The debate over whether shopping malls are really a dying breed is a contentious one, with a variety of arguments for and against. But one thing that seems certain is that malls in the United States—as well as around the world—are changing.
Analysts point out that newer, swankier malls are looking to sell experiences in addition to the usual retail options. “Increasingly, higher-end shopping malls…have real restaurants and cafes instead of wan food-court fare, ritzy salons, and maybe a Whole Foods,” wrote Amanda Kolson Hurley for CityLab last year.
In Doha, Qatar, the soon-to-open Alhazm mall takes this model and kicks it up at least a hundred notches. A shopping center for Qatari millionaires (whose number, at 28,000, is reportedly the region’s fastest growing), it is a vision in Tuscany-imported marble. Alhazm in part replicates Milan’s historic shopping mall, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, constructed in the mid-19th century and still going strong.
But Alhazm will be much fancier than the Milan mall, which even had a McDonald’s until 2012. Sculptures and paintings—some of them authentic—will flank Alhazm’s hallways. Temperature-controlled gardens (with 200-year-old olive trees brought in from Sicily), gazebos, and fountains will provide green space. Customers will be able sample foods from the world round (think French cheeses and Belgian chocolates) or peruse rare manuscripts and tomes on art, architecture, and the Islamic world in a library. These perks are in addition to upscale boutiques selling designer clothing, jewelry, and other luxury merchandise.
Alhazm also demonstrates Qatar’s penchant for importing goods and services from Western countries. Doha’s Education City, for example, features branches of such U.S. universities as Georgetown, Cornell, and Northwestern. Sheikha al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, sister of the emir, has amassed an untold number of works by Western artists such as Cezanne and Rothko on behalf of the Qatar Museums Authority.
Given Alhazm’s lavishness, it seems a matter of course that its employees don’t want it called by the plebeian term. “It’s not a mall,” marketing director Soufiane El Ouazzani toldDoha News. “Our target is people who don’t go to malls. We’re catering to Qataris who… go to Paris and Milan to buy clothes.” And with two floors designated as VIP and VVIP, respectively—on which customers will be known by name—ostensibly the proletariat aren’t the visitors of choice.
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Yet much of Qatar belongs to this demographic. The country’s population is estimated at 2.5 million people, with more than 1.5 million serving as migrant laborers in fields such as construction and child care. In March, the U.N. warned Qatar that it will face an investigation if within a year it does not end its mistreatment of these workers, who often live in miserable conditions and face such abuses from their employers as passport confiscation.
Most residents of Qatar thus live in stark contrast to the luxury touted by Alhazm. Though the New York Times recently included Alhazm on a list of “the world’s coolest, most cultured new malls” that create a “hub for community and cultural experiences,” it’s clear that this hub is for a minuscule community of Western-oriented elites.