Nick Leech explores the area around Abu Dhabi’s Al Bateen Airport and Khalifa Park, a little-known suburb called Al Matar
An unprepossessing wall runs blankly along the four diagonal kilometres that stretch from Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Mosque to its eastern mangroves and lagoons. On one side sits the old Al Bateen Airport, a former military aerodrome that now serves executive jets. On the other lies Al Matar, a rapidly developing strip of construction dust bookended by low-key palaces in the west and the new cluster of hotels, offices and media facilities that now surround Khalifa Park in the east. Only the blind concrete wall and the constant sound of traffic on the Eastern Ring Road connect all three.
The name Al Matar may appear on maps and property websites but the mainly Emirati residents of the neighbourhood behind 31st Street identify instead with the parks, shops and facilities on nearby Muroor. Some of the quiet back streets here end abruptly, terminated unceremoniously by the airport perimeter, while huge mansions and town houses are clad in a dazzling kaleidoscope of mosaic, rusticated masonry and elaborate stained glass.
As I turn the aerodrome’s north-west corner I stumble across a tableau that would be difficult to imagine in any other city. Here, the Embassy of the Hellenic Republic, the palace of HH Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed al Nahyan and an (exquisite) mosque of the same name all sit under the watchful gaze of the customers and staff of the Al Badiya Foodstuff store, one of only three shops in the whole of Al Matar. Despite increasingly stiff competition from the shops along Muroor, the Al Badiya survives by stocking a bewildering array of ‘emergency household purchases’ and by offering immediate delivery of these from 6 in the morning to 11.30 at night.
As I browse the Ayurvedic hair oil, children’s stationery and assorted ice creams the manager, Mr. Faisal K, takes a steady stream of phone orders while his assistant serves the drivers who sound their horns at the kerb. Part supermarket, part social club, the Al Badiya is as popular with the local workmen who relax on its lawn as it is with residents like Sebastian George and his 3 year old daughter Lena, who often like to pop out for a late night walk and a chat. Before moving to Al Matar three years ago, Mr. George spent 17 years in Abu Dhabi’s Tourist Club area and there is little doubt about which area he prefers. ‘This is a posh area’ he beams, ‘The air is cleaner here, there’s no pollution and most importantly of all, it is quiet’.
The sign on the Swiss Mart supermarket in the nearby compound of Al Maqtaa Village promises an ‘Excellent shopping experience’. As with the Al Badiya, Swiss Mart offers ‘Immediate home delivery’, but that is where the similarities between the shops and their respective areas end. Al Maqtaa Village is one of an increasing number of small gated developments that have sprung up in the area between the airport and the Eastern Ring Road over the past three years and though these vary hugely in terms of their aesthetics, quality and facilities, they all share the same concern with their resident’s closely-guarded privacy. Several are completely closed to non-residents but the presence of the Swiss Mart in Al Maqtaa Village allows me to investigate further and I’m immediately struck by the efforts that have been made to mitigate the fact that this is an extremely high-density residential development on a very tight plot. The lighting is subtle, decorative urns mark driveways and room has even been found for plants that soften the main entrance.
Residents here are mainly western expatriates and although it is almost 9pm many are just arriving home from work. Others have already completed sessions at the compound’s fitness centre and pool before they take to the supermarket’s gelid, brightly-lit aisles. Sarah is American and works in consultancy as a civil engineer. She moved to Abu Dhabi in February 2010 and since then has been mainly struck by the humidity and heat but she enjoys the benefits of Al Maqtaa’s convenience. ‘I have my own shop and parking here, there’s a pool and gym and it’s also close to my office and the places where I like to go out.’
It’s the privacy and convenience of Al Matar’s location that will probably ensure its future success but at the moment it is an area that struggles to be any more than the sum of its disparate, disconnected parts. The first phase of a major new community-focused, residential development is planned for the very centre of Al Matar in 2011 and its developer promises that Bloom Gardens will eventually bring more homes, shops, green spaces and even a well-respected English private school into the area. Whether this will succeed in knitting the whole of Al Matar into a single, coherent neighbourhood is yet to be seen.
New accommodation in Al Matar consists largely of apartments and villas in secure compounds although large, standalone villas and purpose-built apartments can also be found along 31st St. 1 and 2 bedroom rental apartments in the Al Seef Compound cost 120,00 and 160,000 AED respectively while 3 bed apartments and 5 bed villas in Al Qurm Gardens cost 220,000 and 240,000AED per annum.
The Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Bangladesh Islamia Private School is located on the western edge of Al Matar on 31st St. The American International School in Abu Dhabi, Lycée Louis Massignon (French), Japanese School and Al Worood Academy Private School are all located nearby on 29th St. between Muroor and Airport Roads.
The Al Noor Hospital, Airport Road branch offers A&E services, cardiac and orthopaedic surgery as well as obstetrics and gynaecology.
Al Matar residents are mainly serviced by the shops along Muroor Road and by Carrefour on Airport Road however, there are several local convenience stores including the Al Badiya Foodstuff store and Swiss Mart supermarket in Al Maqtaa Village.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi