However, business has picked up across from the mall’s main entrance, where dozens of one-room shops fill a cluster of crumbling buildings dating back to British colonial rule.
“We have a lot more shoppers coming since the mall opened because people only go there to look at the latest expensive foreign brands,” said Mahmoud Yahia, who runs a small fashion shop in a windowless, stuffy room with no air-conditioning.
“Once they get an idea about the latest fashion trends, they come here to look for the much cheaper Chinese version,” he said, grinning as he pointed to stacks of shirts, pants and suits with foreign brand names, but labeled “Made in China.”
The Bank of Khartoum hopes the economy will stabilize after Khartoum and Juba agreed in September to resume oil exports within months. Its Gulf shareholders have just decided to triple the bank’s capital to expand even more in Sudan.
The bank — Sudan’s oldest — owns 60 percent in the mall and the rest is held by the government, mall operator Mourjan said. Construction costs were about US$200 million. Al-Waha general manager Khalil Muhsen, a Palestinian who has worked for many years in the Gulf and Jordan developing shopping centers, remained optimistic.
Muhsen said the mall has 7,000 customers a day, though the few people inside seem to be mainly students or teenagers. The underground park for 600 cars is almost deserted.
“When we opened, purchasing power was at its lowest,” he said, adding that lease contracts for 60 percent of the mall’s space had been signed so far. “[But] we are within our plan. The occupancy rate will reach 80 percent by the end of next year.”
Muhsen said the challenges were not just economic — the concept of a mall with fixed prices for quality goods is new territory for many Sudanese who are used to haggling with vendors in an economy flooded with cheap Asian products.
He had to persuade the retailers to open on Fridays, a day when families have time to shop, but Khartoum is shut down.
“We need to educate customers and tenants, present them new ideas,” he said.