Abu Dhabi's redeveloped Al Zahiyah district reveals unexpected gems

After ten years of construction, the revitalised area is worth visiting

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First impressions count as much for neighbourhoods as they do for people. And my first encounter with the once-notorious Al Zahiyah intersection was a doozy. I was literally dizzy. There I was, eight years ago, fresh into my new stint in the capital, and my taxi was caught in the daily traffic jam caused by the massive renovation of the district. It was peak summer and with the blinding sun reflecting through the car window, coupled with my jet lag, I feared I would pass out in the back seat. The traffic jam lasted nearly an hour and I have avoided that area ever since. Abu Dhabi Mall remains the only major venue in the capital where I have yet to see a movie.

But with the Abu Dhabi Municipality announcing the end of the 10-year Dh258 billion redevelopment project,  I decided to venture back into the neighbourhood this week for a late-evening stroll. And it was a revelation. More than the new roads, bridges and pedestrian walkways that certainly look neat and tidy, it is the little shops and restaurants that have brought this place back to life.

Vendors hit hard by the redevelopment were those managing the bunch of shops located on the service lane off Al Firdaus Street, which runs parallel to Abu Dhabi Mall. Five months ago, the lane was basically a construction site. The customer car parks were overrun with large rocks, traffic signage and staff working with heavy machinery. It was no wonder that Mehdi, the manager of the Patchi chocolate store there, beamed when I walked in. He immediately offered me a complimentary sweet as he discussed the changing fortunes of the neighbourhood. “The whole place looks much better now and things will improve,” he said. “But before it was very tough. This whole area looked like a war zone and it was hard for me, let alone the customers, to come to the store. But, you know, you learn to manage and make the best of it.”

It is a similar sentiment that was echoed by the lovely Indian husband-and-wife team who run the adjacent Esquire Fashion, a men’s suit store. “It was tough to talk about suits and dressing good with customers when the noise gives you a headache,” the husband said. “But I understand. The area looks very nice now. The parking has returned and the customers are coming. The difficult times are now over.” I ventured over to a small road linking Al Firdous Street to the bustling Al Miyani Street. This whole area was also a jumble of granite, construction workers and barricades over the past decade. I was amazed to discover a small, low-profile mall called Khalifa Complex B.

It’s basically two floors of shops selling tourist tat ranging from Moroccan-inspired lanterns (about Dh50, if you bargain) to camel figurines. Served within the small mall’s walls, however, was one of the finest plates of ful medames I’ve ever eaten in the capital. I found said plate in the Louqmat Bladnah, a small, nondescript restaurant in the corner of the shopping centre. I knew they are serious about regional cuisine when I realised they offer both a standard ful and Egyptian plate – the latter has the fava beans stewed with tahini and seasoned with garlic. For Dh15, the Egyptian variety was bang on and a bargain.

The waiter, a young Jordanian man who has been in the country just over a year, said the place is reaching out to the customers they lost due to the roadworks. “We closed for three months due to the operations here and we came back not long ago,” he said. “But like I just saw with you, once people taste the food, they come back. Inshallah, the hardest part is over.” Not every establishment suffered because of the construction. The

Turkish-inspired Cafe Otantik, located on another previously affected service lane off Al Miyani Street, has been doing a roaring trade since it opened in March last year. When I walked in just before 11pm there were two people waiting for a seat.

Outside, a Mawaqif officer called Ahmed was checking the row of cars in the re-established car park. He told me how his job was also more challenging before the redevelopment. “Before, this place was like a jungle of cars and I was giving a lot of tickets because people just parked anywhere,” he said with a laugh. “Now there are less cars here because of the parking slots,” he added. “I have been issuing fewer tickets than normal.”