Another side of Abu Dhabi: Forget dune-bashing, and take visitors to these spots in the capital

All of the capital's residents have a role in showcasing our city

A view shows Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque before a visit by Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tony Gentile
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Abu Dhabi, my beloved home, is set to be showcased to the world, thanks to a Dh500 million promotional drive by the Department of Culture and Tourism. It made me wonder: what exactly is our role as residents when it comes to representing our city?

We can do a lot, actually. As anyone who has been travelling can tell you, it is often the locals and their knowledge that results in the most memorable holiday experiences. This means that all of us living in Abu Dhabi are tour guides in a way, and our job is not so much to take visitors to the usual hotspots – places that are already listed on TripAdvisor and other travel websites – but to fill in the gaps by providing an off-the-­beaten-track adventure.

This, for me, has been a hard-earned lesson, after going on nearly a dozen desert safaris over the past eight years with various guests. There is only so much dune-bashing and biryani I can take.

So now, my approach is to let my visitors do all the major touristy things on their own, and then I swoop in to show them the other side of the capital. I did that recently when an old friend and her husband paid me a visit from the United Kingdom.

I picked them up from their resort after they had spent an afternoon in the polished surroundings of Manarat Al Saadiyat. We went to the relatively gritty neighbourhood of Darat Al Miyah, behind the Etisalat building in Khalidiya. It's a busy thoroughfare full of colourful shops selling everything from Moroccan scents and Pakistani sandals to great little bites such as paratha and Syrian-­style shawarmas.

It's also where you'll find the Game of Thrones-inspired sandwich shop Game of Toast and Emirati-style luqaimat aplenty.

After buying a range of items and testing their haggling skills, I ushered the couple to my favourite cafe, Al Anoud. Over a strong ­Turkish coffee, something that manager Shuaib excels in, he told us of the changing face of the neighbourhood, where he has lived and worked for nearly two decades.

"It's like the jungle here when it comes to business," he said. "If your shop is weak the customers can smell it, and it will close down within three months. If you can do well here, you can do well anywhere."

The following night, after my friends spent the day at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, I took them to another exciting new strip behind Guardian ­Towers on Muroor Road.

ABU DHABI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, September 9 – 2018 :- View of the buildings in the Tourist Club area in Abu Dhabi. ( Pawan Singh / The National )  For News. Story by Anna/ John
The Tourist Club area in Abu Dhabi makes an alternative experience for visitors. Pawan Singh / The National

Where Darat Al Miyah is all about the survival of the fittest, this area is a haven for young Emirati entrepreneurs, who have launched their first food and beverage outlets; cafes selling everything from Spanish lattes to American-­style hamburgers and waffles.

We finished the evening in the Tourist Club Area, another wonderful neighbourhood that has shape-­shifted over time. While in the 1980s and 1990s it was almost an ­exclusively Arab neighbourhood, now there are new faces – and businesses – hailing from Africa; Ethiopia and Uganda in particular. This has resulted in more good grub, which we ate in earnest at the always-great Bonna Annee Ethiopian restaurant.

By showing visitors these sights, I have become a much better and more enthusiastic host. I realised that my job is not to show my friends and family all the major aspects of Abu Dhabi in a few days, but to instead give them a true feel of this city – and show them why I still love it, after eight years. After all, that is what they’ll remember most.