Neighbourhood Abu Dhabi

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Neighbourhood Abu Dhabi

Catherine Donaldson

Copyright @Catherine Donaldson 2018 The moral right of the author has been asserted All rights reserved No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted or utilised in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise without prior permission of the author.

Neighbourhood Abu Dhabi An anthropology in 88 illustrations Catherine Donaldson

A particular thank you to the men of Al Mina Markets, Al Danah and Al Zahiyah, who welcomed me drawing their neighbourhoods with curiosity, bemusement, generosity and overwhelming kindness, and to the Abu Dhabi Culture and Tourism Authority for giving this project the go ahead.


Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates, and is the largest of the seven Emirates which make up the country. It is bordered by Saudi Arabia, Oman and the Arabian Gulf. There are over 200 islands and over 700km of coastline. The climate is tropical with hot summers, warm winters and little rainfall. The population is approximately three million, with more than eight in ten from overseas. The majority are single males from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and men outnumber women three to one (statistics based on latest government figures, 2016).


Neighbourhood A neighbourhood can be understood in a mapped and measured way, tied down with boundaries and divided by land use, building type or social status. Alternatively, and certainly by its inhabitants, neighbourhood is defined by the direct experience of place. An ephemeral place which is defined more by how it is used, than by any physical boundary. It’s a commonplace place, a place of everyday life, where children play, where bread and milk is bought, and where routine is familiar. It’s intimate enough to be known by all the senses, and in that way is an extension of your home. In Abu Dhabi, this home is very often a second home. This book records time spent in some of these neighbourhoods. Once in a location, I followed the stories, the ones I could see and the ones I had been told, and this has defined the places and neighbourhoods for me. I mapped as I walked, marking the building sites, businesses and people I met. It seems to be the way my locations have been chosen, although I did definitely begin with a map. Wandering Abu Dhabi streets, each of which can have several names and no name or be known by a reference that exists only in the memory of the residents, means that unless you are ‘there’, it’s difficult to be sure where you have been. There are no names on Google Maps, and older maps carry whichever name was used at the time. An address often finishes with a landmark – the Hot Bread building, Tanker Mai, The Eldorado, the Pink shops, and it doesn’t matter if they no longer exist. The city is still young and has grown quickly, unrecognisable now from it’s first paved road in 1966. It is no wonder that many long-term residents map the place with their collective memories. The neighbourhoods here were all chosen for their strong identity, their genius loci. They share in common a multicultural, multinational community and operate as meeting places for the city’s residents. The markets and Tourist Club are undergoing great changes and Hamdan, through its shopkeepers and small businesses, is a link with the old city souk. The bus station and Al Bateen Mall are included as iconic landmarks whose future has been at times uncertain.


Al Mina markets Al Mina is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Abu Dhabi and part of Zayed Port area. It wraps around the docks in the northeastern corner of the main island. There are rows of fruit and vegetable sellers, the date market, a fish market serviced by a fleet of dhows, a plant market and the Iranian souk for household goods. Across the road is the Afghan carpet souk and the livestock and bird markets. It is always open, as residents prefer to shop in the cooler evening and early morning. The tourist coaches come in the blazing heat of midday. There are big plans for Mina. In line with Abu Dhabi’s 2030 plan, three million square metres of the waterfront area will become landmark development and tourist projects. The markets will be redeveloped to include hotels, retail, a new seaport and a creativity zone. The dhow fishing heritage will be celebrated with an exhibit.


The Best Time coffee shop, fish quay and dhow harbour. Thursday 8.00am


Market cats and a curious man. Sunday 11.30am


The fruit and vegetable market is quiet at 8.00am. Many of the men have been here for up to six hours already and a few are napping in their trucks or in the shade of the shops. The rest organise their displays, dust the fruit and chat to each other. Lights and UAE flags are strung up to the canopies, and old curtains cover the boxes piled underneath. Many of the customers are locals. They drive right up to the stalls and shops in white 4x4’s with darkened windows; Nissan Patrol, Mitsubishi Pajera, Toyota Landcruiser and Lexus. All the trucks are Mitsubishi. There’s a lot of bulk buying.



