x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Car dealers' mixed feelings about leaving their old parking spaces

Abu Dhabi's second-hand car dealers are finally about to move to the purpose-built Motor World near the airport, the latest in a series of changes that are incrementally and irreversibly changing life in the capital, John Henzell reports

A work in progress: Ahmed Salem Al Mansoori checks on the status of his dealership’s new air-conditioned showroom at Motor World near Abu Dhabi airport last week.
A work in progress: Ahmed Salem Al Mansoori checks on the status of his dealership’s new air-conditioned showroom at Motor World near Abu Dhabi airport last week.

Abu Dhabi's second-hand car dealers are finally about to move to the purpose-built Motor World near the airport, the latest in a series of changes that are incrementally and irreversibly changing life in the capital, John Henzell reports

For anyone landing in Abu Dhabi in a month's time, the parking spaces along Airport Road in the midtown Al Ittihad district will seem entirely unremarkable.

Aside from some remnant storefront banners with car-related titles, there will be little to hint that for more than 25 years, this was the place to buy a second-hand car in the capital from among an array of highly polished sedans and SUVs.

Instead, aspiring buyers will have to transport themselves to a purpose-built facility on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi to which more than 60 companies now doing business on Airport Road are being compelled to relocate.

It's just the latest in a series of incremental changes to life in Abu Dhabi that are quietly transforming the capital from a city with little planning or oversight into one befitting a modern metropolis.

Consider Abu Dhabi five years ago: there was no bus network, the taxis were overwhelmingly of the white-and-gold variety, traffic snarled each morning and evening on the two bridges connecting the island with the mainland, double- and triple-parking was commonplace downtown, and Saadiyat and Yas islands were projected building sites rather than destinations you could visit.

The next five years are unlikely to feature leaps forward of similar magnitude, but anyone returning in 2017 will see a city transformed: the ramshackle groceries will have been replaced by 7-Eleven-style convenience stores, automotive industries based in the tiny one-room shops now commonplace will have been moved off the island, and even storefront advertising will have been regulated to project a uniform appearance.

If the past is any guide, the initiatives variously proposed by a phalanx of the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council, the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, Abu Dhabi Municipality and the Department of Transport will involve repeated delays - but will eventually happen.

Mohammed Taimoor, general manager of Bin Hamed Al Dhaheri Cars, one of the nearly 70 companies selling cars on Airport Road between 15th and 19th streets, is accustomed to the delays since Motor World was announced in 2008 but thinks that this time, the deadline will actually happen.

"I believe it was in January 2011 that was the first plan for when we'd move. Then June and then October and then February and then April," he said.

"Now it's June 1. It was two months ago that they issued notices that everyone has to move."

On the window of his tiny one-room office on the ground floor of a residential building, as on all the car sellers' offices in the area, the municipality has put up "We have moved to Motor World" signs, even though the stated move date - May 1 - has already proven to be optimistic.

Mr Taimoor has a showroom at Motor World, a brand new facility near the airport with room for 100 used-car dealers, but the water supply is yet to be connected.

"The sentiment is that in the future it will be a wonderful place but we're going to have some tough times in the beginning, for one or two years," he said.

"The facility has no banks, restaurants, supermarkets - nothing. If you want to buy a glass of water, you have to drive one kilometre. The nearest petrol is in Khalifa City A. If you want to register a car, you have to come back to Abu Dhabi.

"You need banking, traffic department and restaurant facilities, car detailing. They are planning it but it's yet to come."

He says there are clear benefits, with cars able to be displayed inside air-conditioned showrooms rather than simply parked on the street as they are on Airport Road - but he didn't have to pay for parking his fleet of between 12 and 30 cars on the street, and he will have to pay for the space he's using in Motor World.

"I'm happy to go and I'm ready [but] everyone is concerned that the rent is slightly high," he said.

"Here we're paying Dh25,000 [for the Airport Road office]. At Motor World it's about Dh168,000 for a year.

