Among the many new neighbourhoods that have sprung up on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, seemingly straight out of the sand, there is one that maintains a low profile yet has a surprising amount of charm.
Al Bahia, also known as New Bahia or Lower Bahia, is officially part of the Shahama area along the junction between the E10 and E11 highways. Whereas Shahama is reasonably well known, Al Bahia, located just behind it, still leaves many taxi drivers scratching their heads.
About 10 minutes by car from Abu Dhabi International Airport, this community is accessible from the bridge of Exit 39. It is scenic, quiet and well spaced out, with clusters of shops, elegant mosques and a coastal strip boasting expansive mangrove plantations. Its long streets of Government funded villas are broken up by wide sandy areas (great for dog owners) and patches of greenery.
The air vibrates with the call to prayer and the curving coast is dotted with residents enjoying some amateur fishing as local kids kick a ball around on the sand. There is no doubt about it: Al Bahia offers a good cure for stress.
Ahmed Bahaa, an Egyptian graphic designer who rents in the area, says that he enjoys the tranquillity and the convenience: "I have lived in the city and the main problem is the parking costs. Living here it only takes me 25 minutes to reach the Corniche and when I get home I am coming to a nice relaxing place. I can easily visit Raha Beach and Yas Island, which are both great, or be at Mall of the Emirates in Dubai in less than an hour."
Property agents are responding to the increasing interest in out-of-town areas such as Al Bahia and Khalifa City A and B, and predict it is a trend that will continue. "With many companies relocating out of the city, people are looking to be closer to work and these areas offer good value rental properties and more and more services and facilities, such as the hotels on Yas Island and international schools in the vicinity," says Andrea Menown, a leasing manager at LLJ Property in Abu Dhabi.
As a western expatriate who has taken the unusual step of moving to a predominately Arab community such as Al Bahia, I have personally discovered it pays to step out of your comfort zone - especially if you came to the Middle East to actually feel like you are in the Middle East. It means you can rent a three-bedroom, villa-style property with a garden for the same price as a standard city apartment - a fact that more and more "outsiders" are slowly catching on to.
Although Al Bahia is mainly an Emirati community, a growing group of foreigners is setting up home here, and they are prepared for the inquisitive stares that come with being a minority curiosity. The area is home to a smattering of Americans, Britons and Japanese, plus expatriates from surrounding Middle Eastern countries.
Common sense tells you to dress more conservatively on the street and there is no doubt that some cultural adjustment is required, but I have lost count of the number of strangers who have called out hello to me or waved from a car window. There is also a community of Filipina maids who are always up for a gossip as you bump into each other at the end of the day. Having previously lived in Dubai for three years, I had forgotten what it feels like to chat to the neighbours.
Day-to-day life in Al Bahia is certainly slow paced, but lying behind the high-walled villas and sleepy-looking shop fronts is a vibrant group of residents. One hive of activity, well out of view, is Lulu (Pearl) Beauty Parlour owned by the savvy local businesswoman Ayam Sayeed Rasheed. Here, the hairdresser Mary Kamanthe and the beautician Glenda M'Putong perform a variety of treatments including henna painting, Moroccan baths and manicures while their female customers share the latest news with friends.
Mary, from Kenya, has been working and living in Al Bahia for three years and says the community is thriving: "When I first came here there were no customers. To even see people on the street was very surprising. But now it is the best place to live," she says. "I like to live in quiet, peaceful places. It is not like the city."
Glenda, from the Philippines, says she enjoys the friendly nature of the customers: "I like it here because it is so quiet and the people are nice and very kind. Everyone here is so patient compared to other places I have worked."
Mary says that one difficulty she and Glenda face is the relative remoteness of Al Bahia, which makes getting around difficult. "The problem we have here is getting taxis. Transportation is not perfect. There are buses but you have to know the timings. If you miss one you have to wait another two hours."
For now this is still very much an Emirati community, and one that is protective of the way of life the families enjoy. Qasem al Jassasi has lived in the UAE all his life and in Al Bahia for four years with his wife and three children. He says life is good because the area is safe, clean and quiet: "We are lucky because of the way the villas are spaced out. There is room to move and room to create a big garden on the land you have, meaning you can make a real home for your family."
He sees the gradual influx of foreigners to the neighbourhood as a good thing, but says that more community facilities are needed to meet everyone's needs. "I know there are plans for all over Abu Dhabi going right up to 2030 but what we need here right now are things like doctors, surgeries, a good shopping complex, a better public transport system and a proper public beach that everyone can enjoy. These are simple things that will make life even better." He adds that the young people need modern recreational areas such as football pitches and parks to keep them off the streets and that the bottlenecked road leading from the motorway is dangerous and should be widened to stop accidents.
Indeed, it does feel that Al Bahia, as pretty as it is, is in need of the same focus that nearby Shahama has enjoyed. Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council has been working on plans for the area for some time and new announcements are expected soon.
For now, Al Bahia is evolving slowly. The residents enjoy an unhurried way of life with plenty of room to breathe and create their own little worlds. Strangers are more than welcome, but change for change's sake is kept at arm's length.
"I have lived nearly everywhere in the UAE, from Al Ain through to Dubai," al Jassasi says, "but I am going to stay where I am. Al Bahia is definitely the best."
For Al Bahia bus routes and transport information visit www.abudhabi.ae
Al Bahia should not be confused with the older, adjacent Al Bahya City.
A trip to Dubai can be done in around 40 minutes, Abu Dhabi city about 30 minutes.
Two-bedroom villas cost from Dh50,000, three-bedroom villas from Dh70,000 and four-bedroom villas from Dh125,000.
Many royal residences are located on the mainland and on a few of the nearby islands, which are accessible by boat.
The area runs parallel to Yas Island, making an evening out in one of the glamorous spot's restaurants or nightclubs easy. Taxi fare from Al Bahia to the island is around Dh15.
Organic fruit and vegetables grown on Al Bahia's farms are sold in the local grocers.