A world-class capital can use more than a little character

Progress is essential to a city, but Abu Dhabi needs to retain some connections with its past, as well.

Over the past week, I've been using the new Sheikh Zayed Tunnel under Abu Dhabi's Salam Street to get to Mina Zayed. It's far better than the tortuous route through the Tourist Club area, although that journey is also much quicker now as shipping businesses have moved to the newly opened Khalifa Port.

My journey time has been cut substantially, and I've almost begun to think that driving through the city might become a pleasure. It's been years since I thought that.

The tunnel and Khalifa Port are just two of the major developments that have had a significant effect on life in Abu Dhabi. The improvement of Salam Street and the opening the Zayed Bridge at Umm Al Nar and Khalifa Bridge at Mina Zayed are other developments.

Even the much-criticised Mawaqif parking system has been a step forward in many ways, while the public-transport system has benefited many residents, judging by the number of passengers.

All of these are among the many steps to help to ensure that the UAE economy and infrastructure move towards world-class standards.

It may prove impossible to meet all of the objectives of Abu Dhabi's ambitious 2030 vision on target - all kinds of factors may emerge to cause delays - but much has already been achieved. As 2013 unfolds, more new projects will get under way.

One will be the launching of a "Green Road" manual intended to make road construction more environmentally friendly and contribute to the sustainability of the development process.

Thirty to 40 years ago, Abu Dhabi was little more than a work in progress, a building site, with facilities that often left much to be desired. Power cuts were frequent; housing, although much better than that which had existed before the oil-fuelled development, was of a lower standard. It was a "third world" city, in the process of rapid construction and transformation.

While I welcome many of the changes we see today, I sometimes wonder what kind of city and society will eventually emerge. Planners should review best practices from elsewhere in the world and adapt them for local implementation - as is being done on the Green Roads manual. There is a danger, however, that we may import some of the failings of others as well as their successes.

Let's look, for example, at the new Food Control Authority regulations whose implementation, as of today, means that over 1,300 small grocers' shops have to either spend as much as Dh100,000 on improvements - or close down. Many small shops have been sadly lacking in terms of facilities and hygiene, with a consequent threat to public health. If the owners couldn't, or wouldn't, upgrade to meet basic standards, it makes sense that they should go out of business.

The loss, however, has other consequences. Convenience stores or corner shops are key constituents of the social fabric of the community.

The same applies to other small businesses - tyre-repair shops, carpenters, electrical-repair shops and the like. Some have already moved to Musaffah, well outside of the city. A trend towards larger shops and supermarkets - as has been seen in many developed countries - has a devastating effect, not just on small businesses but also on the communities that they serve.

It would be a pity if, in the Abu Dhabi of the future, the "little man" who is seeking to make a modest living in a community is squeezed out by larger enterprises.

By all means, let us give due weight to public health and environmental protection. But it's also important to take into account the diversity and character of society. Chain stores, malls full of foreign brands and fast-food outlets are the same the world over.

Abu Dhabi in 2030 could be an amazing place. I hope that it manages to retain a character of its own, in its streets, in its buildings - and, yes, in its shops - to distinguish it from any other "first world" city in the world.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture