ABU DHABI // Groceries have been given an extra six months to meet new hygiene and safety rules.
Hundreds of shops were closed by the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority on January 1 after failing to meet the regulations, which cover refrigeration, shelving and decor.
The authority insisted last week that no extensions would be granted but said it would exercise leniency with shops that intended to renovate.
It has now told groceries they must register for renovations by March 6 and will get until June 30 to make the necessary changes.
"Now is the chance for them to change and we're looking forward to seeing others follow," said Mohamed Jalal Al Rayssi, the authority's communications director.
"This means we are keeping the door open for registration for the new standards because we saw a lot of people who approached us once the deadline was up.
"We would like to give support to those shop owners and give them the opportunity to come in and start working. They have to be ready for new business operations by June 30."
Shops that have not upgraded by June 30 will be closed indefinitely.
To help owners make the changes, the authority is providing free consultations on the steps needed to turn a shop into a baqala store – the new brand for independent groceries.
"The team explains to them the standards, they give them advice and tell them how to manage their space," said Mr Al Rayssi.
"It's basically trying to guide them and give them approval for each stage of the transformation."
When the project was launched, the committee estimated the cost of refurbishing a shop would be between Dh165,000 and Dh220,000 for a 55-square-metre shop.
They have since revised that figure down to between Dh93,500 and Dh137,500, thanks largely to the greater number of contractors now available to carry out the work, of which there are 107.
Mr Al Rayssi said that "rumours about expensive changes" were not true. "Prices are less and changes are easy to do," he added.
So far, more than 60 per cent of the total grocery retail space in Abu Dhabi has completed renovations or is in the process of meeting the new standards, amounting to 32,000sqm – almost 600 55sqm shops.
The authority is still "waiting" to determine the number that have closed.
News of the extension has come as a relief to shopkeepers and residents alike.
Faisal Abdul Kadir, owner of Golden Night Supermarket near Muroor Road, expects his shop to be refurbished and back in business next week.
But he said the extension was "a great idea".
"Most shop owners want more time," he said. "It usually takes time to register, find a contractor then give them your documents.
This all takes a lot of time."
Once contractors get the shop owner's documents, they must submit them to the authority for approval.
"The approval can take two to three weeks if there is no delay," said Mr Kadir.
Work on his shop started at the beginning of last month, but others have not been so quick off the mark.
"There are still many shop owners who haven't changed or started the changes toward the new baqala brand yet," he said.
"They're waiting on the contractors."
Sani Thoombil, owner of the Hamza Mohiyadheen shop near Muroor Road, also welcomed the extension.
He said it would give him the time he needed to raise money for the renovations, which he expected to cost about Dh117,000.
"The more time we have the happier we are," he said, suggesting that owners who had already shut up shop may change their minds now they had more time.
Maher Karam, a Lebanese resident of the area, said he was glad shops had been given more time.
"Most shop owners have been there for decades so it's only fair to give them a bit more time to adjust to the new rules," he added.
* Additional reporting by Emily Cleland and Asmaa Al Hameli