There were once more than a dozen of this type of mixed-use building in Abu Dhabi. This example, on Airport Road, now scheduled for demolition, is one of the last. Lee Hoagland / The National
There were once more than a dozen of this type of mixed-use building in Abu Dhabi. This example, on Airport Road, now scheduled for demolition, is one of the last. Lee Hoagland / The National

History hides in a diamond that has long lost its sheen



If deterioration and decay were reliable guides to a building’s age, the part-ruin, part-relic that stands crumbling near the junction of Al Saada Street and Airport Road would undoubtedly qualify as an ancient monument.

At first sight it appears to have suffered from some kind of bombardment. Many of its windows are boarded up, rusting steel reinforcement bars emerge from its pockmarked concrete and bands of burgundy paint peel from its facade.

Like a rotten tooth, the two-storey structure is dwarfed by its taller, shinier neighbours yet despite its dereliction the building still functions, just, as a residence and a place of work.

Up on the first floor, hidden from view, piles of shoes, pushchairs and cricket bats testify to the presence of the families who still call this building home while outside a small garden nestles on the shaded, cooler side of the building, a small oasis of tenderness on a plot that is otherwise devoid of tender loving care.

Three commercial tenants remain next to businesses that, in the case of Golden Eagle Decor, were vacated several years ago.

Kingdom’s Daughter is a dilapidated workshop run by a Bangladeshi tailor who specialises in alterations to shaylas and abayas. Ahmed Awad’s Agricultural Supplies is a surprisingly smart-looking purveyor of irrigation equipment and seeds while The Diamond is a one-woman, multilingual typing operation that specialises in the completion of bureaucratic forms and letters of no objection.

“The baladiya [municipality] have said that this building is no good for people,” said one tenant, who asked not to be named. “The owner told us. He said that maybe after three months, khalas, this building will be finished.”

Like so many of the old buildings in downtown Abu Dhabi the only certainty about this building is that its days are numbered, but other than that it resists inquiry, standing resolutely mute.

One of the main challenges facing anybody who tries to write the architectural history of Abu Dhabi is the absence of publicly accessible archives or papers that might record a building’s name, age, architect or builder and thanks to the transient nature of so much of the city’s population, occupiers rarely know very much about a building’s past.

Despite this anonymity, buildings such as The Diamond, to give our anonymous block a name, are rather more than just another of Abu Dhabi’s rapidly disappearing slums.

Like old photographs, they have the capacity to transport the interested observer to another time and place, as long as you are prepared to dig.

A whole host of The Diamond’s details suggest that the building may date from the mid- to late 1970s, a period when Abu Dhabi was being rapidly transformed by the country’s new oil wealth and the need to accommodate the waves of workers who were then flocking to the city.

At this time, planning restrictions limited the height of buildings and at some time in the late 60s or early 70s, more guidelines were issued that allowed buildings to cantilever out by 1.5 metres at their first floor to increase the available floor space beyond each building’s ground-floor footprint. The result was the curious step feature that defines so many of Abu Dhabi’s modern buildings, a feature that also defines The Diamond’s facade.

The other factor that suggests a relatively early date for our gem is the fact that it was once a much-replicated building type that was obviously built to meet pressing commercial, demographic and urban needs, the Abu Dhabi equivalent of the mixed-use shophouses that are now associated with old Singapore.

Until quite recently, at least a dozen identical “diamonds” could be found scattered along Airport Road, Al Falah, Salaam and Hazza bin Zayed streets and all followed the same pattern – tailors’ workshops, vehicle repair shops and groceries on the ground floor, homes on the first.

Exactly when they were built or whether they were all the product of the same owner, architect or builder we will probably never know, but their proven resilience and flexibility suggests that these diamonds deserve at least a minor footnote in Abu Dhabi’s urban history.

Whatever its age or lineage, The Diamond does something that many of its more illustrious and more cherished architectural neighbours cannot.

Not only does it testify to the lived experiences of Abu Dhabi’s expats and its poor, but it also speaks to a time when ordinary Emiratis became city dwellers, property owners and developers for the very first time.

