x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

F1 drives life back into Bahrain's 'love street'

Once bustling, Adliya had lost its allure. But thanks to the economic boom that comes with hosting an F1 race, the district is again filling up with shops.

Workers take a break in front of an art gallery at Block 338 in Adliya.
Workers take a break in front of an art gallery at Block 338 in Adliya.

Once a bustling district filled with young Bahrainis and expats alike, Adliya had lost its allure. But thanks to the economic boom that comes with hosting a race, the district is again filling up with shops - and more importantly - shoppers. Mazen Mahdi reports from Manama Block 338 in Adliya, on the outskirts of Manama, had once been the centre of the capital's nightlife and a thriving cultural district, but over the past decade it has been overshadowed by shining new skyscrapers and malls that sprang up around it. Bahrainis used to call the strip "love street" because of the groups of youths who cruised its main road on weekend nights, while US sailors stationed at the nearby 5th Fleet headquarters nicknamed it "shawarma alley" because of the many restaurants that lined both sides of the narrow road. The nicknames survived, but the youth, expatriates and tourists who used to fill Adliya's streets left for neighbouring Juffair and Seef districts, where new malls, restaurants and movie theatres cover the reclaimed land. Today, however, Formula One racing, which helped drive the economic growth in Juffair and Seef by development there, is also fuelling the urban regeneration of Adliya by breathing life once more into its restaurants, cafes, shops and art galleries. The expected influx of tens of thousands of tourists during the three days of the race each year since 2004 has prompted officials here to develop the infrastructure of the area, to help businesses capitalise on the spike in visitors, especially since many of the hotels that the tourists stay in during the race are within walking or driving distance from Adliya. "The Block 338 project adds an important aspect to improving one of the most entertaining and best places to spend time when visiting the island," said Sheikh Hamed bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, the municipalities and agriculture ministry assistant under-secretary for urban planning. The tourists - as well as Bahrainis and expatriates - who it is hoped will visit the area year round, are also likely to inject money into Adliya's businesses, which range from expensive outlets such as art galleries and antique shops to low-end services such as taxi drivers and grocery stores Titus Fernandez, the managing director of Zoe Cafe and Restaurant, said his business, which is located in the heart of Block 338, and has been around for more than 10 years, has experienced better business since the development began in 2009. "The better parking facilities and the overall beautification has made the area stand out more and helped attract more customers. The economic crisis has had an impact and this year we still haven't seen many new customers coming ahead of the F1, which usually happens a week ahead of the event, but it's still early," he said. "Over the year, however, our business has been growing steadily and the development witnessed over the past two years has helped that growth a great deal." Sheikh Hamed said the area's authenticity is what makes it stand out and attract such investments. "The whole area is very authentic, which makes it impossible to replicate anywhere. It is not a Disneyland approach where everything is built from scratch, but the beauty of it is how it has come together and developed into a unique gourmet dining district," said Sheikh Hamed, who is overseeing the district's redevelopment. "This is the only area in the Arabian Gulf where there are high-end dinning and lounge locations outside of hotels," he said. The area aims to be a bit like M Street in the Georgetown section of Washington. Sheikh Hamed, who grew up in Adliya, added that the ongoing development would have an impact on the country's economy as a whole by directly helping established and new businesses. "The first phase of Block 338 urban regeneration and redevelopment began last year. The second phase will be ready before this coming Formula One" set for this weekend, said Sheikh Hamed. He said that the impact of the second phase would be far greater than the first phase, especially since the new developments have created more parking spaces, eased traffic by opening new roads, and created a new pedestrian road and square. When Bahrain hosted the first F1 race in the Middle East in April 2004, officials here were hoping to tap into an existing fan base in Europe and Australia as well as among expatriates living in the Gulf to stimulate tourism and new investments. "The direct and indirect economic impact of hosting the F1 race for one week has been around US$600 million [Dh2.2 billion]; the figures are big and significant. If you think about it, the investment in the circuit [estimated to have been around $180m] has been repaid in one year many times over," the outgoing managing director of the Bahrain International Circuit, Martin Whitaker, said in January. BIC officials also appear to be eyeing the new crop of Emirati fans that have been drawn to the sport after Abu Dhabi hosted its first F1 race last year, with the famous Emirati singer Hussain al Jasmi kick-starting this weekend's concert events that will include Arabic and western performers on the sidelines of the race, the first of the season. mmazen@thenational.ae