene has completely transformed after old popular markets, such as Souk al Leil and Souk al Saghier were removed, which will soon be followed by al Shamiya and Judria markets. The aforementioned markets, amongst the most popular in the area, will be replaced by new shopping centers that will carry international brands.
But these transformations have stirred up conflicting opinions amongst the visitors of the Holy Mosque and the residents of the city. Some have considered the transformation to be necessary and view it as a strong thrust forward that will offer consumers a wider choice of items, as opposed to the Indian and Indonesian products that dominate the markets and the souvenirs that Hajj pilgrims buy for friends and family.
Saeed al Khalf, a local resident, believes that the decisive factor is whether the visitors to the Holy city will accept the new products or not.
Ahmed Sultan al Khazraji, who owns a Hajj and Umrah travel agency in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) said, “Of course the souks remain the primary shopping destination for Hajj and Umrah pilgrims. Due to the nature of my work, I am always asked about the locations of popular markets; therefore I think that removing these markets is unnecessary even though I do visit malls frequently because I can relax in them and not worry about my possessions. Contrastingly, in popular marketplaces there is no security control, there is over crowdedness, unorganized sales, and other negative aspects that may affect Hajj and Umrah pilgrims.”
Al Khazraji continued, “Cleanliness and order in shopping malls are psychologically appealing, which makes me suggest to investors and owners to allocate investment sites for the haberdashery and clothing vendors whose distinctive goods are marketable due to their low cost. While the purchasing value of gifts for 10 people, for example, at a popular market does not exceed 500 Saudi Riyals (approximately US $133), it is not enough to buy presents from the mall due to the steep prices of international brands – or even local ones.
Ahmed Mohammed al Sayed, who was visiting from Abu Dhabi, expressed his great admiration for the huge developments taking place in the market areas and those surrounding al Haram al Sharif. He said, “Some of the brands on display are unavailable even in Abu Dhabi; however, I must also say, quite frankly, that we hold markets dear to our hearts and that we enjoy shopping in them very much. The markets are a highlight of the city, as they should be. I don’t want to see them disappear regardless of the circumstances because they are an advantage, particularly in Mecca and Medina.”
However, Ahmed al Amrati, a pilgrim from Morocco stated that not all the international brands are real and that some are knock-offs. He said, “There is a whole range of international brands in this mall, which is brilliant example of architectural development, but what I found surprising was the quality of the clothes; it is poorer that what is available in European countries. I have travelled to many of these states and I’ve seen the same brands internationally but noticed that the quality here is worse, despite bearing the same name.
Meanwhile, shop owners believe that many come to window shop and do not buy anything. Ahmed Shoukri, the manager of a shop at Abraj al Bait Shopping Centre said, “Despite the fact that the volume of sales did not reach the anticipated target, due to a number of considerations, most of the pilgrims and visitors are here to window shop only.”
He indicated that the largest percentage of purchases was from the Gulf States and Egypt, adding that there is a need for more local customers. He also pointed out that one of the reasons holding back shoppers was the lack of parking spaces around the malls.
Munir Mohammed al Asseri, a shop manager, expressed his desire to see a considerable qualitative shift in the markets in the vicinity of al Haram al Sharif. He said that he hoped that they would all be transformed into malls and shopping centers since the advanced sales service available to pilgrims and shoppers is a huge plus and is not available in popular souks.
Al Asseri acknowledged that the difficulty confronting some pilgrims when it comes to buying brand names is because those with modest incomes cannot afford to. However, he added that there is a substantial percentage of middle- and upper- class visitors who can afford to buy them and who are likely to have the same brands available in their countries. Al Asseri also revealed that the biggest sales and revenues are during the Hajj season and during the Umrah times (lesser pilgrimage), while the rest of the year hardly records any sales.