Wednesday, April 20, 2005

We Are Giving in More and More to Consumerism

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi

Near our home, in Jeddah, sprang some hundred shops, three new malls, in addition to many more already in place. In one street, Al-Tahlia, hundred millions worth of investments are poured in malls and rows of shops. In the rest of the city, thousands more are either built, being built, or planned. That is at a time when unemployment is between 10-40 percent (official and estimated figures) among men, and double that among women. Our per capita income is less than $10,000, a third of the US. This phenomenon is at least five years old while our deficit was ballooning, and national debt was sky-high.
The questions are many, but the most important are the effects, negative and positive, of this phenomenon on our society and developing economy. No doubt that many are happy. Merchants and creditors are making good money, jobs are created, families have fun in the air-conditioned hypermarkets, and tourists, local and foreigners enjoy their shopping experience.
On the other hand, the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening; saving rates is in the zero neighborhoods; and Saudi society is becoming more and more materialistic, individualistic, and consumerist.
How much of these investments are going to survive in the cutthroat competitive market it is creating? How much of the return on mostly imported products is reinvested in our economy? How many jobs are created? And what kind of values are we learning as a Muslim, socially oriented, people?
I carried my concerns to the concerned people. Here is what I learned:
According to Director General of Jeddah Chamber of Commerce Saud Aonallah, the new malls are competing for the same pool of shops, and luring the best away from the older malls. The older in turn are taking from the oldest. The vicious circle continues until only the biggest, fanciest and newest stay in the game. The rest are forced into bankruptcy. He accused investors of copycat attitude and economic ignorance.
Aonallah also blames obstacles and lack of infrastructure development and other incentives for the weak investments in more productive sectors such as industry. He calls for cession in malls building.
Jeddah Mayor Eng. Abdullah Al-Muallami refuses the intervention concept. Since consumers are served better by more competition and as long as developers abide by building codes, he would encourage more of the same. It is there headache to worry about the viability of their projects, he insists, not his. “Either we have free market or planned economy. We can’t have it both ways.”
Mohammad Alharbi, commerce director in Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, wondered how come the only building licenses needed come from Jeddah Municipality, not from the Commerce Ministry?
Social scientist, Prof. Baker Bagader, says families are lured to malls for entertainment and shopping pleasures. People are now buying not only to fulfill their needs, but also to show up status. This, he says, will increase the gap and frustration between economic classes.
Princess Reem Alfaisal, writer and photographer, warns that our kids are getting the wrong message about their role in life. Writer and mother of six, Suraya Al-Shehry, criticizes the absence of reading-friendly bookshops and early learning centers in malls. “Eat, buy and play are the only alternatives. What kind of generation are we raising these days?”
Omar Bagaor, economy professor, charges that Saudi society is fast adopting the concept of consumerism.
He warned that our saving rate is now close to zero while 80 percent of banking loans is wasted in consumption.
Islamic banker, Prince Amr Al-Faisal, sees a conspiracy led by producers, creditors and states adopting the Western market model.
The model, he contends, is built on consumerism. People are seduced into buying on credit what they don’t need to keep the economy machine humming.
They labor for life to pay for manufactured lifestyle and debt interests. This materialistic mode, he claims, corrupts moralities and reduces people to corporate slavery.
Adel Almonaie, general manger of the largest mall in Jeddah (200+ shops), Al-Tahliah Shopping Center, surprisingly agrees with all the above charges, but adds that he is encouraging investors to open bookshops with US-style reading spaces, and early learning centers. He calls on merchants to better educate consumers about products and their technologies.
What do we do then? Al-Faisal urges our religious scholars and economists to come up with alternative models that better suit us.
I would add scholars in other scientific and intellectual fields like philosophy and sociology.
One concept we should refuse even to consider is isolationism. It would only increase our economic and political woes. We can’t afford to end up in North Korea’s lonely, hungry club.
Besides, it is impossible. The globe is too integrated, and our interests as its biggest fuel exporter are too incorporated in its mechanism to fit any isolationist scheme. That is another good reason to start our bridge-building dialogue with the “other.”

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