x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

New rules in Abu Dhabi are changing neighbourhoods

Recent rule changes in Abu Dhabi are changing the character of some neighbourhoods.

Abu Dhabi's evolution from rags to riches has delivered many things - skyscrapers, shopping malls, universities and impressive infrastructure to name only a few outcomes - but does the price of that development also burden the capital with some unwanted legacies?

That question weighs heavily in the neighbourhood I call home, namely the part of Al Mushrif known colloquially as the Churches Area, a small patch of the capital that extends from Airport Road to Al Karamah Street and from Mohammed bin Khalifa (15th) and Al Saada (19th) Street.

In common with the rest of the city, the Churches Area is undergoing a period of transformation, albeit in a manner that is a little quieter than many more flashy parts of the capital.

The British School Al Khubairat, which sits in the heart of the block, opened a new primary school building last autumn while, next door, an extension to St Andrews Church is slowly beginning to emerge from the ground. A sports pitch, added to a corner of the large car park that serves the Children and Ladies Park, remains a newish addition to the suburb, and the park itself awaits its own transformation into a "People's Park" complete with a petting zoo, performing arts amphitheatre and a weekend souq. Elsewhere, one or two of the oldest villas are being refurbished or demolished, to be replaced with newer housing stock. To the uneducated eye, however, little has changed in this largely sleepy part of town.

But the winds of change have undoubtedly blown through in the past 12 months. The Churches Area, or at least the part between 15th and 17th Street was, until the first half of 2012, home to the so-called "car souq", where second-hand car dealers used to go about their business.

The dealers were rehoused in the purpose-built Motor City facility close to Abu Dhabi airport last spring, a move that dramatically improved the area's parking problems but chipped away some of its character in the process. Gone for good were the dealers' dusty inventory, complete with the occasional automotive gem. Little has yet to fill the void, a few vacant buildings are falling into decay, one or two are being refitted, but many await an uncertain future.

The neighbourhood is also coming to terms with recent rule changes imposed on the emirate's grocery shops, which require shopkeepers to modernise their stores to adhere to new standards imposed by Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA).

The cost of meeting such conditions has already forced one of the area's largest convenience stores to close and relocate to Musaffah, while another has begun a period of refurbishment. Some residents wonder whether the shop will ever reopen. Similar tales are being heard all over the capital.

All of this is emblematic of a city deep amid the throes of modernisation.

The new rules for shops have been imposed for health and safety measures and are to be applauded. The relocation of the car dealers, likewise, is to promote a safer, more controlled environment in which to search for a car, even if many of those dealers are finding it hard to adapt to their new, off-island surroundings.

What these rule changes leave behind, however, is patchwork neighbourhoods that struggle to keep up with the pace of change. Much the same debate has been played out in other parts of the world - in the UK, for instance, where the decline of the village shop has long been lamented.

The challenge for Abu Dhabi is to continue its development without losing the essence of what makes this city, this country what it is in the first place. And part of that fabric, undoubtedly, is the scruffy open-all-hours shop that sits on many street corners, serving as the unofficial heartbeat of many communities.

Sometimes, regrettably, the march of progress takes the most unexpected and unwanted turns.