Abu Dhabi's Ghadan 21 scheme to stir up fresh opportunities in sleepy coastal town

Residents hope plans for a major ecotourism drive in Al Mirfa will bring prosperity and jobs

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An ambitious Dh50 billion investment programme for Abu Dhabi is set to help a sleepy coastal town build for the future.

Residents admit Al Mirfa is never home for too long for its youth, but an ecotourism drive which forms a key part of the three-year Ghadan 21 initiative aims to entice them to stay and encourage many more to visit.

Further details of the Ghadan 21 plan, unveiled by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, last year, were released on Tuesday.

The latest reforms aim to cut red tape, support small and medium businesses and boost tourism in the country’s western territory.

Sumaya Yousef has six brothers and five sisters but only three still live in her hometown of Al Mirfa. Her two youngest brothers still live at home but as soon as they grow up, she expects them to leave.

It is a familiar story. That's what youth do.

“My brothers and sisters, they think in a different way,” said Ms Yousef, a government employee.

“They need malls, they need coffee shops. They all have homes in Abu Dhabi. They think it’s better for living.

“For me and my husband, we like the small town.”

Ms Yousef graduated from the Higher Colleges of Technology in 2008 when the western region was opening for business and jobs were plentiful. A series of major infrastructure projects were announced, including the nuclear power at Baraka, the expansion of the Ruwais oil refinery and the first leg of a national railway line. Alongside these projects were new schools and government offices.

“When we went to HCT we felt it gave us more confidence, like you are the future for your city,” said Ms Yousef. “At the time we were graduating, the municipality and other companies gave people a chance to work. After five or ten years, these jobs were filled.”

Ms Yousef landed a government position but credits this in part to a golden window that allowed her to secure a job in the city of 30,000. People a few years younger than her are looking elsewhere.

Omar Al Hammadi, 22, moved to Abu Dhabi from Mirfa with his family for government work. He returns every weekend but full time work in the small fishing town remains a distant dream.

“Jobs? You will not find jobs in Mirfa. My family are in Abu Dhabi, all of them. Khalifa City A.”

Ghadan 21 has proposed the development of Abu Dhabi’s islands, with investments in ecotourism, water sports and affordable hotels to draw people west.

Al Dhafra has 70 per cent of Abu Dhabi’s territory and 90 per cent of its hydrocarbon reserves but towns like Mirfa, Medinat Zayed and Sila are still unknown destinations for most UAE residents and foreign tourists.

Old people stay here but I'm still young

Cities and towns in Al Gharbiya are usually described as remote, even rural.

The reality is a little different. Nothing about Mirfa feels quaint or old fashioned. If ever there was a modern oil town, this is it.

The neighbourhoods are tidy rows of identical white government-issued villas. The mosques are large and polished, the markets new and sanitised, the majlis tents are permanent structures with air conditioning and chandeliers.

This is a city built by the government. The Founding President Sheikh Zayed invited people to move to Mirfa after the union of the country in 1971 in a bid to populate the Western Region. Some flatly refused. The reputation of the nomadic western region proceeded it.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, June 27, 2019.   Mirfa (west of ad)  to find out what people think about ghadan.  -- The Mirfa Fish Market.
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:Anna Zacharias
The Mirfa Fish Market is a popular spot for those in search of a fresh feed. Victor Besa/The National

The oldest neighbourhoods date from the 1980s. Nothing gets old.

On the whole, the announcement that the town would be one of the major recipients of a Dh50billion stimulus package was met in Al Mirfa with a collective shrug.

“We have everything,” said Khalifa Al Mansoori, 30, a hospital administrator. “We have hospitals and we have schools. We have relaxation and we have safety.”

Within Al Mirfa, there is a sense that the community is considered more open than neighbouring cities in Al Gharbia.

Its sole hotel has long held an alcohol license. But the opening of a shisha cafe a few years ago caused a stir. The stigma of aib, or shame, is a powerful one in a small community. No action goes unnoticed.

It is not only careers drawing youth away to cities.

Al Mirfa has the mixed blessing of small towns everywhere: everyone knows each other.

“There’s no life here,” said Fatima Al Tamimi, a government employee in her early thirties. “I want to go somewhere no one will know me. I want to be myself. Here, you can’t be yourself.”

So, what do people in Al Mirfa want?

Well, a mall for starters.

“You know, when people come from outside, they don’t only need to sleep and see the sea,” said Ms Yousef. “Mirfa is a good place for hotels but it’s not only the hotels that will bring people. You need restaurants, facilities.”

Yousef Salem, 67, a retired police officer, agreed.

“The coast doesn’t have anything. There are no companies, there’s no real tourism and when the weekend comes, where do people go? To Dubai or Abu Dhabi. If you come on Friday you’ll find it empty here.”

He hopes Ghadan 21 could give the area the lift that brings his children work.

“They’ve finished school and what are they doing? Sitting at home. Waiting for work. If there were companies maybe they would get work but where are the companies? Anywhere companies develop, work will follow.”

Mouza Al Ali, an Emirati in her early thirties, wanted more spaces for women’s recreation, like a women’s beach. “The facilities for women are very few. We only got our first gym last year and it’s the size of my office.”

Residents are waiting to see if Ghadan 21 can make Mirfa a place where youth will settle down.

“Old people stay here but I’m still young,” said Ms Al Tamimi. “Mirfa will be nice when I’m 50, with my cup of tea in front of the sea. But right now, I’m young.”