Farhan is full of boxes with Chinese lettering. Sunday 9.30am


I am told that the market operates 24 hours a day and in two shifts. Some of the men are here before dawn, so a nap in the quiet midmorning is understandable.

Al Neil Vegetable and Fruits, nap. Thursday 10.00am



Water coconuts are young, sweet and full of liquid. They are prepared while you wait and served with a straw. The coconut man stands them in a row on the boxes they are shipped in. He has eight ready so must be expecting a tourist coach.


The men (Naseef, Mohammed and Shiyaj) write their own names on my picture. Monday 4.30pm


The covered vegetable market. Tuesday 9.45am

There are two large warehouse buildings at one end of the market. These are big companies with large vans; Barakat, Arjomandi. On their right and in the central area are three rows of fruit and vegetable shops, twelve or thirteen to a row. They are open at the front and back. At the end of each row is a covered market stacked high with produce. There are canopies hung between the rows to keep the hot sun off, but in the first row, most are furled and torn. In the few months since the drawing on the right was made, the three covered markets at the ends of each row have been closed. The men here say it’s because it was just too hot for customers.



He beckoned me over and posed. Monday 2.30pm


The date market is on the southernmost end, and is fronted all the way along by glass and green metal cabinets. There is a palpable companionship between the men, who sit on stools outside. So much of their day is spent this way, alternating between relaxed chat and knowledgable advice to regular customers, then lively industry when the tourist buses arrive. Many men have wives and families back home in Pakistan, India and elsewhere. Some have always worked abroad and are here via Libya, Syria, Saudi Arabia. Others have always lived here and see their families once, maybe twice a year, and talk with pride about the education their children are getting, and the new houses they have been able to build.

A welcome invitation to sit inside the cold store. Tuesday 1.30pm


Leopard skin cloak. Sunday 12.30pm


There are eight men standing directly behind me, plus a large group of Indian tourists who have just disembarked from a bus. The back of World Golden Fruits, Monday 11.45am. 23


“August is the big month for local dates. In this country, Khalas, Barhi, Dabbas, Fard, Khenaizi, Bou Ma’an are the most expensive. Madhool is one of the most expensive in the world. Look at the size of it. Tourists like the Fard date.” Date selection. Tuesday 4.00pm


The ship. Sunday 10.45am

The plant market runs around three sides of the dock. On the right hand side sit the pots, pans and plastic flamingos of the Iranian souk. The back of the market is bounded by barbed wire, so drawing is careful and fast. All the stalls are numbered and seem to sell the same thing. The men call you in as you walk past and joke and undercut each other. If you walk the length of it you’ll have a bargain by the end. The interior of the stalls are cool and in deep shadow.


Stall 20. Sunday 2.45pm


Hamdan Officially this area sits in the neighbourhood of Al Danah, but locally, Hamdan can mean roughly the blocks between 5th and 7th street, towards the eastern end of the city. Its name comes from Hamdan Bin Mohammed street, which runs East to West, along the width of the island. The eastern end runs as far as Tourist Club and Le Meridien hotel. It was one of the first paved roads in the city. The blocks behind the multi-lane highways of Hamdan and Electra are busy with cars double parked, and delivery vans which keep their engines running. The businesses are often relocations from the original souk, which burnt down in 2003, and was later demolished. There are stationers, computer repairs, mobile phone shops, typing offices, restaurants and laundries. There is no street rubbish but there are banks of communal bins on the corners, and in the heat there’s a low-level liquid garbage smell. The background noise is of air conditioners, traffic horns and birdsong. The streets are communal places particularly in the early evenings and during the cooler winter months. Chairs, which have been placed outside shops during the day, are pulled up, and the men congregate. In places where the kerbs are over a foot high, more groups gather.

