x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Al Wasl: otherworldly charm

This old Dubai neighbourhood that abuts Al Safa Park traces the roots of its name right back to the 1820s.

Each day Abdul Latif sits behind the counter at Al Hajaz Supermarket in Al Wasl's Umm Amara Street and waits, often for hours, before he gets a customer: "We used to be so busy - but now," he shrugs, "maybe 10 customers a day if we are lucky." Eighteen months ago Abdul Latif and his co-workers regarded themselves as very lucky indeed. Theirs was the only building saved amid the properties that were razed to make way for the proposed Dh350 billion Jumeirah Gardens Project. To the sides and back of the supermarket the land has been cleared as far as the eye can see - and the shop now sits curiously aloof on the open ground that has gradually reverted to a sandy wasteland. "I don't know why this was the only building left standing but, although I was happy, it was sad for those who lost their homes," he says.

It's not for a lack of shops that this well-stocked little supermarket was left untouched by the bulldozers. Although the vast area it sits in lies fallow for the present, the neighbourhood - which runs south from Al Safa Road to Safa Park and east from Al Wasl Road to Sheikh Zayed Road - is fringed by a hive of commercial and municipal activity. As one of Dubai's older neighbourhoods, Al Wasl can trace the roots of its name to the 1820s, when all of Dubai was referred to as "Al Wasl" by British historians. Today, as well as the neighbourhood and the main road that runs alongside it, one of Dubai's main public hospitals and a large sports stadium - both several kilometres away - still share the old collective moniker, a fact that can be confusing for newly minted taxi drivers in the emirate.

Despite being prime real estate - it lies just across Sheikh Zayed Highway from Burj Khalifa - during the early boom years Al Wasl managed to escape the rapid building of villa compounds suffered by the surrounding areas of Jumeirah and Al Safa. This is in no small part due to the influence exerted by its many eminent local residents, many who have built mansions in expansive grounds throughout the neighbourhood. Many of the grandest line Street 55, a gorgeous palm-tree lined boulevard on the northern side of Safa Park. The proximity to the verdant oasis of the park has inspired one homeowner, whose outside space has become a shrine to the concept of the hanging flower basket, with hundreds of them packed with pansies and geraniums hanging from every available point. "It's quite an attraction at this time of year when the annual plants are out," says one regular Safa Park walker. "I can't imagine the villa's occupants get a chance to see much from behind their high walls but, even if a little over-the-top, it's certainly a talking point for people walking by."

In the neighbourhood's hinterland streets of grandiose villas are punctuated by the odd clutch of traditional Arabian houses - similar to those that were demolished en masse beyond Umm Amara Street. The developer of the Jumeirah Gardens project also has its glittering headquarters in Al Wasl - but currently the only the thing that appears to be under construction is the company's website. For more than 20 years Al Wasl's residents shared their locale with a rather more felonious faction of society. The central prison was a landmark in the area and offered some valuable neighbourhood services - especially from its carpentry division, which would supply simple tables and chairs and children's playhouses to order. Again, the land it occupied languishes, although it's surrounded by some important civic services: a large fire station and the emirate's principal police officer training facility, where hundreds of recruits also reside.

Today the neighbourhood's best known landmark is the Jumeirah branch of Emirates Post which, from its vantage point on Al Wasl Road, is a hub for thousands of Dubai residents who call by regularly to pick up mail from their PO boxes. Despite the popularity of the post office and several cosmetic alterations over the years, its size remains frustratingly small and at holiday times, queues snaking out to the small car park are not uncommon.

Emirates Post also serves as a landmark for directions to one of Dubai's most unconventional restaurants. Tucked away nearby, the Smiling BKK Thai restaurant makes the most of its discreet location with its interiors that could easily pass for an arty hangout in London's Clerkenwell or New York's Tribeca. Its only advertisement from the outside is the funky signage of a mustachioed Mona Lisa, and the eccentric theme follows through in the tiny restaurant with its fairy lights, eclectic photo collages and wonky shelving. The table mats are simply torn-out magazines pages and the handful of tables are packed every night: "The quality of the food is erratic, to say the least," admits one regular diner, "but its just one of those thrilling places that is completely off the wall - the complete antithesis to most restaurants in Dubai."

With their anti-establishment culinary requirements taken care of, Al Wasl residents have more conventional choices in and around their own shopping mall, The Mazaya Centre, a part-retail, part-residential complex. It probably had its heyday a decade ago when young, upwardly mobiles leased the first upmarket apartments the area had to offer. Still, if it's a beaded evening gown, a cheap suit or a second-hand piano Al Wasl's residents hanker after, Mazaya has it covered.

Residents dream of the day that the construction around Interchange One (previously known as Defence Roundabout) will be completed. For half a decade at least, this part of Al Wasl has been a hotchpotch of roadworks, traffic jams and open drains. When it's complete, though, the neighbourhood will be smoothly connected to Dubai Mall and the shimmering towers of the Burj Khalifa district. At present, especially when looking into the archaic, grimy supermarket and exhausted-looking catering outlet that still operate amid all the construction, the neighbourhood looks otherworldly in comparison. But really, residents must tell themselves, that is no bad thing.

Julie Barbutt, British I've lived in Al Wasl for 14 years, in the same single-storey villa. My home faces the highway and it has been extraordinary to see the Dubai skyline appear over the last decade. I know the redevelopment of this area is on indefinite hold but I feel our time here is running out; I've been saying that for the last five years but I will be very sad when it actually happens. Farid Abbas, Iranian I have worked in Mazaya Centre for six years. We used to be much busier but now we have more competition from the other malls, so it's to be expected. The residents of the building still shop here at Spinneys and at night the café is still busy, so business is still good for us and it is a great location to live and work. Hafsah Sawalha, Egyptian I live in an apartment close to the Business Bay Station walkway so have recently started commuting to work in Bur Dubai. I can't say it's any quicker but it is far less stressful. In the hotter months I will take a taxi as usual, since they are very easy to find - as is everything my family needs from day to day; we are very contented here.