walking driving thru Doha these days, a common sight is a multitude of new shopping malls being constructed everywhere. When seeing these, the first question that comes to my mind, is usually ‘who is going to go there?’. An often heard complaint is, that Doha has way to few shopping centers and they don’t cover the whole city evenly. This may actually be true and in fact one of the reasons for the often annoying traffic congestions. People cannot find the mall of their choice near their house, and thus have to cross the whole city to reach one.
But again, who will go to all the additional malls? It is the ever-increasing number of expats and of course the Qatari population, that, according to the country’s 2030 vision, will have doubled by the end of the next decade. There is little doubt, that all current developments will make a killing, once they are integrated into the city infrastructure and have enough residential compounds around, to sustain business at all times of the day and week.
— Who are these people really? At first it looks like, that the usual mall-goers belong to all parts of society, age, income or ethnicity. Yet, there is a small but slowly growing number of people, that prefer spending their time with one of the many cultural offerings. Be it film-festivals, drama, arts, speeches, cultural exhibitions, conferences, literature, concerts, heritage festivals, culinary festivals, symposiums about religion, politics, economy and so on.
It would be easy to extend this list, but it is already clear, that there is too much to do and experience than one’s personal time allows. And we did not even mention sports and outdoor activities. The latter is subject to the ever-increasing heat at this time of the year and somewhat limited, but if motivated it is easy to fill the time with inspiring, educating and mentally challenging activities. — On a side note We do acknowledge that finding that blouse in a matching color to the suede stilettos can pose quite a mental challenge for a lot of people — But we are talking about a different challenge. One that inspires yourself to grow intellectually and not invariably helps to shrink — your wallet — and grows only your closet or belly.
What is the influence of shopping malls to the society of Qatar?
The state of Qatar has set out to reach an ambitious goal, to transform its society from a hydrocarbon-depending towards a knowledge based one. The current abundant revenues from energy exports allow incredible investments into education, research and culture. Yet, a felt majority of [especially the young] people can’t resist the temptations of the climatized and convenient environment of a shopping mall. With the increasing demand of local workers to support the qatarization policies, every person that spends time hanging out at the mall appears to be a waste of human potential. On the other end of the story, companies struggle to find sufficiently educated Qataris to fill in higher positions. This leads to many Qataris being employed in placeholder positions with neither influence or responsibility, nor the chance to grow intellectually. Could this be an explanation for the many people resorting to consume what the malls offer, rather than create?
From a completely different perspective we can ask, what else than travelling and shopping is there to do for spending money for the richest people in the world? Qatar would do good to encourage its citizens to invest the money into the own society, to eventually keep up with the role model status it wants to claim. From a human and also ethical –, not just a financial point of view.
If we ask for where societies form and social trends develop, it is the public spaces of a city. It his here that ideas and thoughts are freely shared and reinterpreted, with little discrimination of gender, ethnicity, nationality or age. Where are the public spaces in Doha? Their increasing shift towards private spaces (like malls or compounds) with their even further restriction of use, takes away an important moment of intersocietal inspiration that we can find in most of the worlds old cities.
Be it street art, performances or even the possibility of social gatherings and sports. With Speakers’ Corner in London, the british government even declared the explicit right for people to use a public space with very little restriction. This is missing here in Doha.
Despite being rare, some open public places do exist in Doha and with a bit of effort we can also find instances of their assimilation by the people. One of the best examples is the occupation of a big parking lot in the neighbourhood of Al-Sadd by hundreds of people playing cricket every friday (video documentary). If these few places would be removed, we can only assume what influence this would have on a big part of Qatar’s population. Crime rates could soar and the small bit of employee satisfaction that we find occasionally in Doha could disappear altogether. We do not want this to happen. Nobody could want this to happen, as Qatar is still one of the safest places to live in the middle east.
As the american historian and architect Margaret Crawford puts it: ‘no single physical space can represent a completely inclusive ‘space of democracy’, and may we add, ‘of citizenship’. Worldwide we can find examples of the absorption of public life by private companies. In Qatar this is in stark contrast to the recent past, where life was focused on just sustaining life with the little that the bare desert or the gulf’s shore offered. Life back then was outside, public spaces where the mosques and few streets and the harbour with its life-line of trading ships from mainly india. Qatar did not experience a long period of active urban life, that you can find in many condensed cities around the world. Nowadays, the continuation of low density development and the common dependency on the car is contributing to the elimination of public interaction and street life in Doha.
Hence many locals love to fly to european cities like Paris, London, Munich or Barcelona to enjoy exactly that, urban life with all its implications and liberal reinterpretation of public meaning.
What are the alternatives back home in Qatar? Especially a part of young [male] Qataris does not even look for places of public expression within the city. They drive into the desert and compete in races on dunes or drifting on empty stretches of desert road. These races follow a sophisticated social hierarchy and are an important factor for the development of the young men’s self-identity.
Even without further exploring into that phenomenon, it can be concluded, that the existence of more undefined public spaces within Doha, would benefit the society as a whole. This would most likely not exclude friendly coexistence with commercial developments, shopping centers and other places of mass-consumption, but the question remains, if we really need that many new malls.
Next time, that you are thinking to go to the mall, ask yourself, what are you looking for there? Eventually you have to make an effort to find your very personal alternative. Why not explore the rest of the city and country?
- Is There Life After Malls? (smartgrowthmd.wordpress.com)
- Contesting the Public Realm (struggles over public space in LA, Margaret Crawford)
- The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (pdf – Jürgen Habermas)