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Motorway mall to put Abu Dhabi towns on the map

For drivers of the 100,000 cars making their daily trip between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, a cluster of landmarks identifies the dusty junction at Al Shahama and Al Bahia, 30 kilometres outside Abu Dhabi, where the E11 joins the E10.

Most visible is the battered arcade of shops and flats that runs for two kilometres along the motorway, buffering the scattered schools and houses of New Shahama from the incessant noise of the Sheikh Zayed Road.

Most useful is a shining Adnoc Oasis, a 24-hour source of fuel, food, and a popular rendezvous for young men and women of the area who gather there before disappearing into the night in their 4x4s and customised saloons.

But most anticipated is Deerfields Townsquare, the latest addition to Abu Dhabi's burgeoning retail landscape and a mall that local residents hope will finally deliver the kind of shopping, dining and leisure facilities they have lacked.

"I have sat in local majlises and I know people have been waiting for this," says Al Bahia resident Ali Bakhaswain.

"The people in Old and New Shahama want entertainment, somewhere to drink coffee, somewhere for their kids. This place has been almost five years under construction. It will be much in demand."

The shopping centre has been a long time coming, having been launched by a subsidiary of the Al Fahim Group at Cityscape Abu Dhabi in 2008.

The original intention was to take advantage of a location close to Abu Dhabi International Airport to lure tourists to a Dh1 billion development of hotels, residential accommodation and commercial property.

This first incarnation featured a theme designed to evoke the glamour of the Victorian period complete with stained glass, gilded domes and an aviary, but the scheme more than doubled the developer's budget. Soon after, the global economic downturn kicked in.

The Victorian theme has since been ditched, the total leasable space reduced from 130,000 square metres to just over 80,000, and the focus of the mall changed completely.

Deerfields Townsquare now calls itself a community mall, with mid-market brands and facilities to appeal to locals, including a Carrefour hypermarket, a food court, cinema and a family entertainment centre.

Even more than the brands, the communal facilities appeal most to local residents such as Mr Bakhaswain.

"But the name of the mall is no good," he says. "I am educated to master's level and the word is very difficult for me. Most people here are typically local and they ignore the name. They only say Carrefour."

Even among local shopkeepers who might reasonably be concerned about losing customers to a 162-store behemoth on their doorstep, expectations are high.

For Mohammed Shareef, manager of Abu Shareef grocery, the opening of Deerfields Townsquare could become an engine for growth and turn Al Shahama and Al Bahia neighbourhoods into a destination.

"I am not worried about the future," Mr Shareef says. "When the mall opens many people will come. It will be good for me."

When his father opened the grocery 20 years ago, it was the first of its type in New Shahama.

In expectations of a brighter future, Mr Shareef Jr has just spent Dh350,000 renovating the shop to ensure its compliance with the new municipality standards on groceries and food safety.

"For me and the UAE I want growth but I don't understand why this has not happened here," he says, as he oversees the installation of lighting above his shop.

"For 20 years there were no new buildings here but now we have this mall. I have to think of the future and the future, inshallah, will be good."

In the parts of the long New Shahama arcade that aren't derelict, other shop owners have also started to renovate and improve.

Mahmoud Nadamal sells Arabic sweets and cakes. His customers are mostly Emirati families drawn almost exclusively from the neighbourhoods around Al Shahama.

Mr Nadamal opened his first shop two years ago and has just opened a second, Sweet Gallery, in the same arcade.

Sweet Gallery's new yellow sign exudes confidence, as does Mr Nadamal, but it is a confidence tempered by his experiences at his other shops in Abu Dhabi City and Mafraq Mall in Baniyas.

More than anything else, he believes the impact of the new Deerfields Townsquare will be limited because of the cultural preferences of local residents.

"I believe that the people who live in this area are more traditional and that they like shopping in the market and in smaller shops," Mr Nadamal says. "I have seen this happen in Baniyas. I get more business here."

For Mohammed Masalema, an assistant agricultural engineer who lives and works in Al Ajban farm area east of Al Rahba, smaller local outlets offer convenience and a degree of trust built on a more personal relationship between shop owner and customer.

"Most people here go to small shops," says Mr Masalema. "In my head, I may need three or four items but when you go to Carrefour you see so many things, and then they move their items.

"That is the idea of the big markets. They can make you take things you do not need. When you go to the small shops, you go, you get your target and you leave."

As with many local residents, Rosanna di Giuseppe, an Italian hairdresser, is looking forward to the social and the entertainment options Deerfields Townsquare promises to provide.

The mall will feature a "family entertainment centre" where she plans to take her children.

But Mrs di Giuseppe also admits that her existing shopping habits will be hard to break.

She and her family have lived in Al Bahia for the past four years and she says she has developed shopping habits similar to her Emirati neighbours.

"I love the smaller shops in Shahama," Mrs di Giuseppe says. "If I need some material, I wave with my hand and somebody comes to my car.

"If they cannot speak English, I draw what I need on a piece of paper and they get it. I love the fact that the people know me there."

With Ibn Battuta Mall less than 45 minutes away by car, the drive to Dubai is usually preferable to a trip to Abu Dhabi for Mrs di Giuseppe.

But if she cannot manage the journey, a trip to the local stores always seems to suffice.

"You can get all the normal things that you need only a daily basis, and some of the more unusual things as well," she says.

"I was looking for swimming armbands for my two-year-old. I looked everywhere in the city - Carrefour, Ace Hardware, Marina Mall - but I couldn't get them anywhere, so I went to Shahama and I found them."

The opening of Deerfields Townsquare promises to herald something more than Al Shahama's somewhat belated arrival on Abu Dhabi's retail map.

Despite the problem that some members of the local community may have with its name, Deerfields Townsquare does at least contain the seed of what members of the local community say they most desperately need - somewhere they can meet, socialise and take their children.

The mall may also provide the residents of Al Shahama and Al Bahia with a renewed sense of community and identity, a real town square and a focus, if not quite yet a heart.


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