Nick Leech explores Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City and the area around one of Abu Dhabi’s best known landmarks, the Carrefour supermarket on Airport Road
As is so often the case after many hours spent walking around one of Abu Dhabi’s more out-of-the-way locations, I find myself dejected and delighted in equal measure. As usual, I’ve had some fascinating encounters: with a taxi driver from the same rural Pakistani village as my grandmother, a group of Palestinian friends celebrating one’s recent graduation in chemical engineering and a cyclopean Keralite tailor whose glass eye I try hard but fail to ignore.
Unfortunately, however, none call the neighbourhood home and in the course of my investigation I fail to find a single resident of the area my map identifies as both Al Madina al Riyadia and Zayed Sports City.
This is unexpected because, on paper at least, it’s difficult to think of a more action-packed location. As well as the Sheikh Zayed Stadium, the block is home to the Abu Dhabi International Tennis Complex, the Khalifa International Bowling Centre, the Abu Dhabi Ice Rink, Abu Dhabi Harlequins Rugby Club, the Haddins Zayed Sports City Fitness Centre as well as numerous Government organisations and ministries.
After a closer inspection, the lack of residents can be explained by the fact that, although many more are under construction or are planned, there is currently only one palatial residence in the blocks surrounding Zayed Sports City and its security gates and high walls discreetly discourage further investigation.
While the car showrooms, Al Noor Hospital, KFC and Carrefour that form Zayed Sport City’s northern border attract a constant stream of traffic, its interior is dark and deserted on evenings when there are no major events taking place in Sports City. As I walk its streets hoping to find someone at home, I have only construction workers, security guards and stray cats for company until I turn a corner and discover the Al Dhiafa Grill, tucked between the Abdul Jalil al Fahim Mosque and the high walls of the Abu Dhabi Ministry of Water and Environment.
With its Arabic-only facade and tiny, head-height serving hatch, Al Dhiafa has the atmosphere of a well-kept secret. A quiet evening meeting place for the small groups of friends who sit on the motley collection of furniture outside, Al Dhiafa delivers a wide selection of regag bread dishes, grilled meats and sandwiches by night and serves the many workers in the Government ministries by day.
Al Dhiafa’s master of ceremonies, Abdulrahman Almarzouqi, keeps one eye on a replay of a recent UAE international football match while he takes me patiently through the menu, suggesting an Al Dhiafa favourite, regag bread with cheese and mahyawa sauce – a delicious Persian condiment made from spices and the tangy, salty juice of ground, sun-dried anchovies.
At the other end of Zayed Sports City, several kilometres of hoardings surround Arzanah, a mixed-use development that will eventually envelop Sheikh Zayed Stadium and spill over the adjacent Khaleej al Arabi Street to occupy the prime waterside location of the lagoon beyond. Arzanah promises to deliver high-end residential, retail and commercial property alongside a school and a state-of-the-art medical complex that will transform the area from a residential ghost town to one of Abu Dhabi’s most sought-after addresses.
Rihan Heights, Arzanah’s first residential phase, will only be completed later this year. The five residential towers will contain more than 800 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments as well as penthouses, swimming pools, a gym and covered parking.
Joining them will be another prestigious address, TDIC’s new Bridgeway development. Aimed primarily at the business traveller, Bridgeway will also include the Middle East’s first Rocco Forte Collection hotel as well as long-term rental apartments and a shopping centre. Until this and the later phases of Arzanah are completed, however, it’s not too difficult to imagine where new residents will be buying their groceries.
The Carrefour on Airport Road is one of the key landmarks by which new visitors and the habitually lost navigate their entry into Abu Dhabi proper. An unprepossessing concrete box on the outside, its interior is even less impressive but what it lacks in aesthetics it more than makes up for in plenitude and weirdness. Like some giant planet, Carrefour has attracted a number of smaller retail satellites and it is here amongst the tailors, doughnuts and thermal underwear that I find the perfect antidote to the tangy bite of the mahyawa sauce. The Yemeni honey sold by Ahmed al Bakri comes from bees fed on Ghaf and Acacia trees in Wadi Dawan, a desert valley less famous now for its sweet produce than for being the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden. Ahmed assures me that his honey is as good for my health as it is for my taste buds and I have no reason to doubt him.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi