- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 7, 2012

CASABLANCA, Morocco — Inaugurated by pop star Jennifer Lopez in front of the cream of Moroccan society, Casablanca’s first mega-mall, complete with a two-story-high aquarium, is dripping with glamour and luxury.

Developers describe it as a step bringing Morocco closer to the ranks of the developed world, but detractors worry that it is a vanity project that a country teetering on the edge of an economic crisis can ill afford.

Morocco at first seems a curious choice for what its developers are billing as the biggest mall in Africa. It already has world-renowned traditional bazaars featuring exquisite ceramics and rugs that draw tourists from around the globe.

The North African kingdom of 32 million is home to the largest income inequalities in the Arab world.

It now hosts Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Dior and Ralph Lauren boutiques and department store Galeries Lafayette in the new mall, a futuristic, bulbous silver structure perched on Morocco’s coast overlooking the crashing waves of the Atlantic.

The mall - which will host acts such as Shakira and Kanye West for a summer concert series - is a stark symbol of the contrasts of a country with 8.5 million people in poverty that ranks 130 out of 186 on the U.N. human development index.

The 20-minute coastal drive from downtown Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city, to the mall showcases the complexity of the country, with slums hidden from sight by high walls, construction areas for new shopping centers and the villas and nightclubs of the wealthy.

“It is a great honor for Morocco to have a project of such dimensions,” Salwa Akhannouch, head of the Aksal group and the driving force behind the mall, said at its opening this month.

Crowds packed the mall in the weeks after it opened. Shoppers ambled through sunlit galleries and gazed at the aquarium and the 350 stores. Colorfully dressed performers, some from as far away as Eastern Europe, periodically would burst into enthusiastic dance routines to the accompaniment of loud drums.

Few shopping bags were in sight, however, and most visitors seemed just curious to see this much-anticipated monument to shopping that has been four years and $260 million in the making.

“There is a big gulf between the rich and the poor, and the rich just seem to be getting richer and the poor, poorer. The mall is a symbol of that,” said Hassan Ali, a 45-year-old shopkeeper selling hand-tooled leather jackets in Casablanca’s modest old quarter.

Tourism is a vital part of the mall’s plan, said its secretary general, Jenane Laghrar, who anticipates 20 percent of its estimated 12 million annual shoppers will come from abroad. She said sales for the first week were on target.

“When you enter the mall, you see Gucci and Dior, but don’t forget you have the largest content in Africa. At the same time, you have more affordable brands,” she said.

There is also an aspiring middle class that wants to be able to buy these luxury products, she added.

The hope is also that European tourists will add the mall to their usual itineraries of beaches and the exotic cities of Fez and Marrakech.

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