It is a material memory of a profound social and cultural revolution whose repercussions are still playing out.

As part of their conservation, Qasr Al Hosn and the Cultural Foundation Building were recently subjected to internal and external laser scans that mapped their every detail, even capturing the undulations of the old fort’s coral walls.

Somebody should do something similar for The Diamond, and quickly, before yet another chapter in the city’s fragile memory is irretrievably lost.

Nick Leech is a features ­writer at The National.

Five famous companies founded by teens

There are numerous success stories of teen businesses that were created in college dorm rooms and other modest circumstances. Below are some of the most recognisable names in the industry:

  1. Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg and his friends started Facebook when he was a 19-year-old Harvard undergraduate. 
  2. Dell: When Michael Dell was an undergraduate student at Texas University in 1984, he started upgrading computers for profit. He starting working full-time on his business when he was 19. Eventually, his company became the Dell Computer Corporation and then Dell Inc. 
  3. Subway: Fred DeLuca opened the first Subway restaurant when he was 17. In 1965, Mr DeLuca needed extra money for college, so he decided to open his own business. Peter Buck, a family friend, lent him $1,000 and together, they opened Pete’s Super Submarines. A few years later, the company was rebranded and called Subway. 
  4. Mashable: In 2005, Pete Cashmore created Mashable in Scotland when he was a teenager. The site was then a technology blog. Over the next few decades, Mr Cashmore has turned Mashable into a global media company.
  5. Oculus VR: Palmer Luckey founded Oculus VR in June 2012, when he was 19. In August that year, Oculus launched its Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $1 million in three days. Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion two years later.
The biog

Name: Mohammed Imtiaz

From: Gujranwala, Pakistan

Arrived in the UAE: 1976

Favourite clothes to make: Suit

Cost of a hand-made suit: From Dh550

 

The biog

Favourite food: Tabbouleh, greek salad and sushi

Favourite TV show: That 70s Show

Favourite animal: Ferrets, they are smart, sensitive, playful and loving

Favourite holiday destination: Seychelles, my resolution for 2020 is to visit as many spiritual retreats and animal shelters across the world as I can

Name of first pet: Eddy, a Persian cat that showed up at our home

Favourite dog breed: I love them all - if I had to pick Yorkshire terrier for small dogs and St Bernard's for big

Most polluted cities in the Middle East

1. Baghdad, Iraq
2. Manama, Bahrain
3. Dhahran, Saudi Arabia
4. Kuwait City, Kuwait
5. Ras Al Khaimah, UAE
6. Ash Shihaniyah, Qatar
7. Abu Dhabi, UAE
8. Cairo, Egypt
9. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
10. Dubai, UAE

Source: 2022 World Air Quality Report

MOST POLLUTED COUNTRIES IN THE WORLD

1. Chad
2. Iraq
3. Pakistan
4. Bahrain
5. Bangladesh
6. Burkina Faso
7. Kuwait
8. India
9. Egypt
10. Tajikistan

Source: 2022 World Air Quality Report

Specs

Power train: 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 and synchronous electric motor
Max power: 800hp
Max torque: 950Nm
Transmission: Eight-speed auto
Battery: 25.7kWh lithium-ion
0-100km/h: 3.4sec
0-200km/h: 11.4sec
Top speed: 312km/h
Max electric-only range: 60km (claimed)
On sale: Q3
Price: From Dh1.2m (estimate)

SPECS

Engine: 2-litre 4-cylinder petrol (V Class); electric motor with 60kW or 90kW powerpack (EQV)
Power: 233hp (V Class, best option); 204hp (EQV, best option)
Torque: 350Nm (V Class, best option); TBA (EQV)
On sale: Mid-2024
Price: TBA

TWISTERS

Director: Lee Isaac Chung

Starring: Glenn Powell, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Anthony Ramos

Rating: 2.5/5

The specs

Engine: 77kWh 2 motors
Power: 178bhp
Torque: 410Nm
Range: 402km
Price: Dh,150,000 (estimate)
On sale: TBC

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Director: Sudha Kongara Prasad

Starring: Akshay Kumar, Radhika Madan, Paresh Rawal

Rating: 2/5