x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Don't let Abu Dhabi's future bury its past

I have no objection to fine new buildings (although I wish more reflected an authentic Arabian architectural tradition), and I welcome, for example, the user-friendly gardens along the Corniche. But I fear that in a year or two Abu Dhabi will become a city that has virtually nothing left of its heritage.

When I first came to Abu Dhabi nearly 34 years ago, much of the town, then well on its way to becoming a city, was one great building site. I remember filming the construction of what is still known as the Tourist Club area (though the Club itself has gone) and counting more than 100 tower cranes hard at work before I decided to stop counting. Scattered around the growing town, though, were places and buildings that had some real character, redolent of the early days of oil-fuelled development and before that - when Abu Dhabi was little more than a couple of coastal fishing villages, one in the Bateen area, near the Central Bank, and one around the Qasr al-Hosn (the Old Fort) and the British Embassy.

Over the years I have watched those places and buildings disappear. The old grand mosque, the Mosque of the Otaibas, a magnificent piece of traditional architecture that had no parallel in the region, was one of the first to go. Opposite the British Embassy, its site is now graced by the Sheikh Khalifa Mosque: a fine enough building, but not really very Emirati in terms of its architecture. Many of the small mosques, without minarets, that could be found in the Bateen area or along the Corniche first disappeared behind walls apparently built to hide them from view, as though they were not worthy of a modern city: and then they too disappeared. The little houses in the Madinat Zayed area, set amid a warren of dusty lanes, were much younger - they dated from the early development of the 1960s - but they too have now gone, and along with them any feeling of a village-type atmosphere anywhere in the capital.

On the western side of the island, in the Bateen area, the boatyard where traditional wooden dhows were built by hand, using age-old techniques, has fallen foul of the property developers. Near by, the sheltered inlets near the Central Bank where fishermen used to moor their dhows, and where I used to moor mine when I had one nearly 30 years ago, are slated for yet another expensive development project of hotels, marinas and luxury apartments. The beach near by, where friends and I used to catch crabs in a net and barbecue them, now has a multi-storey tower block.

There's little enough left of the Abu Dhabi of the 1980s, let alone of the 1970s, 1960s and earlier. The only old buildings that most people see are the Qasr Al Hosn - repainted and refurbished so many times that one wonders how much of the original remains - and the little watchtower at the Maqta Bridge, although there may be one or two more tucked away behind high walls somewhere. Even graveyards are not immune: two of which I am aware, once slumbering behind walls and surrounded by belts of trees, have also been affected. Both have had their surrounding woodlands removed, with a luxury villa development completed around one and a new villa complex under construction around the other.

Now, as The National reported last week, the fish market at Mina Zayed is to be demolished. In its place will be a luxury development, and there are plans for a fancy new fish market at the other end of the island, many kilometres from the centre of town. A spokesman for the developer responsible, the Emke Group, was quoted as saying: "We want to alleviate the idea of the old souq. It [the new market)] is going to be trendy, a five-star fishmarket."

I'm sorry, but I don't want a "trendy" fishmarket. The existing one isn't very old: it moved there only 19 years ago from the previous site near the Old Souk in the centre of town (now also demolished), but it has some character to it. It smells of fish - well, so it should! It's adjacent to the wharf where the fishing boats come in and opposite another wharf with scruffy trading dhows that ply the waters of the Gulf and further afield (where, I wonder, will they be sent? To another facility far away from the city?). It's full of battered old fishermen, including a few Emiratis, following a trade that they and their forebears have pursued for generations. And it's full of life-in-the-raw, too - not hygienic, antiseptic modernity.

That's what a fish market should be: close to the water, with working fishing boats and other boats near by, close to town so that it's an easy drive to get there, a place where residents of the capital can buy their fresh fish and where visitors can go to get something of an idea of the way in which the lifestyle of Abu Dhabi's inhabitants, for thousands of years, has been intimately linked to the sea.

I understand the value of seafront property and the attraction of living in a villa or apartment close to the shore, if one can afford it. But is it really necessary to remove absolutely everything from the past that occupies a prime plot of waterfront, and, in so doing, to break the last links that the city of today has with its origins? Before long, I fear, the only place in Abu Dhabi where people can go to get a glimpse of the past will be the Heritage Village near Marina Mall. It does a good job, as it happens, but it's essentially a pastiche, created for visitors who know nothing, rather than an authentic representation of days gone by.

I have no objection to fine new buildings (although I wish more reflected an authentic Arabian architectural tradition), and I welcome, for example, the user-friendly gardens along the Corniche. But I fear that in a year or two Abu Dhabi will become a city that has virtually nothing left of its heritage. And then how on earth are young Emiratis and others living in this fine modern city to understand anything at all about its origins? Through audiovisual displays?

Peter Hellyer is a writer and consultant specialising in the UAE's heritage and environment. He has also written extensively on the country's social, political and economic development