It's 3am and Abu Dhabi is awake

What goes on at 3am in Abu Dhabi? Plenty, as it turns out. The capital city is abuzz with activity.

Mohammed Fayaz, a bus driver from Peshawar, Pakistan, often sleeps on his bus in Musaffah, but this night, even at 4am, it was just too hot and humid.
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"I want to wake up in that city that doesn't sleep," the lyrics go. And it is perhaps not too culturally insensitive to say everyone recognises them as being from the New York, New York. Locally, it is Dubai, that siren city, which has the reputation of being jazzed up and ready to roll. Yet the "little town blues are melting away" in the capital city. Yes, the hotels are open late and you just might hear someone lip-syncing Sinatra, but there's more to life here than clubbing.

We are a city of 1.5 million people, about the size of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the sixth largest US city, and a bit larger than Amritsar, the 29th largest in India. And as such we have the needs of a city of 1.5m, whether we're at work or play: filling up with petrol because there's no line in the middle of the night, grabbing a shawarma and a carrot juice just because, relaxing at the end of a work day, or rising at 3 because the shift starts at 4 and someone has to keep this sundial city running. And who is out there at that hour? The National encouraged a team of four feature writers, three photographers and two videographers to stay awake (or get up early) to find out.

Video: Scenes from Abu Dhabi's streets at 3am

Last Updated: June 18, 2011 UAE

Our videographers forewent their sleep to capture images of the capital's life in the early hours.

Mina Zayed

As locations for moonlight picnics go this isn't the most obvious choice. It is flanked by the rust-streaked hull of a looming dredger, the Willem Van Orange, and grease, dirt and debris mingle underfoot. No matter how dim the light or late the hour, the end of the dock at old Mina Zayed could hardly be described as aesthetically pleasing.

But brothers Nabeel, 24, and Basel, 19, and their friend Mohammed, 25, are perfectly content to sit at the end of the dock drinking from cans of Sprite and sharing pistachios, crisps and conversation.

It is just after 3am. They have been here for more than an hour and are in no hurry to leave. It is 32 degrees but with 80 per cent humidity it feels 10 degrees hotter in town. Here, a soft coastal breeze brings some respite. That it carries the pungent smell of the tens of hundreds of onions being unloaded in the nearby fruit and vegetable market and the fetid stench of yesterday's rubbish, presumably still kicking about somewhere as the smell is borne here on the wind, seems of little concern to this trio.

"We come here for the sea," explains Nabeel, pointing into the damp darkness to where black sky blots into black water. "And for the wind. Today the weather is much better here."

Nabeel is back home in Abu Dhabi for a month, on vacation from university in Damascus, where he studies pharmacy. His younger brother studies engineering in the emirate where Mohammed also lives and works.

Earlier, the guys went to the cinema to see The Hangover 2. Then they drove here, bumping past skeletal dhows and closed-up shops, moored boats and parked lorries. Basel and Mohammed unrolled a large yellow and green rug while Nabeel popped open a small white deckchair. And here they sit in the quiet moments before life really begins further back along the port, at the fish and vegetable markets and the Iranian souq.

"There is nowhere quiet to come in Abu Dhabi," Nabeel says. "Only here and the breakwater. We sometimes go there, too."

Around the dock as 4am approaches so too does the end of a long shift for the 300 workers at Al Dafra Tourist Village, a catering company.

From Saturday to Wednesday 16,000 school lunches come out of this small factory down by the shore and are driven to 32 schools across the emirates. They are loaded onto air-conditioned lorries as lithe feral cats, their tales high in expectation of the rich pickings available here at the docks, skip about underfoot.

Each meal that is prepared is the same: one sandwich, one cake, one piece of fruit, one cup of water, one fruit juice and one yogurt. Wednesday night/Thursday morning, the last of the working week, is everybody's favourite shift. Remarkably affable for a man who works such harsh hours, Aswan Adahab has been catering supervisor here for the past five years working from 10pm to 4am. Mr Adahab smiles and explains: "No work tonight. Just sleep."


The neon sign and fairy lights illuminating the Lebanese Flower restaurant act as a beacon, drawing in the city's hungry. The city centre in Abu Dhabi goes to bed early, but the shawarma stand at Lebanese Flower does brisk business long after most of the shops and restaurants have closed for the night.

