x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Workshop becomes living room

Cheaper rents are only one of the reasons driving rapid increase in residential population

A boy clears away broken glass before he and his friends start a new game on the streets of Mussaffah. Ravindranath K / The National
A boy clears away broken glass before he and his friends start a new game on the streets of Mussaffah. Ravindranath K / The National

Mussaffah's reputation as the workshop of Abu Dhabi is well known. The garages and car dealerships that dot the area do a roaring trade with motorists from all over the capital.

But aside from being somewhere to go when your vehicle breaks down, the neighbourhood is going through a change on par with the rest of the city - one new building and street at a time.

Its population is increasing as the suburb attracts a growing number of residents, many fleeing from the expensive rents of the island's older areas.

For the people who live in Mussaffah, change has come quickly. Amal Ali, 35, from Somalia, said the area is "growing so fast".

"There was nothing here before," said Mrs Ali, who moved here with her parents in 2001.

She still lives in the same four-storey building as her parents, albeit in a different apartment, with her husband and three children. Despite the changes she likes her neighbourhood, and she never plans to leave.

Every time a glitzy high rise tower shoots up in Abu Dhabi, another building appears just as fast on the Mussaffah skyline - albeit 40 floors shorter. In the suburb, most of the new buildings are no more than eight stories high.

Mrs Ali is not the only resident who has been shocked with the changes Mussaffah has undergone in the last few years.

When Indian photographer Joy Matthew moved here with his wife and two children in 2005 to escape the soaring rents on Abu Dhabi island, he found himself on the verge of isolation.

"It used to be just barren land; There was no one living here," he said.

The absence of neighbours and cars in the streets also meant "it got pitch black at night, because it was so poorly lit", he said.

On a positive note, rent for his one-bedroom apartment was just Dh18,000.

Now, even with a five per cent increase every year, he only pays Dh24,000 for the same flat, which is one of the reasons why he is "very happy" to live in Mussaffah.

The downside of the influx of residents, he says, is that it is now overcrowded.

"I can't find a parking spot near my building anymore; I always have to circle the block a few times before I can find one."

Boxa Ibrigmov, 22, from Uzbekistan, moved to the area a year ago because of his job as a body building trainer at the local gym, Tiger.

He pays Dh2,200 a month for a room, but said he would not live in Mussaffah if he did not work here.

"There is nothing to do here but go to the mall for shopping or the cinema. I spend all my free time in Dubai or Yas Island for concerts."

Most residents in the neighbourhood come from the Indian subcontinent or the Philippines, and those with children are pleased the area has a few schools, including the recently opened Merryland International School, which was inaugurated in September last year.

But not everyone is happy. Ajith Perera from Sri Lanka, who has lived in Mussaffah for two years with his wife and two young daughters, said the area is getting worse because of the increasing rents.

He currently pays Dh65,000 for a two-bedroom apartment, which he said is "painful" to fork out every year.

"People are leaving, and there are so many empty buildings everywhere," he said. "It's too expensive, too dusty and too crowded."

Mr Perera said the lack of grassed play areas and parks is also a major problem.

Mussaffah has yet to add trees, flowers or gardens to its landscape and children are often seen playing football barefoot on concrete streets, sometimes glistening with broken glass.

Walar Walar, 23, a hotel receptionist from Myanmar, said she dislikes the area because she feels "uncomfortable" walking alone at night.

"I never go outside after dark because sometimes people follow me or try to talk to me," she said.

The good news is that the retail sector is booming, with car rentals and furniture stores setting up shop in the area. There are even restaurants and small shisha cafes, with many more on the verge of opening.

The neighbourhood's hangout, Al Safeer Centre, opened in 2006 and is busier than ever (although some residents prefer the 10-minute walk over the bridge to the flashier Dalma Mall, located in the industrial area on the other side of the Abu Dhabi-Al Ain motorway).

The capital's Urban Planning Council (UPC) unveiled its New Mussaffah Navigation Channel project in 2008, a Dh1.5 billion scheme to create a new marine channel immediately to the west of the industrial area.

The new Mussaffah Channel will be wider and deeper than the existing channel to enable access by larger commercial vessels, which the UPC hopes will turn it into a big international commercial hub.

Back on the other side of the highway, the residential area will be booming right alongside it, building by building.