Will this mall put Beirut's fruit vendors out of business?

A new mall for produce, scheduled to be opened next year, will test Beirut's attachment to traditional markets and street vendors.

al-monitor An artist's impression of what the new Tarik el-Jdide central market will look like when it is finished in Beirut, seen in an image uploaded April 26, 2018.  Photo by Facebook/Trade union of vegetables and fruit retail.

Jul 25, 2019

The construction of a huge market for fruits and vegetables in the populous Tarik el-Jdide area in Beirut has created a controversy between traditional street cart vendors and the project's advocates who believe the market will revolutionize the sale of fruits and vegetables.

The market will be located in a 10,400-square-meter (2.6-acre) mall on the so-called Jalloul land that belongs to the municipality of Beirut. Al-Jihad for Commerce and Contracting, a local company that handles projects for many public facilities in Lebanon, started the construction of the mall in February 2018. The construction is to be completed and handed over to the municipality in January 2020, according to the contract signed between the two.

The mall, which will include a three-story parking lot, will have 168 shops and 96 stands. It will feature air conditioning and escalators as well as cooling facilities to keep the produce fresh and a lab for product testing.

“I might not be able to pay the rent for a stand at the mall, but I asked anyway and I was told all stands and shops have already been rented,” Jad Abu Jaras, who owns a vegetable street cart, told Al-Monitor. “The mall can certainly hurt us or we may be asked to leave the area. We are just waiting to see what happens after it opens.”

Abu Jaras has been selling his produce since the 1990s in a side street where the mall will now be located.

The new mall is adjacent to the Sabra open market, where stands sell cheap fruits and vegetables as well as fish and meat. Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian vendors have randomly placed carts and stands in this traditional market. Most of them have no licenses from the municipality and they fear that once the mall is open, they would be forced to move away.

Most vendors spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity and preferred not to discuss the matter in detail. They all said that they had no idea what might happen as they have not been told anything, but many felt certain that once the modern market is open, they would be pushed out of the area.

Unlike the street vendors who are apprehensive about the development, the Trade Union of Produce Retailers, a pressure group founded in 1946, is enthusiastic. Moghayer Sinjaba, member of the Beirut municipal council, told Al-Monitor that despite all criticism the project has great potential. “It has been a controversial project given how much it costs to implement, which is around $30 million. In addition it raised the ire of locals, the majority of whom believe their overpopulated area has different needs. However, the project is undoubtedly a necessity for Beirut, its residents and the union," he said.

Since the 1990s, there has been talk of a mall where produce would be sold. It gained momentum under former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a champion of reconstruction, who was assassinated in 2005. Following the destruction of downtown Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war, the four main produce markets in central Beirut — Bab Idris, al-Nouria, al-Mouhandisin and al-Argentin — shut down. Many parts of Beirut have been reconstructed or restored in the 2000s, but retailers have been unable to secure an alternative market to this day.

“This is an important project both in terms of architecture and organization. It is vital and necessary to take random carts off the streets of Beirut and to organize this sector,” head of the Trade Union of Produce Retailers Suhail al-Muabi told Al-Monitor. “[We also need to] regather those who work in this profession in a modern, structured market," he added, noting that the mall would provide a livelihood for 5,000 families through jobs.

But would the mall mean the end of Beirut's traditional food carts and stands, or can traditional and organized retail operate side by side, with the clientele buying in both places?

Most locals - mainly women who do the fruits and vegetable shopping for the family - who spoke to Al-Monitor, expressed their desire to shop at the new mall, under the assumption that fruits and vegetables would be displayed in a more organized manner making it easier to choose. Some of the women shoppers said they would prefer shopping in an air-conditioned space as long as the prices were competitive with those of the street vendors.

But others disagreed. “This mall [is not what we need]; they ought to [use the land to] develop something more useful for [the locals],” a patron of the local market told Al-Monitor while another shopper said she would not buy from the mall because "its location is completely out of the way.”

Meanwhile, a male shopper in the area said he believes that the mall will not survive for very long because of the high rental prices for vendors and high cost of produce for consumers.

A local resident told Al-Monitor, “I will definitely continue to buy from street vendors whose produce are fresher and cheaper. There is no such thing as [a more hygienic or cleaner] produce; they are all from the same source and we wash them at home anyway.”

Nada Nehme, food safety control officer at Consumers Lebanon, told Al-Monitor, “Buying produce from the mall will not make a difference in terms of food safety, since the source of all produce sold in shops and food carts is the same. Crops are not subject to classification by place and method of cultivation. This is why we believe traditional markets are better for consumers since prices are much cheaper.”

But for the local authorities, the main benefit is creating an orderly shopping area. Beirut Gov. Ziad Chbib told Al-Monitor, “The importance of this project lies in organizing the sale of produce in the city and reducing the phenomenon of random carts that are not subject to the minimum standards of health and food safety and are often unlicensed. Meanwhile, the mall will be subject to all kinds of control, specifically on food safety and health.”

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