As I sat in Fanajeen, Aasmaa, Akhannouch’s café, contemplating a map of Morocco amputated of its southern provinces in a Morocco Mall brochure while sipping from my 30 dirhams cup of coffee, I couldn’t help thinking Salwa Idrisi Akhannouch, the queen of retail franchising in Morocco and CEO of Aksal Group, must have sensed Moroccans’ bubbling need for a new shopping and entertainment experience. The venue is palatial and its three floors teemed with an overjoyed crowd that raged like white water through its arteries, seeking to be part of the hottest action Casablanca has ever seeing.
The excitement was palpable. There are no symptoms of poverty here. Since December 5th, the day it opened its doors with an extravagantly overpriced “J-Loesque” fanfare, visitors from Rabat, Marrakesh, Fez, Meknes, and Tangier, have been flooding Casa-Voyageur and hopping in cabs to Morocco Mall; others drove their BMW’s, Audis, Mercedes, and Range Rovers; and yet, others rode buses, or came on foot. The taxi driver told me it was his sixth trip to Casablanca’s new shopping landmark. The venue expects 14 million visitors and revenues in excess of two billion dirhams a year. Although it lacks a helipad, the premise is impressive. With its 350 high-end and well-known signature fashion brands stores, IMAX cinema, an aquarium, an arcade, an ice skating rink, and a musical fountain mimicking the Bellagio’s, it is guaranteed to be a Mecca for Morocco’s wealthy families and a broadening middle class base with a rapidly increasing purchasing power.
At least, that’s what Salwa Idrisi Akhannouch believes based on an article she wrote for the Oxford Business Group titled “Moving on up.” She further stated that the retail fashion market is compelled to expand to satisfy Moroccans’ demand for quality fashion clothing. To that end, her company co-developed, along with Saudi Arabia’s NESK Investment Group, the Morocco Mall. In the same article, Salwa Idrisi Akhannouch predicts the project will have “important social and economic impacts for the country.” Not only will it promote growth and create jobs, she adds, “it will change Moroccans’ life styles and buying habits.”
Such spurious arguments have become the meme of Morocco’s wealthy business families.
I don’t see how Salwa Idrisi Akhannouch’s just-add-money franchises that make up Morocco Mall will translate into an agenda for broad prosperity; they neither develop a skilled labor force, nor improve the local and national economies. It is a pure profit venture that exploits the country’s cheap labor and lax employment laws, and facilitates the transfer of millions of dirhams toward Europe. Of course it generates revenues, but those are not positively impacting communities in dire need of adequate schools, hospitals, and other public service institutions because thanks to her husband’s connections Aksal Group enjoys unique tax breaks. Morocco Mall and similar other businesses will become even more profitable to foreign investors when the transitional period for custom tariffs dismantling ends on March 1st, 2012. The five thousand employment positions Morocco Mall created are low-paying service jobs; hardly enough to put a dent in Morocco’s chronic unemployment and soften the brunt of its current economic recession in which the government is forced to subsidize commodities to avert a major security crisis. Morocco’s GNI per capita in PPP dollars is $2,750 yearly; according to a study by the High Commission for Planning (HCP), 60% of Moroccan household have a monthly income of less than MAD 4,227, 40% less than MAD 2,892, and 20% less than MAD 1,930. Household consumption has been lagging, the poverty rate climbing, social mobility stagnating, and wealth inequality widening.
Millions of Moroccans, although scraping by on low-earning income, believe the malarkey coming from certain business circles such as Salwa Idrisi Akhannouch’s. They are of course in denial that Morocco Mall is beyond their buying power. Instead of adapting financial restrain, they are willing to stretch their paychecks and sacrifice necessities to earn bragging rights that they’ve shopped at Morocco Mall. For a few hours, they leave a world of woe behind and relish a slice of Europe that, so far, does not require a visa.
The fog of economic profiling is thick around Morocco Mall. A friend of mine who happens to be a lawyer decided, after a walk along the corniche, to take his teenage son to Morocco Mall to check it out. He was promptly stopped at the door by two security employees highly trained in sniffing the whiff of poverty on people and recognizing the wooziness of hunger. They toted handheld radios – the ubiquitous paraphernalia of authority in Morocco. They explained that he and his son couldn’t go in dressed the way they were. My friend and his son were decently dressed in locally made jeans and shirts, except…. except that they were wearing flip-flaps. He was incensed. He complained loudly and refused to leave. He was embarrassed that his son had to see his father subjected to such humiliation. Isn’t Morocco Mall open to all public? A manager finally came out and after a brief debate, decided to let them in. By that time, my friend had lost his urge to goggle at Louis Vuitton bags and Gucci dresses. Such an incident is not isolated. Excluding some Moroccans seems to be a management standard operating procedure; after all, Morocco’s journalists were never invited to the inaugurations.
Morocco Mall is surrounded by miserable and decaying patchworks of slums baked by the sun and through which a salty breeze sleathers. Their residents, stifling under the pall of poverty, will give Sidi Abderehman a break and come to Sidi Morocco Mall for no other reason than to drool over things they can never afford; a classic case of the waif ogling at freshly baked napoleons through the window of an expensive bakery. Those who do not reflect – at least visually – a certain economic standard will be barred from entering; impressed upon them will be their lack of worth and the power of a minority in society. The yawning inequities between poor and rich are spotlighted at the entrance. This will only further strain the already tenuous cohesion within society. Instead of a driver of prosperity for all, as Salwa Idrisi Akhannouch would like us to believe, Morocco Mall will most likely highlight income inequalities. An International Monetary Fund report published last April found that gaping income disparity undermines economic growth within communities.
The obvious question is why does Salwa Idrisi Akhannouch have such breathless optimism in the face of economic gloom? When Galerie Ben Omar in Maarif opened, it was the talk of the city. Anybody who’s somebody had to shop at Gallery Ben Omar. It is now a faded ghost of its old self. Twin Center and O Gallery, across from Megarama, also became the premier destination of Morocco’s fashionistas and, for a few years, achieved a degree of success. As it turns out, they were only mid-term investments. Once the initial cost is recouped and a predetermined rate of profit achieved, the business is left to rot. I suspect the same fate awaits Morocco Mall.
I headed to the aquarium. There was a huge line. The cover charge was 25 dirhams. There was a time when Casablanca had a beautiful aquarium. Few remember it. I decided to forgo gazing at fish and headed for the door just as security dragged a well-dressed young man outside. The crowd said he was a college student who, being broke, decided to wear a jacket he fancied and walk away with it.
A. T. B. © 2011