Nick Leech goes plant hunting in a vibrant neighbourhood in downtown Dubai
Loud, brash and with its own vibrant street culture, Dubai’s Al Hudaiba Street runs between Satwa’s central car park and bus station, and the Iranian Hospital on Al Wasl Road. Like many streets in the UAE, it has more than one name. Among the Philippino community who pack its pavements each weekend, the area is known as “Little Quiapo” thanks to its similarities with Manila’s old downtown and its many small groceries, restaurants and shops selling cheap electronics, toys and counterfeit football kits. For a generation of horticultural traders and their customers, however, Al Hudaiba Street is and always will be known as “Plant Street”.
As if in collusion with its neighbours, the red Coca-Cola sign of the Al Madina Flower Restaurant announces the start of Plant Street. The pavement outside the small parade of shops that gives the street its name immediately narrows and erupts with large-leaved banana plants, temporary hedges of hot-pink bougainvillaea, stacked boxes of bedding, carousels of seeds and bundles of garden canes. Most business takes place here, out on the pavement, where laid-back shop assistants sit on stools, chat and answer the occasional question while waiting patiently for their next customer.
Only the most determined shoppers make it past the rolls of black irrigation pipe, ramparts of compost bags and tottering stacks of window boxes to the inner sanctum of each shop, but it is here that the true identity of each business can be found.
Behind a small counter in the Al Madina Garden store, VCM Rafi, a bearded Plant Street veteran of 21 years, stands as if in a ship’s engine room, shouting into a phone to compete with the car horns outside and the Keralite music playing loudly within. Tools and seeds cover one wall while another contains carefully sorted spare parts for irrigation systems.
From the brightly lit, tungsten-white interior and tightly packed palms of the Hamid & Khalid Agricultural Company, on the other hand, it is clear that its owner, PTP Latheef, is a florist. Latheef first came to Dubai in 1974, and has been supplying local businesses and the public with cut flowers and indoor plants for the past 28 years. He now imports his stock directly from Holland and Kenya on a weekly basis.
Among these elder statesmen Vicky V, the owner of Fresh Flowers LLC, is a relative newcomer with only 17 years on Plant Street. His business started selling cut flowers, but then expanded to indoor plants. Like most of the other garden businesses here, he now also works in the corporate sector as well as doing small-scale landscaping, irrigation and maintenance jobs for private clients.
Plants, flowers, seeds and associated horticultural and agricultural paraphernalia have been sold on Al Hudaiba for as long as anybody can remember, and although there are now only six small horticultural traders left, they attract an enthusiastic and loyal band of customers from all over the city. “I enjoy this period from November to February. You can plant anything here now and it will grow. Every year I come here when the season starts and every week they have new things,” says Maurice Al Hadad, a Dubai resident of seven years and a keen gardener.
Steve Hall has lived in Dubai for only seven months, but Plant Street is already his destination of choice when it comes to shopping for his house and garden in The Meadows. “This place is great; I do about 90 per cent of my plant and garden shopping here. The plants are good quality, you can bargain with the shop owners, and everybody’s very pleasant.”
All of the shoppers I speak to cite price, value and choice as the key reasons for coming to Plant Street. For Hall, the prices charged by other retailers in Dubai are “inexcusable” and it’s true that bedding, houseplants and compost are over 30 per cent cheaper here than elsewhere in the city, but price alone can’t explain Plant Street’s longevity and success. Thanks to their many years of experience, the traders on Plant Street are sophisticated retailers. They know just what to sell, at what size, and at what price to achieve the high turnover that ensures their plants are always healthy and fresh, and stock only enough to make an impressive pavement display. This means there are very few buyer’s mistakes on Plant Street, none of those awkward plants that are too big, expensive, or just plain weird to sell, that hang around larger nurseries, generally making the place look unloved and untidy.
Weekly deliveries from Holland, Kenya and the local nurseries who also supply their less agile competition, allow the fulfilment of customer orders while attracting the all-important mixture of repeat customers and passing trade that is Plant Street’s lifeblood. When coupled with almost 30 years’ horticultural wisdom, something that customers say is noticeably absent at other Dubai garden stores, it’s clear that Plant Street’s success is the result of a potent retailing mix, but I like to think there’s yet another layer to the area’s appeal.
For regular shoppers like Al Hadad and Hall, both of whom visit the street with their families, buying plants here is more than a matter of shopping and though they might not care to admit it, the browsing, bargain hunting, haggling and banter with the traders are clearly part of a regular ritual they enjoy. Although it might not be to everybody’s taste, there’s a social mix and genuine vitality to this part of Satwa that’s noticeably absent from other parts of the city, and this is something that allows expats from places as far apart as Beirut and London, Mumbai and Manila, to buy plants in an atmosphere that manages to make all of them feel at home.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi