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Casablanca's Derb Omar market thrives despite pressure to modernise

Text and photos by Hassan Benmehdi for Magharebia in Casablanca – 29/02/08

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Located right in the centre of Casablanca, Derb Omar is the largest "shopping centre" in Morocco. Despite its 140-year history and its traditional and often archaic operating methods, it remains one of the liveliest business areas around.

In Derb Omar, the past and the present combine beautifully. The passing crowd, the shops and galleries bursting with life and the incessant comings and goings of carts create a magical atmosphere amid an indescribable cacophony of horns, shouting delivery drivers, car drivers and street vendors.

One the district's oldest veterans is Haj Abbas, now more than 85 years old. Around 1830, he said, a trader arrived from the city of Fez and opened the present market’s first stall to sell cloth.

"Our ancestors tell us that in 1907, this trader was joined by other Fassis specialising in textiles and by 1925, two-thirds of those selling cloth were originally from Fez. This explains why the area is still broadly dominated by traders from this region today, even though the activities have diversified since then," said Abbas, who owns four lorries which transport goods around this shopping centre.

After this first phase, he explained, the Amazighs who arrived from the southwest region of Morocco "discovered Derb Omar and set up shop there."

The Fassis and Amazighs came to replace the Jews and Christians who had dominated most of the trading activities in Casablanca, town planner André Adam wrote in 1968. "It was Eldorado, with huge potential for Moroccans," he said.

For many young Moroccans, the potential is still there. Cloth merchant Abdeljalil Daoued bought his premises in Derb Omar after working as an accountant in a shop in the same district for 10 years. His father always hoped to see his son own his own store in this district. "My father helped me a lot and he always told me that even though the cloth trade is not flourishing quite as it has in the past, it is still an honest job and can keep four or five families going," Daoued said.

He is finding, however, that business in Derb Omar has changed a lot. Cutthroat competition is eating more and more into profit margins. "At the moment, to become rich takes more than simply owning premises in Derb Omar. You also have to find good merchandise at a good price, seek out good suppliers, and put the message over to prospective customers," he said.

"This really is a full-time job which you have to carry out rigorously, without making the tiniest error," concluded Abdeljalil.

Another issue facing Derb Omar aspirants is that traders do not trust unfamiliar faces in their midst. Cheques and other methods of payment are rarely accepted, and then with great difficulty, for only word of mouth, good faith, honour and a good reputation are likely to make merchants solvent and credible.

David, a Moroccan Jewish trader, says the system of trade which is specific to Derb Omar leaves little room for modern payment practices: "Here, it is human relationships and customs which take precedence over cheques, bills and trading effects," he said. But Derb Omar’s own particular way of doing business is gradually disappearing. In addition to their customers having a good reputation, many traders demand legal and financial guarantees.

While Haj Bensalem, a trader in Derb Omar for more than 40 years, agrees that business in Derb Omar is no longer what it used to be, he notes that Derb Omar’s success is in the strong links forged between suppliers, wholesalers and customers.

Moreover, if the modern distribution system which is undergoing rapid development in Morocco has only partly managed to take hold of the national market, he says it is due to the formal and informal working practices of Derb Omar. Ethnic and family ties, control of distribution by small commercial units and deliveries by lorry give a closeness and flexibility to Derb Omar’s unique business model which modern distribution cannot push aside.

Even in the absence of precise figures on Derb Omar's share of the Moroccan economy, it is clear that the district provisions all of Morocco, said Chafiq Berrada of the Casablanca Chamber of Commerce.

The market faced a challenge in recent years, however. In 2000, Chinese traders started to invade Derb Omar. Arriving en masse, they specialise in almost all products, offering them at unbeatable prices. This situation has completely changed the commercial status quo in Derb Omar.

Having been threatened for some time by competition from Chinese products offered in Derb Omar, Moroccan traders now seem unfazed by their presence. "Today, Moroccans realise that quality is more important than price and Derb Omar’s customers have become more and more demanding in terms of quality," merchant Abderahim Raïs told Magharebia.

In order to protect Derb Omar from the occupation of its stores and warehouses by foreigners, traders in the village have agreed not to sell their properties to the Chinese. This way, the foreign merchants will have to remain simple tenants. "I feel it's a just war," Abderrahim Raïss said. According to statistics from the economic department of the Casa-Anfa commune, no fewer than 2,303 shops are currently trading in Derb Omar. The number of jobs created in 2007 was 7,643.