The rush is greatest at around 1am, but a steady stream of cars pull up with orders until the lights go out promptly at 3.

"They come for the rolls, lamb or chicken," says Khalil al Hariri, night manager, from Syria. Outside he puffs shisha and chats with his boss, Jihad Sharafuddin, the general manager, whose family has owned the restaurant for more than a decade. Both are here every day, from 7am until 3 at night (with a three-hour break at 4pm), but they are not the last staffers standing.

Abdul Rafik is the Indian chef in charge of the graveyard shift at Lebanese Flower. He and 20 other compatriots will be busy for the next four hours marinating chicken and chopping vegetables, preparing the shawarma for the next night's crowd of hungry insomniacs.

Three in the morning is the only time Naveed Khaled Mehmood and Jahanzeb Aurangzeb have a quiet moment to themselves. Taxi drivers, roommates and best friends, the two meet up at the same hour every night at a 24-hour cafe, Rawabi al Shams, next to the taxi station at Abu Dhabi Central Bus Terminal.

"You can't find customers at this time, so we come for a cup of tea, conversation and a little rest," said Mr Aurangzeb. He and his compatriot have been working the night shift exclusively for the past two years, waking up a few hours before sundown and going to bed at 9 or 10 in the morning.

They prefer to work nights to avoid the searing midday heat, but in Abu Dhabi sunset brings little comfort. Even at this early hour the mercury hovers around 30 degrees and with a wet blanket of humidity driving the heat index nearer to 40.

The speciality of the cafe is biryani, and every table in the cafe is full. As the hour hand ticks nearer to four, the stream of customers only seems to grow. Taxi and lorry drivers dominate the clientele, but every segment of the city's society seems to be here. The cars parked two abreast outside the entrance are a mix of Toyotas and Lexuses, old Nissans, a few Mercedes and even a Porsche 4x4.

The Rawabi al Shams, with an air-conditioning unit on every wall of the five-sided building, is an oasis from the heat for denizens of the night. Threnve Tecsom, however, is sitting outside in the heat. He has just arrived from Dubai. "On the weekends I visit my wife in Dubai, where she works," he said. "Now I'm headed to the airport where I work."

At 4am, the azaan rings out from the bus terminal's mosque calling the faithful to prayer. More than 60 sets of shoes sit in the shelves or lie scattered on the floor outside the entrance to the prayer room.

In Rawabi al Shams, Jassem Ali al Nuami is exchanging jokes with a group of young Emiratis arguing over who will pay for their tea. For the past two years he has sat at a counter selling gum, breath mints, tissues and cigarettes - essential supplies for this late-night crowd. He sees only a few hours of daylight, but he enjoys his job and the company. "We are open 24 hours, and every night it is like this."

The Corniche

Down at Special cafe, there's a convivial fug as waiters scurry back and forth, a wood-fired oven merrily churns out pizza and saj bread; shisha smoke hangs in the air.

There isn't an orange leather banquette free in the house as a waiter shouts an order for another shish tawouk and a strawberry shisha for a weary customer coming in from a 12-hour shift.

But this is not the close of a working day: although it is 3am, this lively hub with its blue neon sign - one of a string of three round-the-clock cafes garlanding the Corniche - is a magnet for a motley crew of insomniacs, night-shift workers knocking off in the early hours and revellers who have run out of places to go.

Salem Obaid, 31, an Emirati foreman for Enoc, the petrol company, draws deeply on his shisha, gulps down tea and turns to play a computer bowling game by his seat, content to sit in silence with his friend Mohammed Salmeen, 31, an army security officer.

"I work a fortnight, then have a fortnight off, so when I have a break, I like to come here to relax. I prefer the city after 10pm and can survive on a few hours' sleep," says Obaid.

Carmen Potecka, 26, and Svetlana Shcherbakova, 25, both Etihad cabin crew from the Czech Republic, are incongruously dressed in bright, skimpy frocks - outfits at odds with the cantina-style setting - as they attack a shawarma and chips with gusto after a night at the Hilton Hotel nearby.

"Because of our jobs, we sleep a lot during the day," explains Potecka. "This is a nice place with a good atmosphere and a pleasant crowd. It is always packed."

Across the road at an Adnoc petrol station with a fast-food outlet, a stream of 4x4s pull up, full of the sleep-deprived who just happen to have a hankering for a McDonald's Happy Meal or a Dunkin' Donut.

