Susan Al Shahri

The Mall Arrives: Is It The End of ‘Old’ Salalah?

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Anyone who has been to Salalah in the past year or so will have noticed the humongous fortress being built on our main highway (or what we call a main highway, but what is rather a narrow old road with several dolled up roundabouts that contribute to the worst traffic jams during rush hour). Ladies and gentlemen, that towering fortress is soon to become Dhofar’s first shopping mall. Do I hear cheers? Or were those moans?

The arrival of a state-of-the-art shopping mall in Salalah may be the making or breaking of this town. I tend to think the latter may be more appropriate. Before you pounce on me, rest assured that although crowds terrify me, I have nothing against shopping malls. Shopping malls mean more opportunities to buy things I don’t need. Shopping malls mean an occasional visit to the cinema. Shopping malls mean the possibility of a decent cup of coffee every once in a while. Shopping malls mean people-watching and a cool escape during the summer. You see, I have nothing against malls…as long as they steer clear of my hometown!

While shopping centres seem to be growing like mushrooms in Muscat, we have done a pretty good job down south of keeping the commercial world of malls and franchises at bay for the past couple of decades. The pace of life in Dhofar is a little slow, but that’s okay. It’s how we like it. Many visitors who come to Salalah complain that there is ‘nothing to do’ and that we need a dose of ‘modern civilisation’. When asked what they mean by modern civilisation, it always comes down to shopping malls. These types of conversations always make me laugh. Since when are shopping malls considered the pillars of civilisation?

If you think I’m being a pessimist, let me tell you a story. Nearly 15 years ago my family and I visited a small town in the middle of Kentucky, US. The town consisted of a bunch of farms, a church, a main street that boasted tens of boarded up little shops and restaurants that had gone out of business, and naturally… a big shopping centre.

As honoured foreign guests, the shopping mall was the first ‘attraction’ we were taken to by the eager locals. It had become the town centre where locals spent much of their time and money. That one building had destroyed the spirit of the town and robbed it of its local economy. I’m not saying the same exact scenario will take place in Salalah, but I know local businesses and people will be affected.

The South of Oman is very special. Before the world of crude materialism comes storming into Salalah, I invite you to come and visit. Browse through traditional stores in Al Haffa or Al Salam Street, eat a delicious meal at a hole-in-the-wall Pakistani restaurant or a little Thai eatery tucked between farms in Dahariz.

Sip hot chai on the beach at sunset with your feet in the sand and watch circles of old men play cards while younger kids play soccer. Drive through the mountains and take a peek at the little farms while their owners are out herding the animals. Drive around aimlessly. Go fishing. Take a dip in the ocean at sunrise. Talk to locals. Walk through coconut and banana plantations while sipping chilled coconut water. Savour the town that so many of us cherish and never want to leave. Salalah as we know it is about to change.

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