Malls, malls and more malls. A new one opens every few months. But what was Qatar like before all the malls? Where did people shop?

Every year in Qatar is marked with the opening of a new mall. With the high temperatures in the summer, shopping malls have become a favourite pastime for locals and expats alike. A combination of high incomes, increasingly expensive tastes and luxury brand awareness in Qatar has opened the door to a string of grade A retail developments and outlets.

In recent years, Qatar has seen the opening of Mall of Qatar in Al Rayyan/Al Wajba, Doha Festival City in Umm Salal Mohammed and Al Hazm in Al Markhiya. And most recently, this year has witnessed the opening of Tawar Mall in Umm Lekhba and Mirqab Mall in Al Mirqab Al Jadeed. At least seven new malls are expected to open soon including Place Vendome and Marina Mall in Lusail City, North Gate Mall on Al Shamal Road, Doha Souq in Al Mirqab Al Jadeed, Doha Mall in Abu Hamour, Katara Plaza at Katara and The Galleria at Msheireb Downtown Doha.

The Souqs

Although the shopping malls in the country are mostly new, the history of shopping centres dates back to at least a hundred years ago. Souqs were the main shopping destinations before Qatar’s economic boom in the 1990s, which led to the development of several modern shopping developments. Still standing today, the Middle Eastern low-rising souqs feature several shops, selling an array of spices, delicacies, perfumes, jewellery, clothing and handicrafts. 

Souq Waqif, which translates to the standing market, is an ancient souq that was renovated in 2006-2008 to the vibrant tourist attraction it is today. The souq is named ‘the standing souq’ because it is believed that water from the sea would rise, swamping the souq. However, shop owners would continue selling their products while standing in the midst of water.

Like Souq Waqif, many of Qatar’s old souqs were renovated in recent years. Many of the stores that are there today have been there since the 1970s or earlier.

Now, with the various choices of shopping destinations, souqs especially Souq Waqif are more tourist rather than shopping destinations. 

Home-Grown Department Stores

Qatar is known for a few home-grown luxury department stores. A notable example is Fifty One East (51 East), previously known as Modern Home, which has been operating since the 1950s. 51 East is Qatar’s leading department store and Darwish Holding’s signature retail brand, transforming the retail experience for Qatar’s residents as an emporium of luxury, offering compelling brands that span cosmetics and fragrances, fashion accessories, watches and jewellery, designer fashion and premium technology. Brands include couture houses such as Briono, Kiton, Lanvin, Carolina Herrera, Oscar de La Renta and Monique Lhuillier; and cosmetic and fragrance brands like Chanel, Givenchy, Fendi, Amouage, Elizabeth Arden, Lancôme and more. Watch and jewellery brands include Rolex, Boucheron, Pasquale Bruni, Armand Nicolet, Tudor, H. Moser & Cie, Diamanti, Erwin Sattler, Guy Laroche, Jeell, Joelli, Pandora, Tirisi Jewelry, Tirisi Moda, Victor Mayer, Parker and Waterman. Today, the department store has branches in several places, both stand alone and in malls. 51 East is the flagship store of Lagoona Mall.

Then Came the Malls

The Centre opened in 1978. © Andrea Buenafe

It wasn’t until 1978 that Qatar saw the opening of the first shopping centre, The Centre. Recognised as a department store, The Centre celebrated its 40th anniversary in June 2018. It’s owned by one of Qatar’s largest business houses, Ghanem Al Thani Holdings, under the leadership of Sheikh Ghanem bin Ali Al Thani. The Centre’s inauguration was a major event, attended by the former amir, The Father Amir, HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. Remaining almost unchanged and one of Qatar’s prominent landmarks, The Centre today spreads across a sales floor of over 12,000 sq m with parking for more than 300 cars.

The Mall opened in 1997. © Andrea Buenafe

For several years, residents of Qatar would shop at either souqs or The Centre. In 1997, Equinox – the commercial real estate developer behind the upcoming North Gate Mall – developed the first modern retail development or shopping mall opened in Qatar. Located on D Ring Road, The Mall featured much of what is there today – Merch, Highland, Cinema Land, Opera Café and more. It’s been recently slightly expanded with new restaurants and stores. The Mall is a fully owned subsidiary of Abraj Real Estate Development Holding Co. 

Before the early 2000s, residents of Qatar could not obtain many top international brands locally, which led to people travelling abroad to purchase certain brands and products. Once 2000 rolled in, Qatar began a journey of developing an influx of shopping malls. After The Mall, the Landmark Mall opened in 2000, soon followed by City Center-Doha in 2001, Hyatt Plaza in 2003, Royal Plaza in 2005 and Villaggio Mall in 2007.

Before the opening of these malls, shopping centres served only one purpose – to shop, excluding dining options and entertainment activites. Today, malls serve as both shopping and entertainment destinations for residents in Qatar. Shoppers can not only enjoy browsing through a wide variety of stores that offer a range of clothing, shoes, bags, jewellery and other body accessories, they are also spoilt for choice when it comes to dining – the sweet and savoury. Newer malls include health initiatives, such as Doha Festival City with its Outdoor Leisure Trail, which caters for both running and cycling. 

City Centre-Doha opened in 2001. © Andrea Buenafe

Prior to the new Mall of Qatar and Doha Festival City, City Centre-Doha and Villaggio Mall were considered to be the most popular malls. These two malls boasted of the largest cinemas – featuring IMAX and 3D film screens for the first time in Qatar – and ice rinks.

By 2010, major luxury brands such as Chanel, Dior, Versace, Rolex and Givenchy could be be found locally and the shopping tastes fell in line with the expensive trends of the region.

The great majority of the current and upcoming retail developments in Qatar is focused on the high-end, luxury market. Qatar is an attractive market in this regard as it has one of the world’s highest per capita GDPs. Today, however, after more than a decade of modern retail development in the country, residents of Qatar can choose from a wide selection of high-end luxury brands at home, for which they used to travel abroad to the shopping districts of London, Paris, New York and more to find.

Author: Ola Diab

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