A celebratory meal at McDonald's marks the end of an era for four friends, Youssef el Rahimy, 15, an Egyptian; Nanja Miseljic, 16, of Bosnia; Pedro Barros, 16, of Brazil, and Tynmar Yoghi, 16, a Palestinian. All pupils at the American Community School, they decided to hold an all-nighter as el Rahimy is returning to Canada, where he grew up, in two days. As they are too young for shisha cafes, they have instead spent the past 15 hours alternating between playing video games and wolfing down fast food.

Gulping down energy drinks, el Rahimy says: "This is one of my last days in Abu Dhabi and we are trying to spend as much time together as we can. This is not a regular thing, it is a special occasion - but it is part of Middle Eastern culture to be up at this time. It is too hot to go out during the day."

Three Emirati friends, Mohammad Ateeq, 27, of the Coastguard; Mohammed Ibrahim, 21, and Ali Hamad, 24, students at Al Ain University, have fallen into a pattern of going to the gym after work or study, playing cards until the early hours and snacking on burgers and salad.

"Turkish coffee keeps me going," says Ibrahim. "We don't mean to stay awake; it just happens."

Mohammed Salem, 18, Saeed Bakheet, 19, and Fahad Amer, 18, have not even made it inside the restaurant, admitting from their parked car: "We have nothing better to do. Once a week, we just drive around."

Outside Special, Muhammad Suleman, 28, a taxi driver from Peshawar, Pakistan, waits patiently to ferry customers home. It's a busy shift, especially at this hour, but he will make up for it by sleeping all day until he starts work again at 6pm.

As the first dawn light starts to filter through steamed-up windows at the cafe, the crowd finally begins to thin. By 6am, there is a lone Emirati, puffing contemplatively on a shisha. Staff sweep the floors around him, tidy chairs and prepare for the day's customers. Tonight will be another busy night, but for now, he has the place to himself.


The deep orange of the street lamps stretch away, ahead and behind, left and right. In every direction there are only shadows on tarmac, lighter patches of road like zebra stripes. In the distance, a flame burns above the warehouses, above the concrete buildings that house the sleeping people of Musaffah. Occasionally, we turn a corner and see queues of lorries, their engines idling, but there are no people in them. An area built by the hands of men is deserted of human movement. The hands that build Abu Dhabi are resting.

Three am on the outskirts of the city and only a few people are still awake. At a petrol station, two bus drivers languish in the passenger seats, waiting for their shifts to start, unable to doze in the clammy night heat.

Outside a Romana water plant, with trucks idling all around, stand two workers, one wearing a towel bunched up around his thighs. "Kerala style!" his friend Abhishek says. They are preparing the water to be delivered to corner shops and news-agents in time for their morning customers. "We have to work now," says Abhishek. "Because if no water, no life in all Abu Dhabi!"

We walk for a while, around the backstreets of Musaffah. Occasionally dogs rush past on their secret, silent journeys. The factories and workshops are all dark. Outside a Porsche building, four young men are walking purposefully towards the road. They turn out to be welders and engineers working extra hours, finally coming off a shift that began at 8am the previous day.

They are all from various parts of Kerala, in south India, and in their mid-twenties.

"It's better to work now because we can, when we are not too old," says Paul. "We work like this many times because the money is always better. For our families." They are exhausted and there are no taxis. We offer them a lift in the car and they shyly pile in, three in the back, two of us in the front passenger seat.

Left and right, right and left, once off the main arteries of Musaffah, the roads look the same. We are somewhere in the depths of the industrial zone, in streets that look similar to us but must be full of small landmarks to those who live here. There are piles of uncollected rubbish, empty cars with doors left open and the vague uncertainty of the maze-like darkness.

We drop the four workers off at their home, a large four-storey building, plain white, very much like the buildings all around. Inside, strip-lights illuminate corridors packed with boots in neat lines. The workers wash briefly and slump into bunk beds; although talkative a few moments before, the fatigue is calling them and they forget about us. Feeling awkward for intruding on such a personal scene, we leave them to their dreams.

By the time we find our way out of Musaffah, the sun is rising. At 5.33am, the street lamps switch off, marking the moment the living infrastructure of the city moves into the day. The rest of Musaffah is moving, too: lorries and buses have found drivers, cars queue for petrol, street cleaners move across their patches. The hands that build the city prepare for another day.