The Abu Dhabi carpet souq will undergo a restructuring, following a surprise visit to the area by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed on Thursday.
The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces had came to meet Moosa Khan, an Afghani carpet merchant who became an social media star last October when he was filmed refusing a high offer on a carpet with the image of the UAE’s Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed.
The video went viral, attracting the attention of Sheikh Mohammed. On Thursday, he surprised Mr Khan and other shopkeepers with a visit and asked what could be done to improve their lives.
But carpet merchants are experts at hospitality and a good host knows that to ask anything of a guest, sheikh or otherwise, is ungracious at best.
“It is not good if you ask for money or say you want something when the Crown Prince comes to your shop,” said Saeed Mohammed, a merchant at the souq. “Imagine the first time he comes here in the shop and hears, ‘I want this’ or ‘I don’t want that’.”
Hours after the visit, the state news agency Wam reported that Sheikh Mohammed had issued directives to begin redevelopment of the Mina Zayed port area and the restructuring of its traditional souqs.
The fish, vegetable, wood and carpet markets will be redeveloped to create a multi-use seafront with residential, commercial and cultural areas.
Further details were not available and it was unclear whether the announcement referred to new or existing government plans.
Meanwhile, photos of Mr Khan and his friends standing barefoot and greeting the sheikh have been circulating on social media since the visit.
By Sunday morning, it was business as usual. Men sat in the arcade outside their shops, drinking karak tea under cloudy skies. The concrete compound is not the carpet souq of Orientalist paintings. Most of the rugs sold are machine-made in Belgium and Turkey. Bright shags dominate.
Customers are Emirati and sellers are second-generation Abu Dhabi residents from Katawaz, in Afghanistan’s southeastern Paktika province.
“This market is all from village,” explained Mr Khan on Sunday. Mr Khan joined his father and brother in the UAE ten years ago when he finished his school at age 15.
When visitors entered his shop, he disappeared behind a wall of rolled carpets into a ‘backroom' to attach the Year of Zayed badge that the Crown Prince had pinned to his blue kandura. His father, Abdul Qader, had missed the sheikh’s visit while undergoing medical treatment in in Pakistan.
Abdul Qader had hung the brown rug of Sheikh Zayed above the shop door 25 years ago, when Sheikh Zayed carpets and Afghani rugs depicting Soviet tanks were bestsellers. He had bought it in Turkey for a wholesale price of Dh30.
In those days, Sheikh Zayed was known to drop by the market a few times a year. Merchants still call him by his affectionate nickname, Baba (Daddy) Zayed.
“Baba Zayed would come with security, go around, buy some carpets, then leave,” said Mr Mohammed, whose father has worked in the souq for 50 years. “Baba Zayed did not want those carpets. He only wanted people to be happy.”
The modern carpet market was created after one such visit, recalled Mr Mohammed.
“Before, the market was only tents and carpets outside. Then one day Baba Zayed said, ‘Why you sit here, where the sun is so hot?’
“And people said, ‘What can I do’?”
Sheikh Zayed proposed a modern, permanent market in the same location but the people protested that they could not easily afford rent.
“Baba Zayed said, ‘No problem, I can pay it’.”
And so the modern market came to be, with low-cost accommodation built for traders built above their shops. (Nobody is sure of when this happened. Estimates range from 1992 to 1999.)
Today, Mr Khan and his brothers rent a two-room flat about their shop from the municipality. One room sleeps six, the other serves as a majlis. They work seven days a week, from 8am to 11pm, with a break on Friday morning. Tea, conversation, and Facebook fill the hours.
Demand for carpets has not wavered with the drop in oil prices. Mr Khan’s older brother Qalandar estimates the shop averages Dh5,000 to Dh6,000 in monthly profit. Accommodation has increased over the years from Dh10,000 to Dh40,000. For some, this is too expensive. Traders hope this could change after Sheikh Mohammed’s visit.
“A lot of rooms have been locked,” said trader Delawar Khan, 33. “Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed told the municipality that maybe they can reopen them.”
To men like Mr Khan, this week's photos of an Abu Dhabi royal driving through a traditional market were evocative of old images of Sheikh Zayed.
A generation later, however, and social media has made it difficult for people to talk openly lest their concerns be misinterpreted. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed suggested he will return again, without the media. When he does, Mr Khan and his friends will be there, ready for their guest with a hot cup of karak.