Dubai's Naif Souq reopens two years after fire

Traders in their hundreds have set up stall in the historic market once again, after the original building was destroyed by fire in April 2008.

DUBAI // Hundreds of traders who lost all their property in a huge fire two years ago moved into new shops yesterday as the historic Naif souk reopened for business. Most store owners moved their goods into the two-storey complex yesterday, with many already inviting customers to their new premises. A spokesman for Dubai Municipality confirmed that the market had reopened after the original building burned to the ground in April 2008.

Traders voiced their delight that the new facility was finally operational. "We saw this place being destroyed by fire two years ago. It feels good to see this building standing up again," said Basheer Mahi, who did business in the old souk for more than 30 years. "This souk is the heart of Dubai. Arab tourists from Oman, Kuwait and other countries come looking for it. Today, the heart is beating again."

The blaze that destroyed the old single-level souk, engulfing almost 200 shops and causing some Dh1 billion in damage, was caused by an electrical fault in an air conditioning unit. There was no sign of the destruction yesterday as staff and proprietors walked took a first look at their shops and amenities, which include an underground car park, restaurants, kiosks and elevators. "We have started moving our goods here and will start business tomorrow," said KMohammed, one of the souk traders. "Everyone will move into the new complex in the next two days."

Those reopening their businesses are facing rentals that have more than doubled. Shops in the old souk rented for about Dh6,000-Dh7,000, while those in the new facility are priced at a minimum Dh15,000. Many traders voiced concerns over the high rents, given the current economic climate, but said they hoped the new complex would still prove a crowd-puller. Still, the mood was festive as workers and shop owners decorated their shops to prepare for business, offering free gifts to the customers who came their way.

The facility boasts 218 shops, 111 on the ground floor and 107 on the first floor. The car park can accommodate almost 100 vehicles. "We are very confident that our business will do very well here," said Mani Nelraman, 45, an Indian who owns seven shops in the souk. "The new building is on the same spot as the old souk and people know this location well. Tourists know this location." Special care is being taken by the municipality to ensure that fire hazards are avoided. Fire safety equipment and emergency exits were clearly marked in contrast to the old souk, which had no fire safety plans.

"Any changes to the shops will require special permission from the municipality," Mr Nelraman said. "They want to make sure that the disaster is not repeated." Local welfare groups including the Red Crescent Society stepped in to help those who lost their livelihood in the fire. Dubai Municipality built a temporary market for traders just a few blocks from the old souk. However, traders frequently complained of a lack of business as, though old souk had been a regular haunt for shoppers, few seemed to know of the temporary site.

"We suffered at the temporary souk as nobody knew its location. Business was hit and it was a bad time for us," said Mr Nelraman. The municipality had to put up signboards and directions so that customers could locate the temporary souk. Traders demanded they be moved to the old location at the earliest opportunity. The Naif Souk, one of the oldest traditional markets in Dubai, was about 60,000 square feet and was often referred to as 'Souk Sanadiq', or 'box market', because of the configuration of its shops.

Though the design of the newly constructed souk aimed at a traditional look, many said that the old atmosphere was gone forever. "A lot of people came to Naif souk because of its traditional look and its historic significance," said Salam Rafeeq, another Indian trader. "We had tourists shopping here even during the summers to see the souk and get good deals. Now we have air conditioning but the old look is lost."