At mid-morning on a recent Tuesday, the capital's fish souq at Mina Zayed is buzzing. Glistening heaps of fresh hammour, mackerel, shark and prawns sit atop mounds of crushed ice, and the scent of the sea is in the air. Emiratis and expatriates stroll its concrete lanes, inspecting the seafood as fishmongers in blue overalls at dozens of stalls bellow to lure them over.
Men in red overalls sit in white-tiled booths, knives in hand, scraping the scales from fish as red flesh splatters the floor. A doorway on the left leads to a narrow corridor of oil-streaked booths, where cooks fry or bake the just-purchased seafood as the shoppers wait. It has been this way for about 20 years, before Abu Dhabi grew into a luxurious locale with glittering shopping malls and hotels flecked in gold.
But soon, the fish souq will make way for change: a waterfront community facing Lulu Island. Mubadala Development, a strategic investment company owned by the Abu Dhabi Government, plans to build a leisure and entertainment district on 22 hectares that includes three hotels and low-rise buildings with apartments and restaurants. It was announced last year that the fishmongers and fishermen would be selling their catch at a market at a new shopping mall several kilometres inland in the Mushrif area. Their new home would be a state-of-the-art fresh market at the mall being built by Line Investments and Property, the real estate arm of Emke Group, a retail concern.
No longer would the fishermen unload the day's catch dockside at Mina Zayed before a short haul to the market. Instead, the seafood would be loaded on refrigerated lorries for the drive into the city. "We want to alleviate the idea of the old souq," V Nandakumar, the communications manager at Emke, told The National in March last year when plan was launched. But now the Abu Dhabi Fishermen Cooperative Society says the market will be shifting just 2km to a site on the shore opposite Saadiyat Island.
Construction of the 52,000-square-metre facility began this year, says Ali Mansouri, the general manager of the society. It will have docks to accommodate 600 boats and an enclosed market for the fishmongers and cleaners. "Normally, when the fishermen bring in the fish [from the boats], they put it in the open area, and the people come and ask to buy it," he says. "Now, no. In the new place, they have to put it inside a closed area. So they will start to sell inside, with the air conditioning and everything."
The market will also have sleeping quarters for between 300 and 400 fishermen to rest between trips at sea as well as a mosque. But what that means for the fish stalls at Mushrif Mall's fresh market, which is forecast to be one of the biggest in the Gulf, is unclear. Emke said the original plan was for the fish market to be located at Mushrif, but now it is awaiting word from the authorities. "The government has to take a decision," said Yusuff Ali, Emke's managing director.
Emke would not comment on why the plan had changed. The Saadiyat site is being developed by the Abu Dhabi Centre for Housing and Service Facilities Development. Emke has high hopes for its shopping centre project, which will open by the final quarter of this year. "It's a five-star fish market and fresh market," said Saleem VI, the group general manager for Emke. He is overseeing the Dh1.2 billion (US$326.7m) mall project. "But prices will not be high; the price will be as usual. But the environment will be five-star."
Customers entering the fresh market will pass large aquariums on their way to a wide lane with merchants along each side. Chandeliers will hang from high ceilings. There will be 74 stalls for fishmongers, with built-in cold storage and cleaning areas, Mr Saleem says. The market will also have about 60 fruit and vegetable stalls. The Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority will have an on-site office at the market, and its inspectors will help ensure hygiene and quality standards, he said.
"This is modern, it is smell-free," Mr Saleem says. "We are treating the air and the ventilation system is good. It will be 100 per cent air conditioned, especially in the fish area." One things patron of the Mina Zayed fish market might miss at the new location is the aroma of fresh seafood on the grill. Plans for cooking facilities have not been completed, says Mr Saleem. The owner of Sharcol Grills cooking station at Mina Zayed says a move to Al Mushrif would be too costly. Wasim, who declined to give his last name, says the rental rate he was quoted for the market at the new mall was Dh250,000 (US$68,065) a year, compared with the Dh50,000 he pays.
"It's very expensive," says Wasim, who adds that his shop was one of the first to open when he started the business in 1989. But Mr Saleem says the rents would be much lower than Wasim's quote. Wasim says he hopes to move his cooking operation to the new port opposite Saadiyat. But Mr Mansouri says it has not yet been decided whether the cooking stalls would be part of that new market. "If it is there, it will not be like this," he says. "It will be modern."
But the Mina Zayed market has its fans. Ayman Ibrahim, an executive at the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, says he likes the grit and character that has built up in the market over time and it cannot be "commodified". He comes regularly to the Fish and Grills corner cooking stall for a lunch of fish and prawns, cooked Egyptian style in the oven. "This feels like something that belongs here," he says.
Mr Mansouri says the new market will be built in an Islamic style to reflect the country's heritage. "The design within the fish market will also be traditional," he says. While Mr Mansouri agrees that the capital's cultural treasures should be preserved, the fish market needs major improvements and repairs. But to rework the site would require disrupting the capital's fish trade. "If we want to keep this one, how can we develop it?" he says. "We have to shift to another place. If you want to improve it, you must shift everything to another place. That means you will stop all the fishing."
Also, he points out, this market was not the capital's first. "This is not an old castle," Mr Mansouri says. "Even this fish market, it's new. If you go back about 19 years, its new - not 80 years or 100 years old So what will I miss? When you are shifting from old houses to new houses, you would be happy." email@example.com