Abu Dhabi's Urban Treasures award does more than recognise the rich fabric of the city

There is a lot to admire in the initiative and the unveiling of this year’s winners gives us instant talking points

Helicopter point of view of Mosque with surrounding area in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Turquoise water, national flag and skyscrapers are also visible.
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The Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi recognised the “cultural significance” of 15 of the city’s shops, restaurants and cafes last week at a ceremony to honour the first tranche of its “Urban Treasures”. It was an important marker in a campaign that was launched in the pre-pandemic world of January 2020.

The first recipients, which had to have been trading for more than 20 years to qualify for the award, were appointed from a longlist of nominations by the public and followed a period of deliberation and evaluation by DCT.

They included India Palace restaurant, Lebanon Flower Bakery, Jashanmal stores and Al Safa carpets, among others. If I have not listed your favourite here – and the complete list was full of worthy winners – it is only an omission by compression. All 15 entities warrant their moment in the spotlight.

Yasmeen Al Rashdi, head of the Modern and Urban Heritage Conservation Unit at DCT Abu Dhabi, told The National that the selection process provided a sense of “what these establishments mean to the city and to the districts and the communities that they serve”.

The scheme will continue to recognise up to 20 establishments each year and winners will receive a brass plaque to identify their premises as a place of interest. Marketing campaigns will also feature the 15 award winners.

There is a lot to admire in the “Urban Treasures” initiative and it is something I have advocated for in the past.

Firstly, the unveiling of this year’s winners provides an instant list of talking points for every one of us. Scanning through the names raises questions about which ones you’ve been to, what they mean to you and which you now intend to visit for the first time.

Visitors have a whole subsection of places to explore that tell a different story to the stereotypical portraits of the city

The annual nomination process will also encourage communities across the city to champion the places that have meaning in their lives and for those entities to receive the credit they surely deserve.

An instant roster of new customers may also have been created by the publication of the inaugural list. Some existing patrons, meanwhile, will have been reminded to reconnect.

Short-term visitors now also have a whole subsection of places to explore that tell a different story to the stereotypical portraits of the city that are sometimes painted by others.

And the process of regular nomination and recognition of “Urban Treasures” allows all of us to reflect on the relative permanence of some places in a city that is committed to planning for the future.

In essence “Urban Treasures” recognises the fabric of the city as a complex, multi-layered, nuanced and organic substance.

Indeed, one of the joys of living in Abu Dhabi is to step onto its side streets to discover the long-established traders, cafes and saloons that are as much a part of the ever-developing story of the city as the tall towers, luxury hotels and large malls of more recent narratives.

I was reminded of that sense of wonder last week when I was fortunate enough to see Abu Dhabi through a former resident’s eyes for a few days. Our visitor had lived in Abu Dhabi for almost a decade starting in the late 2000s and was in town for a short break. Her trip was a reminder that our memories of places are often rooted in small details.

She was most interested in going back to the neighbourhood where she lived when she first arrived. There was a sensory element about the trip and of reconnecting with the sights, sounds and smells of a city that was once her home. As we moved through the streets it brought to mind the “same same but different” colloquialism that is frequently used in this part of the world. So much had changed, so much had stayed the same.

As much as the city has significantly developed its tourist proposition recently – from Louvre Abu Dhabi to Qasr Al Watan and from Warner Bros to the National Aquarium – its streets are places of connection and meaning as well as being home to a constellation of visitor attractions.

The long-term Abu Dhabi street renaming project – which last week redesignated Delma Street as Saeed bin Ahmed Al Otaiba Street, in honour of Mr Al Otaiba’s contribution to the emirate’s economy and development – is in many ways a similar venture to “Urban Treasures”.

Like other streets that have changed names over the years, the ease with which residents interchange usage of the old and new names of our major arteries – such as Muroor and Sultan bin Zayed the First Street, for instance, which made the switch almost a decade ago – serves another purpose.

The street names of the past and those of today hopefully encourage us to find out more about the etymology of both the formal and informal naming conventions. There is a story behind each one of them.

Long may both “Urban Treasures” and the street-naming project continue to shed light on the city’s rich history and its heroes.

Published: July 08, 2022, 4:00 AM