The mixed blessings of UAE village life

The villagers of Al Hayer rejoice in the rural simplicities their remote location brings but that does not mean they do not want to share in the benefits of development.

Children walking in the village of Nahel, one of several small and isolated communities in the thinly populated Eastern Region.
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There are Al Ain locals, then there are Al Hayer locals. And even though only about 50km of dust-strewn motorway separates the modest farming community from the outskirts of the larger oasis city, the distinction is important to Salem al Ameri.

"You ask somebody in Al Hayer where they were born, and they will tell you, 'Under that tree' or 'beside that well'," he said. "Al Hayer is not like Dubai or Al Ain or Sharjah. The people who were born and raised here are like one family. You ask me who lives in that house? I'll tell you the names of all his sons and daughters." Mr al Ameri, a 29-year-old police employee, is one of the fourth generation from his family to grow up in Al Hayer, an Eastern Region village of about 5,000 people hemmed in by mountains.

He has a wife and two-year-old son, and plans to remain here, where he can drive to the desert with his boy to practise falconry. "Even if they give me a palace in Al Ain, I will not go," he said. "Al Hayer is my home. It is impossible for me to move out." Still, life in the remote Eastern Region can be difficult, he conceded. Al Hayer has abundant farmland for cultivating dates and vegetables, due to underground freshwater reserves, but the community lacks major infrastructure, and is in need of a hospital.

Al Hayer also needs a hotel, a cinema and a shopping mall, Mr al Ameri said. One Al Ain Co-operative supermarket is the only option for groceries, and while a local clinic sees patients, it does not operate 24 hours a day. Other residents have begun to hear the siren call of nearby metropolises such as Al Ain and Abu Dhabi, he said. The Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council has already released master plans for those cities, as well as the Capital City District, and is working on a 2030 urban structure framework for Al Gharbia in the West. The Eastern Region remains the emirate's only area lacking an urban plan.

But to ensure that the region's hamlets do not fall behind in urban development, the council is planning a similar revitalisation project that will encompass Al Hayer and some 20 other small villages. The challenge, according to Falah al Ahbabi, the general manager of the council, is to raise the living standards of the residents of the smaller settlements to the level of their rapidly developing neighbours, without having to compromise their traditional character.

The formulation of an Eastern Region 2030 Plan would have to take into account a gentler kind of urbanisation, he stressed. "Given the fact that the Eastern Region is very close to rapidly growing cities, including Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Dubai, there will be substantial pressures on [the region] in coming years," Mr al Ahbabi said. This was also a serious concern for Ali al Beluchi, a 50-year-old lorry driver living in Al Hayer.

"A lot of people are bored out here, but a lot of people like me are happy," said Mr al Beluchi, who settled in Al Hayer in 1983 after moving from Pakistan. In those days, he said, the town had one barber's shop and one car repair shop. The nearest petrol station was in Al Ain. He likes the idea of building a nearby hypermarket, but still has his reservations about whether the modern changes to his home will diminish the strong sense of community.

"Everybody wants bigger and better, but I know all the guys here and I don't want to lose that feeling," he said. To address such concerns, Mr al Ahbabi pledged that preservation of the environmental and cultural heritage of the region "will remain a cornerstone" of the Eastern Region 2030 plans. With the larger cities beckoning those seeking professional careers, familial ties are being stretched, said Larry Beasley, a special adviser to the planning council.

He argued that adding services and building up local industry would encourage residents to stay in the Eastern Region to work and raise families. For Mr al Ameri's part, he would welcome more retail options and also suggested that Al Hayer has tourism potential. "There are American and UK tourists, they come from Dubai and they go quad-biking here," he said. "They always ask for hotels. They want to stay out here."

But building a hospital would be first on his wish list. Al Ain paramedics, who yesterday went out to the aid of a worker in Al Hayer after he fell from a roof, complained that the hamlet was too far north of Al Ain not to have a hospital. "This is probably one of the most remote areas of Al Ain," one paramedic said, adding that it could take an hour and 15 minutes to drive to Al Hayer and back. "One woman from here gave birth by C-section in Al Ain, but then when she was back here, she was infected," another paramedic said. "It was a really serious case, so they had to have a helicopter come get her. This is probably one of the areas where they use the helicopter the most because of the distance."

Worse still, the smaller community of Nahel, about 40km west of Al Hayer, does not even have a clinic, said Mohammed Mostapha, an Egyptian security guard at Al Hillal Kindergarten. "If they can at least build a clinic out here, that would be good," said the 35-year-old, who passes his days watching soap operas, praying and sitting in the town garden. Mr Mostapha said he had been reassigned by his company to Nahel from Abu Dhabi and had lived there for six months. He estimated that the town had a population of fewer than 2,000, mostly Emirati.

"The mosque is the social centre of this place," he said. "There's not much to do here, so everybody goes to Al Ain. I go there every 15 days and buy everything I need and come back. The majority of the people do that if they don't have cars." One serious proposal from the planning council is to set up an integrated public transport network connecting all the towns of the Eastern Region and Al Ain.

Currently, Mr Mostapha said, hailing a taxi could require up to two hours standing under the sun. The planning council has already sent inspection teams to speak to residents in the Eastern Region settlements and held a week-long collaborative session bringing together municipal executives and top urban planners, architects and engineers from around the world. The next step is to begin implementing the changes aggressively over the next five years.

The formulation of the Eastern Region master plan would mark the completion of framework plans for the entire capital. Last month Plan Al Ain 2030, the planning council's urban structure framework for the city, won an award for excellence from the International Society of City and Regional Planners. The council was recognised for proposing a city that was environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.