Casablanca locals see Derb Omar as part of their cultural heritage. Nationwide, it is seen as a unique success story which, down through the years, has given birth to a real economic and financial empire, becoming the main market in Morocco and one of the top melting-pots in Africa. It is on a par with the Sentier de Paris in France or even Boston’s commercial district in the United States.

Derb Omar is not a scene conjured up for tourist posters, said Haj Abbas. "It is about Moroccan families living every day in a harmonious setting composed by men and nature," he told Magharebia.

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  1. Anonymous thumb

    fatima 2014-12-2

    Hello- This is Fatima from Tlemcen. I want some advise regarding fabric from Derb Omar. Whom should I ask? Someone trustworthy, please. I want to buy beautiful fabrics for between 500 and 800 dirhams. Help me.


  2. Anonymous thumb

    البوعناني عمرو من المانيا 2014-7-19

    I heard a lot about this neighbourhood "Derb Omar" in the big city. I didn't have the opportunity to visit this important site in our dear country. Although I hail from the city of Rabat, I have lived in Germany for a long time. Now I want, God willing, to come back to Morocco to settle down in Rabat and Tetouan. I will open a shop for selling fabrics, God willing! I will visit this site, God willing! I hope I will meet someone who is better than me in trust, honesty and ethics. I hope from God the greatest in His high kingdom to protect our country Morocco and all Muslim countries from the woes of war and destruction like what happens today in the countries of Muslims in particular. May God protect the king of Morocco, help him and support him with a good entourage! I also ask God to guide the parties of Morocco to understand events happening here and there. They should help each other for the interest of the country and citizens who expect a lot from them contrarily to what happens in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt. Finally, hope you will always be at the service of the dear homeland. I have seen and lived with Germans how they love their homeland, invincibility and race even if they are disbelievers. There is no power and no will but from God the greatest! Bouanani Amr, Germany.


  3. Anonymous thumb

    زهرة 2014-2-18

    Thank you for the topic!


  4. Anonymous thumb

    hassan 2013-3-7

    Casa forever!


  5. Anonymous thumb

    3o23om 2013-2-12

    I am Kokobari. I want to work o people! In Morocco, all of us young people are lost.


  6. Anonymous thumb

    س مر 2011-10-22

    I would like to meet vendors in this market to help me. Thank you! Derb Omar market in Casablanca.


  7. Anonymous thumb

    ELALAMI 2011-9-27

    Derb Omar is the biggest shopping centre in Casablanca, where you can find everything you need for your daily life.


  8. Anonymous thumb

    يوسف 2011-9-16

    Hi- I am looking for the woman who works at the Casablanca SCT. Keep up the good work. Thank you. Big kisses to you all.


  9. Anonymous thumb

    fleur 2011-6-26

    Salam Alaikoum and may God guide you- Please, give me the addresses of caftan and jabador wholesalers. –Thank you


  10. Anonymous thumb

    ياسين 2011-6-7

    Very nice!


  11. Anonymous thumb

    nezha 2011-3-24

    Please, I would like to know if there are well-known sellers of “plaqior” jewellery, written tablets and any decorative items in wholesale. I would like to open a small shop. Thank you.


  12. Anonymous thumb

    ahmed 2010-10-15

    Thank you for this interesting topic. I would like to know wholesalers of cosmetic products so that I can make transactions with them. I have a shop in Laayoune. Thanks to all participants!


  13. Anonymous thumb

    rasta 2010-9-30

    Salam alikum. I would like to know addresses of clothes' wholesalers. May God reward you with good!


  14. Anonymous thumb

    ayoub 2010-9-6

    It is indeed the biggest international market in Morocco. But if only the shops were reconsidered, we will find the number of Chinese bigger than Moroccans. Unfortunately, this is a shame! Moroccans don’t act. This made unemployment increase highly as a result of high prices of shops and they are sold to Chinese people. This has a significant impact on the Moroccan economy.


  15. Anonymous thumb

    atika 2010-5-17

    Derb Omar is the heart of commerce in Morocco. I hope it continues to be successful. I would like to be a businesswoman in Derb Omar, God willing. My thanks go to everyone who created this website.


  16. Anonymous thumb

    atika 2010-5-9

    Derb Omar is one of the biggest streets and best markets in the country.