"It needs some time. We need to establish our business. Obviously we'll be working for less money. We're worried about the cost but we think it will be a good idea."

Some have decided to shut their businesses rather than move, having been told the shift to Motor World is a condition of their car-dealing licences being renewed.

Aiad Al Jarouda, of Al Sad Cars, has been selling cars on Airport Road for 10 years but faces a rent increase from the Dh15,000 he pays now each year to Dh180,000 at Motor World, on top of which he has had to pay for fitting out the bare-shell showroom.

"It's bad, very bad," he said.

"It's very far. Nobody knows how to get there.

"I have 15 cars. I think business will be down."

Shifting the car sales businesses from Airport Road will also transform the suburb which has hosted the car showrooms for a quarter of a century. Owners of cafes, restaurants, supermarkets and groceries in the area made mixed predictions of the impact, ranging from less profit to more customers because of less congested streets.

For Imad Eid, manager of Il Forno restaurant, the shift of the car companies is compounding the already serious impact on his business of the introduction of Mawaqif's paid parking scheme three months earlier.

Paid parking did not previously apply to the parking zone facing Airport Road so customers would park there while dining or collecting a meal. When the used cars move to Motor World, it will cost customers to park anywhere near his restaurant.

"It's bad, of course, because of Mawaqif. Some customers come here to eat but if they have to pay Mawaqif, if affects my business," he said.

"If a customer picks up an order for takeaway, they leave their car for one or two minutes and an officer gives them a ticket, they don't come back. That's a big problem."

Mr Eid called on the municipality to support local businesses by providing three to five parking spaces for free for his customers.

Like many aspects of Abu Dhabi's rapid growth from barasti huts to shining skyscrapers, the used-car enclave on Airport Road was never planned but simply happened, started by a few industry pioneers who were then followed by others in the same trade.

A similar dynamic had happened throughout Abu Dhabi, explaining why Defence Road has become mobile phone central and Hamdan Street near Airport Road is the place to stock up on tourist tat.

For an idea of what changes are likely when Airport Road's car dealers have moved on, you only have to drive a few minutes to the slip road beside Salam Street between Defence (11th) and Old Passport (9th) roads.

Once this was a bustling car-industry hub with everything from repairs to new tyres to car audio and car decoration on offer. Now most of the businesses are shut, sun-bleached Abu Dhabi Municipality posters ordering their closure still stuck to their front windows and the businesses themselves having moved to Mussaffah.

Among the few that remain are places like the car audio salesroom staffed by Mohammed Nadim, although he explains that he sells only stereos here, and to get a system fitted requires a trip to their operation in Mussaffah.

Another is an automotive decal shop run by Nazru Islam. Trade has dropped so much that even though he can stay, the shop is likely to relocate to Mussaffah.

"Now it's not so busy. All the shops are closing now - closed and moved to Mussaffah, before five months," he said.

"Before then, it was busy. Now, no. [So] we're maybe moving. Maybe we'll leave in two months."

In the middle of this, Abdullah Al Nauimi arrives in a friend's FJ Cruiser to collect an item and is told that most of the companies have moved off the island.

"I think it's a good thing because this is a city, it's not for fixing cars," he said.

"I think Mussaffah is better. You won't find anything here. You have to go to Mussaffah."

The municipality made exemptions so long as the business occupied a minimum floor space and was more automated than the low-tech one-room workshops that used to predominate here.

One is Al Masaood Tyres, which is bristling with automated equipment and bustling with every bay occupied by a car.

The sales representative Sayed Morad said the strip of shops was now quieter but that meant there was more work for those that remained.

"Now 80 per cent of the [tyre] shops have left already. It went from 10 shops to two," he said.

"Business is normal. Some customers complain about the spare parts but the spare parts moved to Mussaffah. They left at the start of 2012."

The foreman Hosni Suleyman agrees.

"I think it was starting from this year. It's more busy now," he says. "Before there were more shops."