“The souk used to be huge. You could haggle, you could get everything under the sun there, and it was for everyone. Now there are so many malls.�


There is regular bird feeding around the next corner and the birds are waiting. Monday 9.30am


Hamdan Street, Monday 12.30pm


Hamdan Street, Monday 11.45am

“The older skyscrapers are all at Hamdan and Electra and lots have either been refurbished or built to make higher. The limit was eight to ten floors, then thirteen floors but now the World Trade has eighty-eight.� 31

Giftland, Tuesday 1.00pm


Dhuhr prayers, Tuesday 12.18pm


The Ariyana bakery, Sunday midnight




On the phone, inside and outside. Thursday 4.00pm

Mosque shoes. Friday 3.45pm

Rooftop. Saturday midday


Bed spaces and partitions. Thursday 5.00pm


Skin White beauty parlour looking toward the Eldorado building. Tuesday 6.30pm

Although there is never any other rubbish on the streets, there are accomodation notices posted on lamp posts and street furniture. They are always upfront about gender, race, religion and marital status, and specify who is to apply. A partition is a room which has been subdivided in some way The numbers and specific addresses have been changed to protect the writers.


The Eldorado Cinema, Summer 2017.


The Seven Emirates supermarket, Monday 11.45am

The Eldorado cinema opened in 1970, a year before the country was formed, and was Abu Dhabi’s oldest indoor cinema. In 2000, the cinema started to show Tamil and Malayam titles. At the end of November 2017, it closed its doors and is now in the process of becoming a supermarket. The Eldorado is still a neighbourhood name and has become another marker on the memory map of the city.





Curtains. Monday 10.00am

It is impossible to draw anonymously. A common reaction is bemusement or confusion and I am often asked what it is I see. It’s less threatening to draw than to write. I’ve been approached with concern when I’ve written notes and the worry is that I am ‘official’. Writing, like photography, is intrusive and formal. For the same reason, I abandoned my iPad drawings.


Each time I pull out my sketchbook I am watched, initially from a distance and through dark windows. I can see men behind me in the reflections. When I assemble my small camping stool, there is always someone who thinks I’ll be more comfortable on a chair, and so, wherever I am, a chair is brought out.

This is one of many local bakeries. The smell of fresh bread fills the whole street and there are always queues. Builders come from the site over the road. They make deliveries and have a bike with a plastic box tied behind the saddle. Tuesday, 4.00pm


Mawaqif and delivery bike. Tuesday 3.30pm


Noorghazi building site. Tuesday 12.30pm




Winning is everything. Safran Street. Sunday 4.30pm



Bird cages, Hamdan Bin Mohammed street. Friday 2.30pm


Tourist Club Tourist Club sits on the north-eastern corner of the island. It was first developed for recreation in the early 1970’s with a club, a beach and marina, bowling and a swimming pool. It was where everyone came to relax. This neighbourhood is now named ‘Al Zahiyah’, which means ‘colourful’ in Arabic but the old Tourist Club name is still used by those who live and work here. This area is destined to become the heart of the Capital Business District and is undergoing a complete transformation. It’s a long term project, but construction is fast and so every visit confuses with new road layouts and crossings. Serene in the centre sits Le Meridien Hotel, visited by Queen Elizabeth in 1975, a landmark so respected that it has completely escaped the building work.


Tourist club redevelopment. Tuesday 3.00pm



Communications palm tree. Wednesday 5.00pm


“You know this hotel? Queen Elizabeth opened it. You know Queen Elizabeth the two? She is my Aunty you know.�

The kindness of strangers. An enthusiastic local man ushers me over to a better drawing spot. He calls to the building workers, and, in Arabic, organises them to build me a ladder to jump the wall. Then, to improve my view, a concrete slab throne is assembled and I have a perfect view of the entire site. It turns out that he is a high ranking and important government man. Perhaps he does know the Queen.


Le Meridien Hotel. Tuesday 10.30am


A worker bus, and home to the labour camp. Monday 6.00pm


The men are experienced at working in the heat. Every bit of their body is covered with scarves, balaclavas, gloves, overalls and a hard hat. Some protect their eyes with shades. There are open softwood timber frames, just big enough for one person, regularly spaced around the site. They provide a rectangle of shade in the fiercest sun.


