Roadworks at Al Salam Street take toll on traders

Ongoing construction work on Al Salam Street has taken a heavy toll on the shops and cafes of the capital's once thriving thoroughfare

ABU DHABI // Traders on Al Salam Street say they will never recover the losses incurred during the past two years, even if customers return once the ongoing construction work is completed.

"Recover? There's no way," said NBR, the owner of Bel Mondo, a coffee shop and restaurant nestled in the corner of Hamdan and Al Salam streets. "My customer base has gone down by 85 per cent. I have lost an average of Dh100,000 per month for the last two years. How can I ever recover this amount?"

Once a cosy cafe, Bel Mondo is now barricaded in makeshift walls and fences. Its side entrance is inaccessible and its front entrance is surrounded by piles of sand.

But NBR, who asked not to be named because of continuing issues with the municipality, said his forward planning was the only thing that had kept his business running.

"I heard about this construction two years before it began," he said. "And the minute I did, I … decided I had to do something about it."

He invested in a catering and delivery business. If customers did not come to him, then he would go to his customers, he said.

However, not all business owners had such opportunities. And many say that relocating would have been even more expensive than staying put. But regaining lost customers would be an arduous task, traders said.

"Only God knows what will happen," said Olga Samuel, who runs Al Khaleej Bakeries and Pastries on Al Salam Street. "This is our only branch and many of our customers have left us for other bakeries."

Ms Samuel pays almost Dh600,000 per year on rent alone. Salaries and supplies amount to another Dh250,000 per month. But on a good day, her daily sales added up to barely Dh5,000, she said. Her business has been surviving on savings from before the construction.

Ms Samuel said she could not afford the financial outlay involved in advertising to promote her business once the roadworks come to an end.

"I don't want to lose any more than I've already lost," she said. "Our customers know who we are. If things improve, that's great. If not, I'm closing shop and leaving."

The Dh5 billion Al Salam Street project started in October 2007 and was to have been completed last October. However, the project is only three-quarters finished, with roads for the final phase, which run from Hazza bin Zayed Street to the Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank in Mina, opening by the end of July.

Once the project is complete, Al Salam Street will have four lanes in each direction, expanding capacity to an estimated 12,000 vehicles per hour. The project includes five tunnels and one major bridge. Motorists will be able to travel without stopping at traffic signals from Sheikh Zayed Bridge until Mina Zayed. It will be the first motorway on Abu Dhabi Island, said Eisa al Mazroui, the director of infrastructure and services co-ordination at Abu Dhabi Municipality.

Many traders said they were led to believe that construction would end in a matter of weeks or months, but those hopes sank as time passed and the construction continued.

Local news reports, municipality officials and construction workers were the main sources of information for most merchants in the area, they said.

Ms Samuel said that a month ago, one of her workers told her that he had heard Al Salam Street would open to traffic in 15 days. But Ms Samuel said she knew better. "I laughed and told him, if it does, I'll give you a Dh10,000 bonus."

The roadway project was divided into four contracts, three of which are complete. Work on the fourth phase, which has the greatest impact on local residents and businesses, is more than 70 per cent complete.

The complexity of the multibillion-dirham project created unforeseen circumstances, said Mr al Mazroui. "The project faced some challenges that could not be forecast due to its huge size, its diverse components and because large parts of the project are being constructed in dense urban locations with varied infrastructure components and high traffic volumes," he said.

Some merchants were optimistic, however, that business would bounce back. "Once all of this is cleared and Mawaqif [parking fines] are implemented, people will start coming back," said Mohammed Amin Mahmoud, an office supervisor at Dnata, a travel agency.

"We're planning a big advertising campaign once the construction is over," said Babar Arshad, a store supervisor at Sun and Sand Sports.

"The biggest issue right now is parking. Once our customers know that they can easily park and access our store, I'm sure we'll win them back."

Projected timeline

Phase 1: Stretches from Sheikh Zayed Bridge to the intersection at 31st Street on the Eastern Ring Road. This phase consists of two tunnels, the first 850 metres long and the second 711 metres. This phase is now open to traffic.

Phase 2: Stretches from the intersection at 29th Street to 19th Street (Al Saada Street). This phase involved work to widen Al Salam Street, and is now complete.

Phase 3: Stretches from the intersection with Al Saada until Hazza bin Zayed Street. This phase also consists of two tunnels, each 850 metres long, and a bridge leading to Al Reem Island. This phase is now complete.

Phase 4: Runs from Hazza bin Zayed Street to the Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank in Mina. This phase consists of a 3.6 kilometre tunnel, of which 2.4km will be covered. Completion rate is above 70 per cent and roads will be finished by the end of July.

* Manal Ismail