The back streets of Abu Dhabi are home to some of the city’s most vibrant neighbourhoods and much of fast disappearing heritage. But a local anthropologist and architect warn that without immediate action vital lessons about the emirate’s development and history could be lost.
On a giant billboard at the junction of Hamdan Street and Airport Road, a smiling Emirati boy lies lost in a nocturnal desert reverie, dreaming of his future. Architecturally at least, this is closer than he thinks.On one side of the poster, Aldar’s Domain Tower soars 88 storeys above the new Central Market, while on the other, a tight cluster of new residential towers boast serviced apartments, private gyms, saunas and rooftop pools.
For a brief moment, the version of Abu Dhabi’s future favoured by architects, developers, and tourist brochures, appears reflected in acres of mirrored glass. But one only has to venture a few metres in the opposite direction, away from the gleaming façades and into Abu Dhabi’s back streets, to find a very different image of the city; one defined by overcrowding and urban decay.
For the Zayed University anthropologist Jane Bristol-Rhys, life in the overlooked back streets of neighbourhoods such as Al Markaziyah and the Tourist Club area is like: “a large elephant in the middle of the room that no one will mention”. As Ms Bristol-Rhys writes in her recent study, Socio-Spatial Boundaries in Abu Dhabi: “These quarters are a visibly disagreeable result of the large number of migrant workers who live crowded together in the city’s older buildings.”
Nowhere is this more evident than in the contrast between the Fotouh Al Khair Centre – the Marks & Spencer Mall as it is known locally – and the shabby cinder block compound that sits behind it. A warren-like shanty, the compound is like a forgotten time capsule in the very heart of the city. It is a direct link to late 1960s, an introverted neighbourhood whose presence goes unremarked and unnoticed by the wider world outside.
Inside, a confusing series of interconnected courtyards and passageways form a maze littered with clotheslines, laundry racks, plastic cisterns and washing machines. No one knows precisely how many people live here, but from the number of shoes and sandals around the compound it would seem several hundred residents call it home.
If there is confusion about the compound’s population, there is more certainty about its past. Long-term residents confirm that the compound dates from at least 1968. They include CK Noushad, the proprietor of Seastar Electronics Trading, one of several shops that make up an arcade along the compound’s north facade.
Mr Noushad was forced to move his shop here from the old souq when that was demolished in 2005 to make way for the new Central Market, which is still under construction nearby. It was a shift that saw a notable change in the fortunes of his business. “Before, everybody used to come to the old souq, from Mussaffah, Baniyas, from everywhere, and I used to have lots of local people as my customers,” he says. “Now they go to the malls and my business is 60 to 70 per cent labourers. They buy electronics, watches and toys as gifts for home and for their children, but they only come at weekends, on holidays, and in the evenings.”
Over its long history, the compound has seen changes in use and habitation that provide important lessons not only in the city’s history, but for its continuing development as well. As Jane Bristol-Rhys puts it: “The city may be redefining itself … but it is doing so in a pattern established when the first public housing, the buyut al shabbiya, was constructed in the late 1960s.
“As soon as construction techniques started to improve, Emiratis started to build bigger houses with air conditioning … and their old houses were turned over to foreigners.” For Ms Bristol-Rhys, this cycle involves three interrelated factors that continue to inform urban change and development in Abu Dhabi to this day.
These include the preference and ease of locating new construction to “pristine” parts of the city, a desire to live away from the densely populated areas of Abu Dhabi’s downtown, and the decision to sublet older buildings, which soon became the exclusive domain of a male-dominated immigrant workforce. It was once explained to her by a local man, she writes, that: “Streets and buildings here have several lives. They start with new high rents and western professionals and sometimes young Emirati couples, then after five years or so the building ages and the rents go down accordingly.
“For the next three or four years Arab and Indian families move in and out, but by eight years the building is in bad shape and the landlord turns it over to rental agents who fill the building by renting out not apartments but sleeping space.”
Dr Yasser Elsheshtawy, an architect and academic at UAE University in Al Ain, also sees disposable tendencies in Abu Dhabi’s urban development, but identifies other reasons for it. “If you look at Abu Dhabi’s beginnings, there was no significant old city. I think because of that, and because resources are available and it’s easy to do, there is a constant need for reinvention, of starting from scratch and looking for other places to build. “The past is still associated with poverty and backwardness, and older buildings are viewed not so much with a sense of nostalgia but as something that can be easily replaced.”
Whatever the reason, Abu Dhabi’s desire to repeatedly start anew can be seen in the city’s expansion on to adjacent islands and the mainland, in new developments on Saadiyat and Reem, and into Al Raha Beach and Khalifa City A and B. While the expansion of the city may be inevitable – it is written into Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 – Dr Elsheshtawy and Ms Bristol-Rhys agree that Abu Dhabi’s repeated reinvention has serious implications for the city’s future.
For Dr Elsheshtawy, the risk is a disjointed urban fabric that affords few opportunities for a sense of identity or belonging among residents. For Ms Bristol-Rhys it means more of the same.
“We’re down to the point where buildings are being rented out by the hour; where instead of a family of three, you have people sleeping in a room in shifts,” she said. “Nothing brings down a building faster than overuse and abuse. Once the owners have turned a building over to that kind of rental exercise, maintenance is no longer a priority and you really begin to see the degradation.
“That’s where we are in many neighbourhoods in Abu Dhabi and we don’t know what’s next. If these buildings are going to be demolished, we’re going to have big holes opening up in the city. What will be put in there?”
The compound behind the Fotouh Al Khair Centre may still function, but the day when it finally succumbs to neglect or to the pressure of market forces cannot be very far away. For those with an interest in the city’s meagre historic fabric, the passing of such an old and an unusual building would surely be cause for regret, especially at a time when other fast developing capitals, such as Singapore and Beijing, are moving to protect what remains of their historic urban cores.
For Mr Noushad of Seastar Electronics Trading, however, the compound’s loss would be far more tangible and immediate. “I have only this shop. I do not have the money to pay the rents in the mall.”
A version of this article first appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi.
For more images see Jeff Topping/The National