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New rules for 'scruffy' shops drive the little guy off the island

Scruffy little shops doing scruffy little jobs are at the heart of the community

A man I know, who has been living in Abu Dhabi for nearly 45 years, will complete packing his bags at the end of this week, and will return home to Kerala. He is not particularly looking forward to it - he has spent most of his life here and has made a comfortable living, allowing him to support his family at home and to educate his son, who for several years has been working with him in Abu Dhabi.

My acquaintance feels that he has little choice. The small shop he has run for years, selling groceries and the like, is no longer commercially viable.

This is not because of any decline in business, loss of customers or sudden increase in rent. He has coped with all of those over the years. Rather, what has driven him out of business is an instruction from the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, part of its drive to upgrade the standards of little shops such as his, that he must make extensive changes to its layout and fittings.

He estimates that this would cost him about Dh130,000. That's more than his annual profit, and he has decided that it's simply not worth it. I don't know if anyone else will take over the shop and make the necessary investment. That would, at best, be a tough struggle.

If not, then this street of perhaps 500 families and 50 or so little businesses will lose the convenience of having a small shop within easy reach, open from 7am until midnight, seven days a week.

Much of the business will go to similar little shops a bit further away, although some of those too may be working out whether they can afford the cost of the refurbishment.

In any case, the street where my acquaintance had his shop is losing an important part of the community.

I can understand the desire of the municipal authorities to upgrade the standards of small shops, some of which certainly can do with some improvement. But I wonder, sometimes, whether sufficient account is taken of the probable effect of the changes that are being requested, not just in terms of the continued commercial viability of the outlets concerned, but also on the community the shops served.

Such issues are not, of course, limited only to little grocery shops. Consider the new rules for automobile servicing. Any Abu Dhabi car owner knows it has become more difficult to get maintenance work done on the island.

The big service centres were instructed to move to Musaffah years ago. Now, little repair shops, even places where you go simply to get your air-conditioning fluid topped up, are being told to do the same.

A full-service valet cleaning? Go to Musaffah. An oil change? Go to Musaffah (or pay more at an Adnoc station).

A friend of mine recently needed to do a bit of carpentry. He was expected to go to Musaffah to have the wood he needed cut for him. Instead, he eventually found someone in a backstreet on the island who was prepared to break the rules to provide the wood he needed.

To have major industrial activity confined to Musaffah makes sense - but surely, it makes equally good sense to allow for relatively minor work on vehicles to be undertaken in the heart of the city. That saves time, irritation and expense, especially if a car has to be driven out and left overnight, necessitating two journeys in two vehicles.

I'm at a loss to understand the logic behind the efforts to push more and more artisanal activity out of Abu Dhabi city to Musaffah. The only motive I can think of is that this is being done in pursuit of an unstated goal of a tidy city, without scruffy little shops doing noisy little jobs.

Yet those scruffy shops doing their noisy jobs perform an essential service - and should have their place in Abu Dhabi, as in any other city.

I hope that they, like the little grocery shops, will continue to have their place. We need them among us alongside the fancy showrooms and well-appointed malls.


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture


Editor's note: an earlier version of this story said incorrectly that the food-shop requirements were being imposed by the Municipality. In fact the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority is the responsible agency.

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