x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

How to conquer Baghdad: open up a new shopping mall

It was like a carnival, or a parade. The Iraqi capital's commercial district has been transformed with the arrival of Mansour Mall.

Mansour Mall in Baghdad, Iraq. Hadeel Al Sayegh / The National
Mansour Mall in Baghdad, Iraq. Hadeel Al Sayegh / The National

Retail heaven has come to Baghdad.

The capital's commercial district has been transformed with the arrival of Mansour Mall.

On Sunday, hundreds of people were walking in droves leading up to the giant structure, in their best dress, with women glammed up in make-up and high heels and ready for a night on the town.

It was like a carnival, or a parade.

"All of Baghdad is here," my dad said, chuckling, as we strolled through the place. "In the past, they would drive all the way north to Erbil to go to Majdi Mall."

The mall's entranceway would be most peculiar anywhere else in the world. Women and men had to part and enter different doors to get through security checks and show their bags to officials. Once through, they would meet again in the main entrance only to pass through an electric scanner.

It was a cool surprise when I saw a giant billboard that said: "Palm of Babylon, reserve this space by calling this number."

I thought to myself: kudos to my Iraqi friend Mays Wisam, a Dubai-based entrepreneur who founded Palm, an advertising and marketing business in Baghdad. I was astounded by the amount of people walking in the mall. There must have been 2,000 people eyeing the 60-plus shops. For many, this was probably the first time they had walked into a western-style shopping mall in their lives.

And there are plenty of reasons to go.

There's electricity and air conditioning, a luxury in central Iraq amid the searing 45°C temperatures.

Finally, there is a place where people can hang out indoors and keep away from the summer heat.

And for the first time in at least two decades, recognised brands are being stocked in the stores. There's Koton, LC Waikiki, Ecco, Clarks and Geox, but those stores are alongside a fake "Aldoo". That goes the same for food: there's a "Krunchy Fried Chicken K.F.C".

Talk about contrasts: the sham poultry purveyors caught my attention as we walked by a shop that had Rolex and Raymond Weil watches on display.

But despite the spiked interest, regional apparel brands appear to be an "accustomed taste" for Iraqis. The hands of the thousands of people who circled the mall - to this observer, it was easily comparable to a religious pilgrimage - were empty of shopping bags.

In the food court, however, it was a different story.

There was no place to sit.

"I think the apparel prices are still a bit expensive for Iraqis," my dad said. "But they won't mind spending their money on food."

In addition to the shops and food outlets, Mansour Mall has an indoor amusement area with a carousel, bumper cars and a roller coaster. A few steps away, women stood in front of a giant bouncy slide anxiously waiting to take pictures with their iPhones as their kids free-fell to the ground.

While it's a carnival atmosphere inside, the nearby shops outside are grumpy about the new mall, which opened at the start of Ramadan.

Across the street, a manager at a fake "pizza hut" told me his restaurant has suffered a 50 per cent drop in footfall.

The store near his, he says, was able to maintain its customer base due to his offering of nargeela (shisha), which is currently unavailable at the mall.

"If they introduce it in the mall," the pizza man said, "he's done."

 

halsayegh@thenational.ae