Large, noisy open-air markets where merchants share a cup of tea with customers before haggling over prices, while the hot mid-day sun beats down on stalls loaded with shiny brass coffee pots and long flowing bishts (robes) for sale, and the fragrant aroma of incense and spices entices the buyer: these are the visions that come into one's mind when a traditional Saudi souq (market) is mentioned. Just a few decades ago, Saudi consumers purchased nearly all of their clothes, home furnishings and foodstuffs in these open-air souqs. Today, however, most Saudis do their daily shopping in the comfort of modern, air conditioned, multi-leveled shopping malls or gigantic supermarkets and only venture into traditional souqs for special items, such as gold jewelry or carpets.
Saudi Arabia certainly has a wide variety of shopping plazas and sophisticated malls to choose from. In the city of Jeddah alone, there are now more than 70 modern shopping centers offering a variety of goods made both in the Kingdom and imported from the United States, Europe and the Far East. On the city's King Abdul Aziz Street or along Madinah Road, patrons can find anything from clothes to trinkets in the many shops in this old shopping district. Other cities throughout the Kingdom also have numerous malls as well as traditional souqs. In Riyadh, for instance, Al-Akariyya Mall is well known for its European fashions, expensive perfumes and elegant home furnishings, while the old souq sells carpets, traditional clothes and sandals.
Many of the products sold in Saudi shops are manufactured in the Kingdom. From socks and kitchenware to chandeliers, dairy products and air conditioners to mattresses, a wide variety of high-quality domestic products can be found. Shopping malls in the Kingdom offer not only access to a wide range of goods, but also provide a source for family entertainment. Young children can play in large, supervised play areas at the malls while their parents shop. Teenage boys like to gather with their friends in the arcades, and mothers can shop knowing their children are safely occupied.
The Kingdom's shopping malls offer consumers the most modern amenities while retaining their uniquely Saudi flavor.
From coast to coast, Saudi Arabia boasts some of the best designed and most elegant shopping centers in the Middle East. The Jamjoom Commercial Center in Jeddah is one of the best known malls in the region. The distinctive blue, glass and chrome complex houses a two-story shopping mall and several additional floors of offices and apartments. Located just off the city's scenic corniche, the Jamjoom Center was built in the late 1980s by the Jamjoom Group, a large Saudi-owned corporation. Inside, the mall offers one stop shopping set among a graceful decor; a large gourmet supermarket is flanked by stores offering inexpensive, moderate and luxury items. On the top floor of the center is a popular restaurant that offers a spectacular view of the Red Sea to accompany one's meal.
Shoppers in search of the perfect gift or a new ensemble often head to Al-Fitaihi in Jeddah. This upscale department store carries the finest china, linens and jewelry. Well-trained salespeople help customers choose clothes for themselves and their children or purchase cosmetics. Bargain hunters do not haggle over prices in such a refined shop, as they might in the traditional souq. Here they look to price tags and sale signs when searching for a good deal.
Brightly lit shopping malls, such as the Al-Oruba Plaza (above), are a common sight along boulevards.
Driving from one end of Tahlia Street to the other, consumers in Jeddah can choose from several shopping centers and restaurants. Along this boulevard is Al-Basateen Center, one of the most prestigious malls in the country. Its world famous boutiques and exclusive shops draw thousands of visitors each year. Near Al-Basateen is another elegant shopping center, Al-Hayat. Here the shops are set around an impeccably landscaped courtyard. Shoppers in search of the latest European fashions are always successful at the boutiques of Al-Hayat shopping center.
Using bank-issued credit cards has become an increasingly popular way for Saudi consumers to pay for their purchases. Most shopping malls also have several automated teller machines (ATMs) on the premises for those who prefer to pay in cash.
In the Eastern Province, shoppers have many stores and souqs to choose from. However, the most popular is the Al-Rashed Mall on Dhahran Street in Al-Khobar, where visitors spend their day browsing in the mall's 380 shops and eight department stores. The 500 million riyal (133.33 million U.S. dollar), three-story complex took two years to construct and opened in 1995, becoming an immediate hit with shoppers. In between visiting shops for clothes, toys, music and home furnishings, patrons can relax at one of the mall's two restaurants or grab a snack at one of the numerous food kiosks on the second floor. At the fast food counters, one can choose from traditional fare such as shawarma and falafel or try popular Western foods such as pizza or hamburgers. Young people enjoy spending time in the "fun city" amusement arcade. A special feature of this 30 million riyal (eight million dollar) arcade is the virtual reality and space animation section. Here, sitting at a computer console, one can experience the thrill of driving a sports car or piloting an airplane.
Whether shopping for dinner or combing the old souq for a bargain, shoppers in Saudi Arabia have limitless choices.
Tired shoppers are often seen resting on a bench near one of the mall's spectacular indoor fountains. In the main atrium of the building under the octagonal roof there is a "four seasons" fountain, an unusual visual spectacle that depicts the weather changes with bursts of clouds, fog, fire and rain. The second, smaller atrium has an interactive fountain with sparkling water arches that dance to music, especially thrilling the children who gather to watch.
Another interesting feature of Al-Rashed Mall is the seven automated information kiosks. By simply pressing a button, shoppers can find out details about shops, goods or services in the building. Outside, parking for 2,500 cars is available to accommodate the mall's numerous visitors.
Thursday is the most popular shopping day for most Saudis, as it is the beginning of their weekend. On Fridays, the Muslim holy day, many shops close. Throughout the week, shopkeepers stop doing business during prayer times, and many malls have rooms where customers can go to perform their prayers.
Whether searching for a traditional white thobe, a dazzling piece of gold jewelry or a new television, the shopping malls of Saudi Arabia have something for everyone.