  17. Anonymous thumb

    mohamad 2010-4-26

    Thank you! I wish you more success and to everyone who contributed to creating this site!


  18. Anonymous thumb

    أحمد بن علي 2009-7-27

    The influx of foreigners especially Chinese people to the region of Derb Omar shows the power of the economy of the region and the power of the organized commercial structure which is based on methods and ways of selling and buying focused on mutual trust between all parties. In spite of this, Chinese traders didn't and won't constitute any threat to commerce in Morocco especially Derb Omar given our competitiveness which cannot be rivaled. Their numbers have increased today as they rent one store to many traders while they used to rent one store for every trader. Salam, a trader in Derb Omar.


  19. Anonymous thumb

    محمد 2009-6-28

    My hope is to become a prominent trader in Morocco. My ambition which I want to realize is to become one of the major traders. Buying and selling is in my blood boiling. Thank you for the topic about Derb Omar. I hope you will send me the prices of some products in Derb Omar market such as shoes, summer sandals, phones, pajamas, T-shirts and everything wanted by young people to make profit. Thank you for the topic. Please reply.


  20. Anonymous thumb

    دبادوي جميد 2009-6-19

    Derb Omar is an amazing market. There are different types of the best quality material and nicest material in the world. Many Moroccans come to buy material for their traditional sitting rooms.


  21. Anonymous thumb

    hafid 2009-5-25

    I want to say that Derb Omar is one of the best markets in Morocco, but it would be good if they made some improvements.


  22. Anonymous thumb

    hicham 2009-1-25

    How are you? Thank you for this work you carried out.


  23. Anonymous thumb

    زكرياء العتيشان 2008-6-2

    I am a young man who loves trade, especially at a high level. I am 18 and I think there is a big defect in trade in Derb Omar and it will affect Moroccan traders. This will be seen in the short term. Thank you.


  24. Anonymous thumb

    اصغرف ابراهيم 2008-5-9

    The people of Souss have been dominating Derb Omar for long years.


  25. Anonymous thumb

    Dr.casa 2008-5-7

    I am glad that chines have found the way to marocco,this prove that the country is on rise,however, to try to be discredit about chines working moral is wrong way to go, we just have to learn more from them and any competion is a good deal for the consumers.


  26. Anonymous thumb

    ساءق سيارة اجرة صغير-سعيد04 2008-4-3

    In the name of God, most gracious most merciful. Peace and prayer upon the the messenger of God, prayer and peace of God upon him. Salam alikoum my brothers. No one doubts that this commercial market great in its age and great in its commercial transactions which contributes highly to the local or national economy, which is very annoying to the drivers as there is a parking for trucks in addition to the passage of hand carts, parked here and there… in addition to hindering the pedestrians because we are now living in a quasi-wild jungle. Needless to talk about Garage Allal and the hindrance of traffic. We ask everyone to respect others, be tolerant and stop causing problems and accidents. Stop this carelessness. We ask the drivers of big taxis, white taxis, to abide more by road signs may God reward you. The drivers of small taxis working in stations to activate the counters, dirhams, and not abuse poor people and the numerous augmentation which mostly reach 100%. My Brothers, have mercy on what’s on earth, the Lord in heavens will have mercy on you. Said 04, taxi driver 02.


  27. Anonymous thumb

    yahya 2008-3-14

    Salam alaikoum. This site is nice. It has everything I want. Thank you very much, particularly for the news on Morocco. It's good.


  28. Anonymous thumb

    super_zaouia 2008-3-11

    Salam alaikoum. Thank you for this site. I wish you more success and accomplishment. Agadir.


  29. Anonymous thumb

    Simon Levy 2008-3-7

    My father has four shops in Derb Omar and three in Derb Ghalef in Casablanca. Contrary to what Hadj Abbas said, it is the people of Sousse who dominate in Derb Omar. The Jews are also a presence, even if it is just a few Jewish families. The Fassis haven't dominated Derb Omar since the end of the 50s.


  30. Anonymous thumb

    samar 2008-3-3

    I'm proud of our past. We should therefore do more research into it.


  31. Anonymous thumb

    mustapha 2008-3-3

    It is true: Derb Omar is the pride of all Morocco, but its continuation in this respect depends on the traders’ precise application of labour laws (for example: social security, insurance, retirement pensions, etc.) and the systematic billing of all transactions.


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