The cab drivers’ cafe. Al Wadha Bus Station. Monday 3.00pm


Food shop, Al Bateen Mall. Saturday 10.45am


“Progress and renaissance are not to be measured by reinforced concrete structures, but rather by building human beings and providing citizens with everything that make them live in happiness and decent life.� Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan


Epilogue Abu Dhabi as a planned city, is only decades old, and the majority of its inhabitants are from overseas. Every expat lives in a temporary state, dependent on a work visa, so it’s difficult to put down real roots. All live with the reality of leaving one day. Nevertheless, close communities are evident on the streets. There is a rhythm to the movement of people; the box collector on his bike, the deliverymen, the bakers taking it in turns over the oven, and the call to prayer which brings everyone out to pray on the street or in the mosque. This is clear as I sit and draw each day. It is illegal to photograph or video without explicit consent, so recording in a sketchbook is the only way to collect information like this. Although I’m a curiosity at first, drawing allows me to become part of the event. It cuts through any social awkwardness or polite restraint on the part of others, and gives implicit permission for anyone to approach if they want to. It seems less invasive than a camera. A photograph is ‘taken,’ but the verb ‘to draw’ implies a conversation, a ‘drawing in’ of the subject, and this is what happens usually. As I’m drawing, I notice that change is constant, not just of buildings, but with the transient population too, and even in the few short months of this project, buildings disappear and change use, affecting the way people interact with their place. I sought these neighbourhoods to document the everyday life of working areas of the city and have realised, as this project has developed, that the focus has shifted. The act of drawing itself has been transformative, building real connections between myself and the subject, and I have claimed my place here, in the same way that everyone else has, through engagement and co-operative experience. I am happy to now call Abu Dhabi ‘home’.


International Mother Language day is on the 21st February. A quick and unscientific poll on social media showed some of the languages and dialects proudly spoken here. Spelling is copied as it was written.

Further reading

Hazarvi Farsi Thar Batangueno Visaya Creole Welsh Tajik Serbian Bajan Italian Georgian Castellano Bavarian Romanian Arabic Sindhi Brushishki Tounsi Lebanese Afrikaans Memoni Konkani Bisaya Hungarian Uzbek Shami (Damascus) Swedish Bulgarian Indonesian

Ogrodnik, M. (2013) The Abu Dhabi bus station: Finding the beautiful in the extra-ordinary. Forming Intersections and Dialogues . Abu Dhabi. New York University. [Online]Available from:


Spanish Scottish Arabic Tamil Portuguese American Tulu Malayam Urdu Sinhala Creole Mauricien French Amharic Saurashtra Assamese Noxchi Lithuanian Marathi Moroccan Arabic Pushto Polish Balooshi Balochi Saraiki Bosnian Tagalog Ilocano Greek English

Hindi Doric Swahili Hindko Kannada Javanese Bengali Kinyarwanda Papiamento Bangla Sicilian Palestinian Arabic Egyptian Arabic Konkani Punjabi Marathi Bhojpuri Karay Gujarati Tigrinia Eritrean Pashto

Unnikrishnan, D. (2017) Temporary people. New York: Restless Books.

Elsheshtawy, Y. (ed.) (2008) The evolving Arab city: Tradition, modernity and urban development. London and New York: Routledge. Elsheshtawy, Y. (2011) ‘Informal encounters: Mapping Abu Dhabi’s urban public spaces’. Built Environment. [Online]Vol. 37, (1), (pp. 92-113). Available from: publication/263381447_Informal_Encounters_Mapping_Abu_ Dhabi’s_Urban_Public_Spaces Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council. (2007) Plan Abu Dhabi 2030. [Online] Available from: plan-abu-dhabi-full-version-EN.pdf Gulf Research Centre. (2016) GCC total population of nationals and percentage of foreign nationals in GCC countries (national statistics 2010-2016). [Online]Available from: Zacharias, A. (2013) Not just a place but a state of mind. The National. [Online] December 1st. Available from: uae/not-just-a-place-but-a-state-of-mind-1.287309 Leech, N. (2014) A landmark in 35 years of change. The National. [Online] 24th February. Available from: https://www.thenational. ae/business/travel-and-tourism/a-landmark-in-35-years-ofchange-1.686367

Neighbourhood Abu Dhabi