A trail of treasures in Abu Dhabi's past

The 'Urban Treasures' project will give a special status to shops, restaurants and other urban spaces that opened before the year 2000

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, December 8, 2015:     Pedestrians walk through downtown near the interseciton of Hamdan Bin Mohammed street and Sultan Bin Zayed The First street
Sultan Bin Zayed The First street in the Al Danah area of Abu Dhabi on December 8, 2015. Christopher Pike / The National

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Few countries have their eyes set on the future with quite the same intensity of focus as the UAE. This is a place where people from 200 countries come to build a future, to see what’s possible. Abu Dhabi, in fact, hosts a Ministry of Cabinet Affairs and the Future, and a Ministry of Possibilities. And it is no secret that, here, society likes things a little higher, a little faster. So high is the top of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa that it can be seen from nearly 100km away. With talk of an ultra-high-speed hyperloop linking Dubai with Abu Dhabi, the weight of that distance may soon vanish.

Nonetheless, it is important to remember that our very propulsion into the future is what gives rise to our past. As we move deeper into the future and widen the field of possibilities, the past deepens and widens, too. Nearly five decades old, the UAE’s past is growing up, and Abu Dhabi's Department of Culture and Tourism has recognised this fact with a new initiative.

Known as Urban Treasures, the project will highlight up to 20 cultural establishments – restaurants, shops, and other urban spaces – that have been part of the fabric of Abu Dhabi life since before the year 2000. The sites will be put forward through nominations from the public.

The sense of nostalgia promoted in DCT’s initiative is well merited. Abu Dhabi’s oldest shops and restaurants are more than just the sites of happy memories. They are the stories of shopkeepers and restaurateurs who have pushed through the highs and lows of the UAE’s economic story, and provided a steady social hearth for its residents as the country has undergone a breath-taking level of change. These individuals and their establishments are part of Abu Dhabi’s success story, and they deserve to be enshrined in its history.

The great advantage of highlighting these urban treasures is the effect of creating an urban treasure trail. Along the Corniche, and up through Hamdan Bin Mohammed and Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Streets there is a colourful path of retail and dining establishments that offer a window into the many communities who first opened them. Spontaneous turns to the left or right will lead to other, uncanny landmarks, like the brutalist, bright-green Central Bus Station.

Known as Urban Treasures, the project will highlight up to 20 restaurants, shops, and other urban spaces that have been part of the fabric of Abu Dhabi life since before the year 2000

The diversity of any resident or visitor’s journey along this treasure trail showcases the UAE’s commitment for promoting peaceful co-existence and diversity well beyond 2019, when the country celebrated its official Year of Tolerance. As Mohammed Khalifa Al Mubarak, Chairman of DCT said, that the urban treasures will be comprised of places that have “contributed to the cultural and urban identity of Abu Dhabi”, and captured “the essence” of all the communities that live here, side by side.

There is a patchwork of places that represent the other side of the coin to the UAE’s future. The future and its possibilities seem to be arriving quicker every day, but as the treasure chest of Abu Dhabi’s urban fabric shows, it is worth slowing down to remember the past.