As befits an island city, Abu Dhabi's history is inextricably linked with the sea. But while the pearl divers may have gone, the capital's fishing industry is thriving. There is no better place to see this than at the Abu Dhabi fish market. To arrive in the mid to late morning, when the market is in full swing, is to see only half the story. I wanted to know the rest, so one evening, I went to bed early and set the alarm for 4.45am.
I arrived at the port before dawn to watch the daily auction of fish, fresh off the boats, before they were taken to the market. The fishermen - just back after three or four days at sea and wrapped up against the cold in traditional wizaars around their waists and hamadaniyas around their heads - unloaded their catch from wooden dhows on to a concrete jetty, carefully arranging the fish. By my rough calculations, there were some 10,000 fish and crab laid out in neat columns. Each of the approximately 20 columns contained about 40 rows, and in each row there were three wicker baskets, each containing three to five fish, depending on their size.
According to Mohammed Hassan al Marzouqi, one of the auctioneers at the market, 10 dhows had come in, bringing with them a good haul. "We can have anywhere between three and 12 boats come in," he said. Al Marzouqi learnt to fish with his father when he was eight years old. "He tied a leather strap around my wrist and around his so I wouldn't roll off the boat when I slept at night," he said. He takes his own boat out to fish now, but also works at the market, where he is a popular and respected auctioneer.
After morning prayers, there was a burst of activity. A huddle of about 15 men moved noisily along one of the columns. The auction had begun. It was al Marzouqi's day off but he was pressed to take over as auctioneer. "I look at the fish, how many kilos it is, how long it has been on ice, and I make a price," he explained. "The price then goes up in tens of dirhams and the person bidding the most takes the fish."
The purchasers, about seven men, gathered in a circle around the first lot of six baskets of sheri, and al Marzouqi began the bidding. What followed would not have seemed out of place in the finest art auction houses. The bidders subtly scratched their brows, tugged their earlobes or almost imperceptibly raised a finger to indicate their price. As the price climbed higher, so did the tension, sometimes spilling into shouting as the purchasers tried to outbid each other.
The sun rose as we worked our way down the column, auctioning the fish off type by type: hammour, crab, gabut, feskar, and even the relatively scarce and expensive (but, Al Marzouqi informed me, "delicious") halwayo. Men followed, gathering up the wicker baskets of sold fish and slinging fish into larger baskets, which were loaded on to wheelbarrows and tipped into plastic crates at the side of the jetty.
Al Marzouqi explained that the bidders might be from the Fishermen's Co-operative Society, traders with tables in the fish market, or from restaurants or private houses. Once in the crates, the fish were loaded on to flatbed trucks or taken straight into the fish market. The market is managed by the Fishermen's Co-operative Society, which was founded by Sheikh Zayed in 1989 to support fishermen, help them secure loans for their boats, and to ensure they had a good income.
The co-operative still acts to help the fishermen, explained Ali Obaid al Zaabi from the co-operative committee. "The price of rope and nets has increased a lot," he said, "but we will buy from outside and pass them on at a good price to the fishermen." It also owns two ice factories near the fish market and offers the fishermen and stallholders favourable rates for ice. From 1989 until 1994 the turnover of the fish market was Dh 1.5 million a day, al Zaabi said. Now it is even more. In 1994, the market was opened to other sellers and the Fishermen's Co-operative Society now only has three of the market's nearly 80 stalls. The co-operative's stalls are used to regulate prices and set price ceilings, while the remaining stalls are rented to individuals.
Outside the market, yellow-boiler-suited porters wait with empty baby baths to follow customers round and carry their fish. The building does not look beautiful - it is functional and anonymous from the outside. But inside, it is bright and airy and filled with chatter and banter. The fish sellers, the majority of whom are from Kerala in southern India, chat with each other and invite customers to look at their fish, but they don't stalk or hassle. Cleaners employed by Abu Dhabi Municipality are constantly mopping the floor.
"Twenty years ago there was no ice here," remembers Mohamed Sharief, who has been working at the market for 24 years. "But then the Municipality came and changed that. Now it is a very nice market, very clean." Shammer Poolakanni, from Kerala, has worked in the fish market for seven years. His biggest sellers are hammour and sheri. "All these are from Abu Dhabi," he sweeps his arm across his beautifully arranged table. "Only the shrimps are not. They are from Oman, Pakistan, India."
Customers start arriving from about 8.00am. One is Fateu Herzalla, who is originally from Jordan but has lived in the UAE for 14 years. She is buying fish for the youngest of her six children. "It is all very fresh. In the supermarket you can only buy for one price. Here there is choice - this is good." "I want to buy fresh fish and, at the same time, at good prices," explains Christina Veloso, who comes to the market every day to buy fish for her restaurant, Oriental Corner, near the Al Mariah Cinema. "It's very clean and you find everything here. The stallholders all know me. I don't just go to one stall, I go around all the stalls to get the best deal."
Al Marzouqi gives me a crash course in how to spot the freshest fish. "First, check the eyes - they should not have white in them. If they do, it will be one or two days old. Next, test the firmness of the flesh. If it is strong, like here" - he presses the back of his hand - "it is fresh. If it is soft, like here" - he presses the underside of his arm - "it is not fresh." The final test is to check the colour behind the gills. "This should be red, not brown."
In one day of trading at the fish market, 90 per cent of the fish will be sold. By closing time, only five or six of the tables will still have fish on display. Whatever is not sold is put in an icebox until the next day. Such is the demand for fish in Abu Dhabi that six or seven vans come down from Dubai every day, laden with extra fish. Once you have bought your fish you can take it to the far side of the market, where men in red overalls will clean and gut, or even fillet, it for a small fee. Fish scales fly everywhere as the men de-scale at lightning speed. From here you can take your purchase round to the other side of the market, to one of the many restaurants that will cook it for you, and pop in to the greengrocers to buy the vegetables to accompany it.
In June 2007, the Government announced that it was building a new fish, meat and vegetable market in Abu Dhabi, which was intended to be operational by the middle of this year. The project is being developed and operated by Line Investments and Property LLC, which is owned by the same company that owns the Lulu Hypermarkets chain. The new fish market will have a common fish cleaning area and an international standard processing plant. Work started a year ago and it is now expected to be completed by January 2010. The market will be comprised of 75 fish shops, 90 meat shops and 60 vegetable shops, as well as a hypermarket, a food court and a family entertainment hall. There will be parking for 3,500 cars.
The current fish market will be replaced by a leisure and entertainment district with three hotels offering a total of 1,200 luxury rooms. At the centre of the $3 billion (Dh11bn) development will be the MGM Grand Abu Dhabi. Mubadala will work with MGM Mirage (itself part-owned by Dubai World) to redevelop 50 acres. The project is expected to be completed in 2012 and is part of the development that includes Saadiyat Island and the Cultural District.
Soon this part of daily life in Mina Port will fade to a memory as the fish market moves to a new food market in central Abu Dhabi, the exact location of which has not yet been disclosed. The downtown Abu Dhabi of 2012 will be a very different place than it is today. But for now, if you want a taste of the old Abu Dhabi, pop down to Mina Port and buy yourself some of the freshest fish around.