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Sunday, 08 January 2012 22:37

Casablanca Gets Wealthy Class Megamall

By Paul Schemm

CASABLANCA, Morocco, January 08, 2012, (AP) - Inaugurated by the singer-actress Jennifer Lopez in front of the cream of Moroccan society, Casablanca’s first megamall, complete with two-story aquarium, is dripping with the luxury.

While developers describe it as a step bringing Morocco closer to the ranks of the developed world, detractors worry that it is a vanity project that a country teetering on the edge of an economic crisis can ill afford.

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Morocco at first seems a curious choice for what its developers are billing as the biggest mall in Africa. It already has world-renowned traditional bazaars featuring exquisite ceramics and rugs.

 

A north African kingdom of 32 million people, Morocco is home to the largest income inequalities in the Arab world and now hosts Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Dior and Ralph Lauren boutiques and the French department store Galeries Lafayette in the new Morocco Mall, a futuristic, bulbous silver structure overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It is a stark symbol of the contrasts of a country with 8.5 million people in poverty that ranks 130 out of 186 on the U.N.’s human development index.

 

The 20-minute coastal drive from downtown Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city, to the mall showcases the complexity of the country, with slums hidden from sight by high walls, construction areas for new shopping centers and finally the vills and night clubs of the wealthy.

 

“It is a great honor for Morocco to have a project of such dimensions,” said Salwas I. Akhannouch, head of the Aksal group and the driving force behind the mall, at its opening this month.

 

Most Moroccans will not be shopping at the mall, however.

 

The country has some of the lowest literacy and highest unemployment rates and the highest income disparity in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the Gini coefficient, a statistical tool used by economists to measure the inequality of distribution in a country. The disparity has been growing every year.

 

Crowds have been packing the mall, ambling through sunlit galleries and gazing at the aquarium and the 350 stores. Recently, colorfully dressed performers would periodically burst into enthusiastic dance routines to the accompaniment of loud drums. But there were few shopping bags in sight, and most people seemed just curious to finally see the project that had been four years and $260 million in the making.

 

“There is a big gulf between the rich and the poor, and the rich just seem to be getting richer and the poor, poorer - and the mall is a symbol of that,” said Hassan Ali, a 45-year-old shopkeeper selling hand-tooled leather jackets in Casablanca’s modest old quarter.

 

Tourism is a vital part of the mall’s plan, according to its secretary general, Jenane Laghrar, who anticipates that 20 percent of its estimated 12 million annual visitors will come from abroad. She said sales fro the first week were on target.

 

“When you enter the mall, you see Gucci and Dior, but don’t forget you have the largest content in Africal- at the same time you have more affordable brands,” she said. There is also an aspiring middle class that wants to be able to buy these luxury products, she added.

 

The hope is also that European tourists will add to their usual itinerary of beaches and the exotic cities of Fez and Marrakech, a trip to Casablanca- and the mall. Ms. Laghrar said the mall was especially hoping to attract visitors from the rest of Africa who pass through the airport in Casablanca on their way to Europe. For now, however, visitors from Africa make up less than 5 percent of Morocco’s tourists, with the large majority still from Europe.

 

This could well be a problem as Europe sinks into crisis, said Najib Akesbi, an economist. In fact, Europe’s woes pose a dilemma for the Moroccan economy as a whole, which is deeply intertwined with its neighbors across the Mediterranean.

 

Morocco’s main sources of hard currency, including foreign investment, tourism and remittances from its workers abroad, overwhelmingly come from Europe. On December 20, the government reduced growth projections for 2012 by half a percentage point in response to Europe’s debt problems.

 

“The world is entering a period of crisis, the next four or five years are not going to be years of prosperity,” said Mr. Akesbi, a professor at the Hassan II Institute in the capital, Rabat.

 

For him the mall is part of a bet Morocco is making that it can become a kind of Dubai for the western Mediterranean, attracting consumers from across Africa and Europe to make up for weak local demand. “It is a bit of a fragile model,” he said. “The success depends less on durable lacal demand than betting on foreign demand.”

 

The mall’s developers point to Morocco’s consistent growth of 4 percent to 5 percent for the past few years as a sign that the economy can support this kind of luxury shopping. Those growth figures, however, are not producing many jobs.

 

Unemployment over all is at least 8 percent, while for those under 34 it is a staggering 30 percent.

 

Pro-democracy demonstrations that rose up in Morocco in 2011 have faded away, but there are still regular protests by the millions of unemployed university graduates across the country, frustrated at their prospects.

 

And the economy is still at the whim of the annual agricultural harvest. Part of the reason for the county’s steady growth recently has been good weather.

 

“Here we are in 2011 amd the economy is still largely determined by the sky,” Mr Akesbi said.

 

Even though only 25 percent of the economy relies on agriculture, it employs 40 percent of the work force, and a bad harvest can be felt across other sectors. (END)

 

 

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