Neighbourhood Watch: Khalidiya's 'Starbucks square' nestled among Abu Dhabi's high-rises

Young people of Abu Dhabi claim square to themselves

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“They call this place New York, by the way,” says Aref Abazaid pointing to the skyscrapers around him.

At night, it is easy to see why. The nameless square in Khalidiya belongs to Abu Dhabi’s youth, who crowd outside cafes and benches on weekends to sip coffee and chat late into the night, bringing alive a street life unparalleled elsewhere in the city.

For teenagers such as Mr Abazaid, 19, the plaza beside Jones the Grocer and Al Ain Tower is a place where school girls and boys can meet without the watchful eyes of parents.

“Come here on Thursday and you see everybody,” says Mr Abazaid, a mechanical engineering student at Abu Dhabi University. “The people you don’t usually see in the week, they will be here.”

In the 1960s, this part of the city was known for being the original site of The British School Al Khubairat, as well as the churches of St Andrew's and St Joseph's. All three were moved to their present Al Mushrif location at the end of the following decade.

By the 1990s, the area was home to a Burger King, a popular hangout for teenagers at the time. For today’s generation, the square outside Starbucks and 1762 Gourmet Deli is the place to be seen.

“These cafes are for young people,” says Jena Osman, 17, a year-12 pupil from Syria who has been a regular to the square since December 2016. “Kids come here sometimes to play, but on Thursday and Friday, young people take this place. We feel secure here.”

It is a place for young and old, says Jena. By old, she means late twenties. “Under 30.”

Parents know it is safe in this trendy neighbourhood, which combines the best traits of old and new Abu Dhabi. Cars that pass through on the narrow streets, paved in cobblestone, are forced to drive slowly.

The 47-storey Al Ain Tower has been a Corniche landmark since it opened in 2011 with its curved silhouette rising above the surrounding buildings. But outside the front door of this luxury building, the neighbourhood still has a whiff of Hamdan Street and old Khalidiya: a shawarma shop, beauty salons, a one-man launderette and Al Shaheen grocery, a grocery only in name. It is, in fact, an oversize baqala, where the person at checkout counts money languidly, and is never in a rush.

But it is not only residents and teenagers who come here.

The plaza is a haunt for drivers with luxury vehicles and prestigious, multimillion dirham number plates who idle outside Starbucks.

“Teenage guys come here to chill,” says Obaid Hosam, 23, a Syrian born and raised in Abu Dhabi who has been coming to the square for six years. “The fancy guys come here to drive.”

“In Abu Dhabi you’ve got Reem Island, Yas or here,” he says. “It’s the middle of Abu Dhabi. They see this neighbourhood as the modern neighbourhood because it’s fancy and it’s near everything, Marina Mall and the Corniche.”

Teenagers head to the plaza after meeting at nearby restaurants or for a few rounds of billiards at Harrods, a local pool hall named after the luxury London department store.

Unlike its namesake, Harrods is known only to a small cohort of regulars. It is tucked away on the mezzanine floor of an adjacent high-rise and a signboard above street level is the only indication of its existence.

Even inside the building, it is hard to find, hidden at the end of twisting hallways.

The dimly lit pool hall is a quiet place with stale air that relies on patrons to create ambience. And they do.

In summer, Harrods is filled with the roar of boys playing Fifa on PlayStation and the crack of balls on the pool table. Coffee and cold drinks are available, Vimto on ice, Barbican and mocktails.

“In summer it was full,” says Filipino Giovani Ravara, 27, who works at Harrods. “Students are from all over: Al Bateen, Muroor, Delma Street and Electra. Almost all students like to play Fifa.”

On winter weeknights, the cafe is silent. Mr Ravara watches videos on his phone and waits for customers. The weather is pleasant and everyone is in the square below.