x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Modest aims serve for small groceries

Abu Dhabi's plan to modernise the capital's 1,300 corner groceries is a nice idea, but officials should remember that these little shops have evolved to fill a need; rapid change could be too much of a good thing.

One month ago the Municipality of Abu Dhabi announced that it is developing a sweeping plan to modernise the capital's small grocery shops. As The National described yesterday in the Weekender section, those stores lend a great deal of character to the capital. We hope officials will proceed cautiously, if at all.

Details have not yet been announced, but it appears that the scheme will involve renovations, higher standards and possibly even computerisation. This may prove to be too much of a good thing for the city's 1,300 such shops.

That number will not surprise residents, who know they can find a bottle of water, some onions or bananas, packaged foods and often a friendly greeting to go with them, at almost any hour in a shop on almost any commercial block. The dukkan, or small shop, is an essential part of the social fabric of life in the capital.

But each is a small part. Typically, says the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, a small grocery has just 45 square metres of floor space and serves fewer than 10 customers per hour. How are they to pay for modernisation?

The Municipality's plan follows a decision to ban auto workshops and several types of tradesmen's shops from all or part of Abu Dhabi Island. We understand a zeal for beautification and order, but it can go too far.

In the 1840s the French economist Frederic Bastiat wrote that the one million people of Paris would starve except that tonnes of food found its way into the city for sale. This happened through millions of independent decisions made by farmers, carters, wholesalers and others. Each person in this chain knew perfectly his own circumstances (but not anyone else's) and acted purely in his own interest. But the result was a market that got food to all but the very poorest with ruthless efficiency.

Bastiat's defence of free markets, known as "Paris is fed", still rings true in many ways. Officials need to be careful about telling anyone, even the humblest grocer, how to run his business.

To be sure, there is an important role for government in protecting grocery shoppers from short weight, from food poisoning, from adulteration, from false advertising and so on.

But in the eagerness to build a model metropolis by 2030, we need to remember what has served us well in the past. And we all have been served by these small stores.