Arbil It used to be that shopping in Arbil — Iraq's most popular business and leisure destination — was mostly centred on the Qaysaria Bazaar, which has been around since the 12th century.
It still is, selling everything from Kurdish dairy products to Swiss watches and Japanese electronics. But an influx of foreign investment in recent years has led to the opening of many large shopping malls. More are on the way.
At last count, there are over a dozen malls, and in their wake have come many global brands venturing into Iraq for the first time.
The French hypermarket chain Carrefour will open in Arbil before the end of this year.
The autonomous Kurdistan region — spared the violence and attacks since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 — is witnessing unprecedented growth in all aspects of its economy, including its retail sector.
International investments have reached more than $16 billion (Dh58 billion), according to the Kurdistan Investment Board (KIB).
The region — with more than half of its population under the age of 21 and an expatriate community estimated at 250,000 to 300,000 by some unofficial sources — is seeing quite a substantial fund flow into retail.
With a population of nearly two million, Arbil is already a draw among Iraqis and tourists alike. Besides its own upscale citizens and Iraqis from outside the region, Iranians are allowed to enter the Kurdistan region. They are among the big spenders in Arbil's malls. It is now competing with Dubai as a favoured shopping and leisure destination for Iranians.
The Majidi Mall, which opened in November last year, has drawn much attention as Iraq's "most luxurious shopping complex".
Owned by the Hewa Group, an Arbil-based company owned by the prominent Majidi family, convinced several international names to open their first stores in the country.
They include Mango, Ecco, Chopard, Diesel, Levi's and many others. Kuwait's City Centre opened an anchor store, immediately becoming Arbil's most popular hypermarket.
Another entrant is Mane Mall, which will offer over 150 brands, a hypermarket, multiplex cinema, bowling lanes and fine-dining experience.
It will also benefit from an exclusive rooftop restaurant giving spectacular views of Arbil and the nearby Tarin Hills. Directly linked to Mane Mall is a 250-room hotel.
"Mane Mall will not only have a significant impact on the retail market in Iraq, but also on the local and national economy," said Jamie Majid, a director of BTWShiells, one of the developers of the shopping complex.
"The Iraqi people have had many years of hardship; it's time for the country to prosper and return to the great nation it once was," said Majid.
"The country has sound fundamentals, and with the relaxed investment laws, the government is encouraging foreign companies to enter."
"The security situation has greatly improved. The northern Kurdish region is stable and considered the gateway to the rest of Iraq. The Iraqi people, like the rest of the Middle East, enjoy shopping, which is why there is great consumer demand."
"At BTWShiells we understand retail and therefore the importance of the right tenant mix to create a long-term sustainable mall," he added.
The company has over 30 years of retail sector experience and offices in London, Dubai, Belfast and Arbil. They currently manage 40 shopping malls in the UK and Ireland, with a total portfolio value of $6.5 billion. Mane Mall is their first project in Iraq.
BTWShiells has partnered with the Diyar Group to form Diyar Retail, which aims to develop a number of malls across Iraq in Duhok, Sulaimaniyah, Kirkuk, Mosul, Basrah, Najaf and Baghdad.
"We are speaking to a number of internationally recognised retailers from Europe, the Middle East and Turkey, and the overall feedback has been very positive," said Majid.
"We can give retailers confidence when entering the country as BTWShiells adheres to strict internationally recognised property management standards. And we are also in the enviable position of being able to offer a pipeline of sites through our local Iraqi partner, the Diyar Group."
A private company headquartered in Arbil, the Diyar Group has interests in construction, aviation, banking and retail.
Another shopping destination is the Family Fun Mall, located on 100 M Road in Arbil. Part of an already popular theme park, the shopping centre will have space for about 350 renowned brands.
Opening next month, it will also host Carrefour, the world's second-largest hypermarket chain in terms of size and the world's second largest retail group in revenues.
A project by Arbil-based Darin Company, it will also have an ice rink, cinema complex and bowling alley.
"We will become a different concept, one with more quality brands and entertainment facilities than any other mall in the Kurdistan region or Iraq," said Rawand Hussain Ali, advertising manager at Darin Company.
The mall will be managed by GLL, which operates 75 shopping centres around the world, including Turkey's largest. Family Fun Mall is the first venture for GLL in Iraq.
All brands represented in the mall will be from outside Iraq, thus, making it the country's largest all-brand shopping mall.
Only open for a few months is Sofya Mall on the prestigious Gulan Road, close to the new hotels and housing projects under construction.
According to its director Fareed Tawfiq, it has leased space for 100 outlets on its four floors.
The 7,000-square metre property features a few cafes and restaurants and an indoor games section for children.
Owned by the same developer is Galerya Mall, just walking distance from the Sofya Mall. It is set to open early next year.
Exactly opposite both these malls, also on Gulan Road, is City Mall, rapidly heading towards completion. It will incorporate 210 shops, 15 food outlets and a hypermarket.
Located between English Village and the Italian City housing development, Arina Shopping Mall, located on Gulan Road and opposite Sami Abdulrahman Park, is also under construction.
It will mainly cater to residents in the area and visitors staying in the five-star hotels under construction near the mall.
Other large projects include Tablo Mall (located near Francois Hariri Stadium) and Mega Mall (on Salahaddin Resort Road). Mega Mall is modelled on a shopping centre with the same name and concept in Sharjah.
Shoppers and visitors are excited by the opening of a large number of malls in the city.
"We have more options and more global brands now," said Aveen Jaleel, a resident of Erbil.
A visitor from Iran, Laila Hussaini, considered Arbil a "women's paradise" when describing the city's retail sector.
"In Iran, not every design or brand is available, but in Iraqi Kurdistan, women have the freedom to shop for whatever they like to wear," the 24-year old said.
- The writer is a Dubai-based journalist.