While Saudi Arabia is a very developed country, it is not developed in the same way as, say, Germany or the US. In addition to shopping malls and supermarkets, souks – the traditional marketplaces – continue to exist and even thrive. I suppose that the souks are the grandfathers of malls. Merchants of various goods would set up stalls from which they would vend their products, whether food, spices, rugs, fabrics, consumer goods, or jewelry. Over time, the open air markets frequently became enclosed shopping areas like the Al-Hamadiyah Souk in Damascus or the Kapalçarshi in Istanbul or Khan Al-Khalili in Cairo.
Saudi Arabia’s souks are similar, though on a smaller scale. They also continue older traditions in which merchants – often women – simply throw down a carpet along the side of a street, spread their goods on them, and sell to passersby. This is a route frequently taken by Bedouin women who come in from the countryside with their food or handmade products. This is viewed as a bit unseemly, though. It can congest the streets, impede traffic, and seems somewhat disrespectful of the female merchants.
As a result, various municipalities have tried to ‘up-grade the selling experience’. They’ve built stalls, complete with running water, air conditioning, and electricity and sought to move the women into them, off the pavements. That’s very nice. The municipalities have also sought to rent those spaces, though, to recover both construction costs and ongoing utility bills. That’s not so nice. The women in Hail, Saudi Gazette reports, are pretty unhappy with the scheme. The monthly rents charged, SR 400 (US $107) are simply too high. Now, that’s not a lot of money to charge for an attractive and comfortable stall. But it is more than these women can afford to pay. They are selling goods on the street because they need the money. They would need to sell an awful lot of henna, pastries, or hand-made scarves to cover the rent.
Now, I’m sure that the government is subsidizing a lot of the costs associated with these stalls. Should they do more? Pay the entire cost? I think that depends on the goal intended. If it is to get women literally off the street without knocking them out of business, then it probably should pay the whole cost. That does introduce a question of fairness – why pay for the women, but not men? – but I think an argument can be made that those on the lowest rung of the economy need a different level of support.
Women’s souk in Ha’il comes with a high price
Amal Al-Sibai | Saudi Gazette
The municipality of Ha’il has constructed a large complex of small shops to rent out to women who have been running their businesses on the sidewalks of shopping areas, schools, and mosques.
The objective of founding this souk by the municipality and reserving it for women was to ease the plight of the women who opened and operated stalls under the scorching sun in the summer and merciless cold winds in the winter.
However, some of these simple businesswomen are complaining that the souk has missed its purpose and that it has failed to help them because the store rental fees that the municipality has demanded are too high.
Under the roof of this shopping complex, that is similar to the traditional Saudi souks,there are a total of 104 stores to be leased at a fee of SR400 per month. Many women who have been asked to transfer their sidewalk stalls to stores in the souk claim that they cannot afford to pay the monthly rent.