x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Car window tinting shops of Dubai's Satwa area are rusting away

Satwa is known for its cheap garages and parts, but Imthishan Giado finds business isn't what it used to be.

Need a string of LED lights for your ride? You'll find them for a good price in Satwa, but lately fewer and fewer car owners are using the small shops there to modify their motors. Jaime Puebla / The National
Need a string of LED lights for your ride? You'll find them for a good price in Satwa, but lately fewer and fewer car owners are using the small shops there to modify their motors. Jaime Puebla / The National

No matter where you turn, there is no escape from the piercing vision of the Burj Khalifa's sparkling lights. At night, they cut through even the deepest fog, illuminating the night skies, defining the cityscape from a distance as only the world's tallest building should. They draw tourists and locals like a beacon to the many attractions nestled at its foot, including the much-admired Dubai Mall.

But relatively few are aware that just a few kilometres away in the mini-suburb of Satwa lies a thriving community of restaurants. The streets are teeming with people, as well as a whole host of cut-price garages and accessory shops that have served the UAE's modification scene for the last two decades. Except that these shops are, for the first time, in real danger of disappearing entirely.

For the uninitiated, finding the "real" Satwa is not entirely straightforward - and for the longest time, it may have seemed like Dubai preferred it that way. Technically, the district stretches right up to the edge of Safa Park, encompassing all the terrain behind the glamour of the Downtown area of Sheikh Zayed Road.

What most would recognise as the real Satwa, however, is the area surrounding the Satwa bus station, a roughly 1.5km-long section enclosed within a rectangular loop of road, ringed by shops and restaurants for the city's working-class inhabitants. That term is in no way a knock to the neighbourhood; indeed, the surrounding area has a long and proud history of cheap housing in the form of government colonies, but most are long gone, the once graffiti-clad walls replaced with the growing tendrils of gentrification as low-rise blocks gradually eat away at the graceful decay.

Visit the loop by day, battering through the choking traffic snarl that slowly sludges round and round in an eternal Möbius strip and you might wonder what the fuss is all about. The small space and tight streets hemmed in by buildings mean there's nowhere for air and engine fumes to go, there's precious little shade and the omnipresent toot of impatient horns quickly grate.

By night, however, it's a different story. The traffic is no better - maybe even a tiny bit worse, to be honest - but the area comes to life with hundreds of people thronging the streets after work. Some are looking for a good deal on some commemorative knick-knacks, other simply for a cheap bite to eat. But if you have a car and willingly choose to drive into the traffic morass, then there's only one main reason to come to Satwa - to fix it or modify it as cheaply as possible.

Satwa's many automotive parts shops aren't strictly garages in the proper sense of the word. They won't do regular maintenance such as oil changes or replacing wear and tear items like shocks or brake pads. Shops here sell items ranging from the mundane - stickers, perfumes and seat covers - to full-on bodykits, LED upgrades and complete stereo systems. Spoilers and bullbars hang from the walls like slain trophies, right next to swatches of fake fur for your seats. Want completely new upholstery for your tatty old SUV? No problem, just hand over Dh500, your keys and give it four hours.

The installers will work on any car - a brand new Kia Sportage was receiving LEDs as I walked in - but they cater chiefly to Japanese cars, with the most popular parts being for the Toyota Land Cruiser and Nissan Patrol. With those cars in mind, the clientele is traditionally Emirati, although Filipino expats are more commonly found these days.

But the bread and butter of the Satwa scene is window-tinting - and that's due to the price. Go to a major tint dealer such as V-Kool or an installer such as Yellowhat, and you will not be left with much change from Dh1,000 to fit a complete set of tints at the legally allowed 30 per cent - but here, in the backstreets, a saloon car costs just Dh300. Even big SUVs rarely cost more than Dh500.

Tint quality varies, so it's best to inquire about the place of manufacture. "German" tints are the best (and most expensive) while "USA" tints are the least fancied. Look closely at the anonymous boxes these tint rolls come in, however, and you would struggle to find a listed manufacturing location. Fitment quality is also erratic and warranty, such as it were, is largely nonexistent. In many cases, it's down to the consumer being able to spot bubbles or flaws in the tint within a day and then returning to get it refitted by the predominantly Iranian sales staff and workmen.

In fact, Iranians rule the modification scene here in Satwa, languidly waiting outside each shop in fading white plastic chairs for business. One such example is Ali Behrani; he's been working at Satwa Star for more than 10 years, installing tints and electronics, though he never received any formal training. But that hasn't stopped him from learning at least four languages - English, Hindi, Arabic and now Tagalog - to communicate with his customers.

"We learnt everything back in Iran, where they know all about these things," he recalls. "Coming here, it's easy to pick it up. Film, carpets, audio, sound systems, CD players - we do it all."

What about the belief that Satwa is where the darkest tints can be found, far beyond the legal limit? Ali is loathe to admit that he offers them, but grudgingly says that local customers will rarely ask for less than 50 per cent to 70 per cent.

"He'll go up to 100 per cent if you need him to," laughs a customer in the shop, who declines to be identified but says he has been patronising the area for many years now. "I've known them for quite some time, over 10 years, so I get a good price. From a dealer, I would be charged 30 per cent to 50 per cent more for the same item."

But despite the deals and the loyalty, things are not as they seem in Satwa. The summer months were, in the past, the peak season for the tint market, but business has steadily been declining.

Jamal Farzan, another assistant at the shop, explains that, except for a dogged few businesses, sales are on the slide. "Look how many shops there are out here, and now it's hard to get any business at all," he says. "In the old days, there were up to 15 cars a day, but these days we are lucky to get two or three a day."

"When there's no business, we have nothing to do but spend our day sitting on the street, waiting for the cars that never come," he says, bitterly.

Usually, the sticker craze of National Day provides a guaranteed boost to income, as Emiratis and expats alike flock to decorate their cars in as outlandish a manner as possible. But not this year, says Ali.

"On National Day, everyone went to Ajman, where it is cheaper to do their stickers. You should go and ask those guys why they are taking our business. Here we charge Dh50 for a sticker and they are willing to drive all the way to Ajman, wasting their petrol, to do the same sticker for Dh30. But it's not just one photo - they cover the car - so, eventually, there is a lot to be saved."

"People have money here in Dubai, but it's not like before when they would just walk in and spend hundreds of dirhams. Today, everyone is cautious," adds Jamal.

For Ali, Jamal and the other men of this busy neighbourhood, the long winter nights are an unyielding curse, a Sisyphean nightmare in which they spend the evenings idly watching hundreds, if not thousands, of cars drive by, none of which stop to purchase their wares. And yet, neither man is willing to quit on this harsh life.

"After a man has been here for 10 to 15 years and has got used to doing the same work, day in, day out, what other job could he do? There's no use looking for another job, and no use leaving," says Ali, grimly.