The quiet beauty of Abu Dhabi's side streets, as recorded on social media

An Instagram account is keeping track of the history and progress of the UAE capital

Abu Dhabi Streets never shares exact locations for the buildings they feature. Credit: Abu Dhabi Streets
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The National recently provided readers with a peek into the past via the showcasing of a collection of photographs taken by oil engineer Alan Horan, who worked in Abu Dhabi 60 years ago, and took pictures of falconers, camel trains and urban dwellings from a period before rapid change and development.

The images provoke a mix of joy, wonder and curiosity at their representation of life as it used to be and have been donated to the National Library and Archives for long-term preservation.

Outside such a formal setting, it is not hard to find heritage-focused social media groups posting content about the country’s past, if you ever need a history fix. Each of these groups plays its part in piecing together the informal narrative of the city, albeit almost always bathed in nostalgia and similar wonder at the pace of progress and change.

But what about our living history?

Abu Dhabi Streets on Instagram (@abudhabistreets), is one such account, describing itself as showcasing “little discoveries” in the city. It presents images of the small details of the city’s streets and the often unheralded parts of its urban architecture.

It is often firmly set on the low-rise charm of suburbia – the dwellings that people sweep past each day often without looking at them – rather than the high-rise glass towers of newer parts of the city.

The account, which has a growing audience, is run by Silvia and Alex, European expatriates who have lived in Abu Dhabi for close to a decade. Generally, Alex takes the pictures, mostly on an iPhone, and Silvia works on curation and art direction, but they also switch roles.

They called themselves a creative family when I spoke to them this week via videoconferencing call.

Some of these neighbourhoods also exist within the near constant dialogue between preservation and progress

Perhaps appropriately, given that our conversation touched on old and new architecture, they were sat in a cafe in an older area of the city that has transformed over the past few years and I was on Yas Island, which only opened a decade and a half ago.

Alex says that one way to describe the work they do is “creative documenting” rather than “documenting” of the specific architecture of Abu Dhabi. Their Instagram account is essentially a visual expression rather than a formal documented resource.

The pair did not want to share too many further details about themselves, preferring instead to let their Instagram account provide most of the representation. Some of their reticence may also be rooted in sensitivity for the urban environment and in feeling a responsibility to protect the places they photograph.

Abu Dhabi Streets never shares exact locations for the buildings they feature, in part to avoid these dwellings ever becoming some form of influencer attraction and in recognition of their residential setting. Some places, of course, are easy to find, such as the recently posted pictures of the Corniche hospital, one of dozens of buildings in Abu Dhabi that have been listed as representing outstanding pieces of modern heritage, or the Etisalat building near the National Theatre featured above, which visitors to that neighbourhood can chance upon without too much effort.

Other posts, such as ethereal video of a bougainvillea swaying in the spring breeze after one of this year’s storms, defy regular locators, unless you are familiar with that neighbourhood already.

Most of their focus appears to rest in capturing the previously uncaptured and unnoticed.

The images emit a natural and informal energy that encourages the consumer to go out and look at the city in a different way and find those pockets of wonder for themselves.

Silvia and Alex say that the project was born from that ethos, from “roaming around” neighbourhoods and “discovering all these beautiful low-rise buildings and old houses”.

“We walk, especially in the cooler months, wherever it takes us.”

Some of these neighbourhoods also exist within the near constant dialogue between preservation and progress.

The once sprawling on-island campus of the International School of Choueifat, for instance, which had been a fixture of a Mushrif neighbourhood since the 1970s, stood empty at the start of academic year and has since been demolished. The empty plot is now a sandy expanse awaiting its future. The site is only a short distance from the Abu Dhabi Media campus, a building which is on the preserved modern heritage list.

In another street not far from the former school plot, an old 1980s villa was demolished this month. One of Abu Dhabi Streets recent stories captured a still of the villa demolition works.

There is both loss and gain in this process: a residential building torn down at the end of its useful life and a plot freed up to be reborn. Cities are living organisms, moving relentlessly onward.

“There is,” they say, “something special about the neighbourhoods”.

That’s true. They emanate a form of quiet beauty. So too does the Instagram account that seeks to capture them.

Published: May 09, 2024, 2:00 PM