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Volume 24, Number 2March/April 1973

In This Issue

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Written by Robert Azzi
Photographed by S. M. Amin
Additional photographs by Sa'id Al-Ghamidi

A young mother takes a box of cookies gently but firmly from her child's hand and lifts him into a shopping cart. A uniformed clerk pushes a basket of food through glass doors and follows a housewife to a waiting pickup truck. A man in a sports shirt selects a package of strawberry ice cream and carries it to a pretty girl at the checkout counter where she rings it up on the cash register.

Common enough occurrences these days in any suburban shopping center. But the three scenes described above did not take place in Dallas, Roanoke or Boston, but in Dubai, Riyadh and Beirut. The supermarket has come to the Middle East.

Ironically, at the very time United States shoppers are discovering the attractions of the covered shopping mall—which is remarkably like the traditional Eastern suq or bazaar—modern Middle Eastern housewives are beginning to enjoy the one-stop convenience of the American supermarket. Today there is at least one supermarket in every Middle East city and the concept is spreading fast.

With only a few exceptions these "supersuqs" cannot compare in size with American supermarkets of today, but the concept is the same: self-service, shopping carts and checkout counters. Some, in the Arabian Gulf countries, are little more than general stores. But others are flood-lit, air-conditioned, big-city emporiums with piped-in music, pastry counters, meat departments, banks, bookshops and dry-cleaning services. At some they'll even wash your car while you shop.

The supersuqs are familiar to Western shoppers in another way too. They offer familiar U.S. brand names (with generally higher price tags because of shipping distances) along with gourmet specialties from Europe (at prices that would make U.S. housewives jealous), exotic imports from India and Japan and—a recent development—shelves of canned and bottled products manufactured or processed in the Arab countries themselves.

The trend to supersuqs is encouraged by many of the same factors which permitted supermarkets to edge out the neighborhood grocery store in the U.S. after World War II: a growing impatience with the traditional but time-consuming haggling over each and every item; the convenience of canned, packaged and frozen goods; the lure of bright clean packaging; widespread sales of refrigerators, and—a key factor—the increased ownership of automobiles, which permits shoppers to escape their neighborhoods and carry larger quantities home.

It will be many years before traditional suqs with their bustling crowds, pungent odors and leisurely, spirited bargaining disappear from the Middle East scene. But even though many people are already objecting to the impersonal, sterile anonymity which seems to be an inevitable side effect of the supermarket, supersuqs are on their way.

This article appeared on pages 8-13 of the March/April 1973 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1973 images.