Western brands corner Pakistan middle class
KARACHI (AFP) – American fast-food and Western fashion outlets are taking Pakistan’s growing middle class by storm, defying stereotypes about a conservative Muslim country plagued by al-Qaeda and Taleban linked violence.
The rupee may have nose-dived, a third of the population may live in poverty and sectarian violence may be at a record high, but remarkably, consumer spending is up among a resilient elite fond of imported luxuries.
In a smart corner of Karachi, a new mall offers wealthy clientele the chance to lunch on an American burger, buy French cosmetics, shop for cocktail dresses, sip an afternoon cappuccino or wolf down a cinnamon roll.
Female sales assistants dressed in jeans and T-shirts buck the idea that “service industry” jobs are unsuitable for women, even if many of them commute into work heavily veiled to avoid being harassed or insulted.
“It is time when Pakistanis are getting branded. It is a new phenomenon,” says Samiullah Mohabbat, the chief executive who brought American franchise Fatburger from Beverly Hills to Karachi, a city troubled by shootings and kidnappings.
“The world has just started coming to Pakistan and this trend will grow.” While the economy has stagnated in the last five years, a business and foreign investment boom after the 9/11 attacks widened employment opportunities. Television was liberalised in 1999 and public sector salaries were increased.
As a result, the middle class has grown over the last decade. Karachi, the country’s financial hub, Lahore and the capital Islamabad have all seen a surge in Western-style coffee shops, fast-food franchises and new malls.
Karachi’s Dolmen Mall, where expatriates and wealthy Pakistanis stalk the gleaming, air-conditioned halls, stocking up in French hypermarket Carrefour before their driver comes to collect them, is the newest and flashiest.