Karachi: Business as Usual?

Karachi is a city of paradoxical coexistence. The immense diversity of this city, the existence of so many different social classes and ethnicities,  fills me with immense pride.  Agreed, there is a very dark side to this diversity.  There is destitution at the lower end of the economic spectrum; at the other end are the obscenely rich. These segments, and everybody else in between, co-exist in the same spaces, and yet belong to very different Karachis.

The violence, the bloodshed, the pervasive fear which makes you suspicious of every stranger walking by, the ever increasing number of beggars knocking on your car window, the debilitating energy crisis which makes living and doing business exceedingly difficult there – it’s something we take in our stride. Yet, something almost contradictory seems to been happening concurrently.

Lately, as I browse through the Express Tribune for frivolous reading, I keep coming across stories of various foreign high street brands opening up in Karachi. Something is wrong with the picture here. This is supposed to be “the most dangerous city in the world”, a city of murder and mayhem and all things ugly.  Why, then, are all these retailers coming to Karachi in droves?Pakistan’s ever worsening image on account of terrorism and corruption has dealt a severe blow to foreign investment inflows. FDI, which had been spiraling upward in the first half of the noughties (or the 2000s if you prefer), has dwindled thereafter. Yet, many foreign brands see something else entirely.

The fact is, Karachi and Lahore are actually great markets for foreign retail brands. Next and Accessorize have been there for a while, and recently there is Debenhams, Nine West and  some brand selling ‘cheap’ shoes for less than Rs 50,000(!), among several others. Local fashion retailers keep cropping up too, selling hideously expensive clothes. And they have all got eager buyers.

The rich are getting richer, the bubbles which they live in increasingly insular. No price is too high for women who empty out racks in designer wear exhibitions within minutes of its opening.  These are joined by the upwardly mobile and class conscious women, anxious to identify with the higher social classes. So despite the seemingly threatening business environment, there is great money to be made off our urban elite and wannabe-elites.

I’ll take this as a positive. That even in these bleak times, the world does see some potential in us, even if it is the potential to make money off an increasingly status-conscious segment of society. Despite my disdain for the likes of these, I think it’s a great thing. For one, there will be many more window-shopping options for me when I go back. Even though I consciously opt for local brands back there, and because my brain, like a typical Pakistani, goes into conversion mode and decides that paying a significantly higher price for things than you would abroad just seems wrong.

And then, this is just what Karachi is. Fascinating extremes and many worlds within one.

Will it give us the softer image as the franchise owner hopes? Who knows? There are too many countervailing elements at play. But as for me, for a while I will just ignore my conscience, close my eyes to the glaring inequalities around me, shut out the guilt, and spend a few hours browsing through these stores, and maybe, just maybe, splurge a little.

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