Light at the end of tunnel construction for Abu Dhabi businesses

Businesses near Sheikh Zayed Tunnel are bouncing back after its completion, but some are discovering a different neighbourhood from what was there before roadworks began.

When Ammar Al Hayek couldn’t even get to his own showroom, he knew things were looking bad for his business.

The Hayek Electric Company started by his father is based in the first tower building constructed on Mina Street and has been doing business since before the road was sealed off.

Thanks to a reputation earned over 30 years, the lighting company had survived the financial crisis of 2008 and then the start of roadworks associated with the construction of what became the Sheikh Zayed Tunnel.

Then came the day, midway through the tunnel construction, when he arrived at work and discovered that the road layout had been revised yet again.

“In 2010 they closed this street temporarily. Even we didn’t know how to get here,” he said. “We lost most of our customers. Business would be down to 40 per cent of what it was, something like that.

“Business is still flat. Other companies took our customers and to bring them back isn’t easy. I don’t think business will come back to 100 per cent but I hope we reach 70-80 per cent.”

Variations of this story – of how the roadworks devastated business and how owners are having to woo back customers who began shopping elsewhere – can be heard from many of the companies along Mina Street and Salaam Street.

But there another aspect to the stories is also emerging. As the area wakes from a long hibernation caused by the tunnel construction, shop owners are discovering that Abu Dhabi itself has changed.

Since construction began, a bus service has established itself, regulated paid parking has been introduced, small industry – such as carpentry shops – has been moved to Mussaffah, the corner groceries have had to upgrade to international standards and there has been a crackdown on illegal flat sharing.

The cumulative effect is a dramatic change to the nature of the communities compared with the ones that were there when tunnel construction began.

For Samir Sheikh, an Indian who runs a computer shop on a backstreet off Salaam Street, the roadworks are not the main reason why his business has struggled.

“The bigger thing isn’t the tunnel. It’s people who left because they have cars,” he says. “Anyone who had a car left for Mussaffah. You can say half the people left.”

Mawaqif arrived in the area midway through the tunnel construction. At night, most of the parking in the area is reserved for residents, but anyone who was illegally sharing an apartment was unable to get a resident’s permit, which allowed them to park in the area at night all year for a flat fee of Dh800. They were forced to either park outside the area or, as many have, move elsewhere.

This is exactly what the Department of Transport sought when it introduced regulated parking, since it was one of the indirect ways to ensure that inner-city apartments were occupied by only a single family.

The unintended consequence for those running businesses in the area, however, is that as the density of people plummeted, so too did the population of potential customers for people like Mr Sheikh.

“We’re staying here,” he said. “We don’t have cars.”

Another small businessman in the backstreets, Hafiz Mushtaq, of Saloon Hafiz, agreed with what Mr Sheikh said.

“Before the tunnel, here it was good work. Now it’s not good, work is down, and people are going outside,” he said. “When a customer goes, they don’t come back. It’s been four or five years. It’s a problem. It’s very much a problem.

“Before the tunnel, people would drive here. Before Mawaqif was created, it was good, but now with Mawaqif, it’s getting too much problem. They’re not finding parking. They are driving around and around for an hour.” The alterative, he pointed out, was to park illegally and risk a Dh500 fine.

The manager of a large retail operation that faces Salaam Street, said the reopening of the street after the tunnel construction had not prompted a return of business.
"It's the lack of parking which is the main thing," he said.

“Before, there was parking at the front side and the back side. Now there’s only parking at the back side. It means little business.”

Before Salaam Street was revamped, the store was on a slip road with diagonal parking on both sides directly outside its main entrance. Now there is a drop-off site beside the main road where anyone who leaves their car there while shopping will earn a Dh500 fine.

“Before Mawaqif, there were too many cars here,” he said.

Parking was now more orderly but there were fewer spaces and the ones that are there "are always full".
"Our customers are going. They come around and if there isn't any parking then they go.
"Our business isn't like it was before. Business is a problem."

But some businesses have managed to bounce back. India Palace restaurant was as devastated as many other businesses after it became effectively inaccessible because of a combination of the roadworks and the crush of traffic that was diverted on to other streets in the Tourist Club area.

The restaurant manager, known as Praveen K?K (“My last name is very long”), said at its worst the restaurant was down to 40 per cent of its pre-tunnel turnover.

“There was no access to come here. There was too much congestion, too much traffic and no parking,” he said. “Business went down by 60 per cent.”

Eighty per cent of their business came from “local Arabic people”, for which they managed to retain a customer base by increasing the number of home deliveries.

The other 20 per cent came from fans of Indian food who journeyed from outside that part of town to eat there. That part of their trade completely disappeared during the roadworks.

But he said business has now built back up to pre-tunnel levels.

"After the road opened, it's slowly, slowly picking back up again. Now it's like normal business again.
"Our customers came back."

Unlike the retail business described earlier, India Palace retained parking directly outside in the revamped road design.

“During the day and until 9pm, it’s easy to find parking here. We’re open until midnight each day and it gets busy at about 8-9pm, when the parking is only for residents,” he said.

“At night time it’s very difficult to find parking at the back side because it’s residential and it fills up.”

Mr Al Hayek hopes that in time he will also be able to bring his family lighting business back to its pre-tunnel levels, but said the nature of the community has changed since tunnel construction began.

The themes he lists – the chaos of the roadworks, the ongoing difficulties of parking in the Mawaqif era and the consequent changes in the nature of the communities – echo those of owners of businesses both big and small.

His company provides high-end lighting fixtures and so is less dependent on trade from the immediate neighbourhood, but Mr Al Hayek had noticed that the nature of the community in the area had changed. Before tunnel construction began, he said, there were more families living in the area.

“The bachelors have stayed but the families have left,” he said. “The places that closed around here were groceries or cafeterias. Everyone has been here for a long time.”

The availability of parking became such an issue that Mr Hayek’s company hired a driver to park customers’ cars, but even that was not enough to stop the loss of trade.

“We had customers saying they came here, couldn’t find parking and left,” he said. “In the morning there is parking, but in the evening, no way. After 5pm it’s very difficult to find a park. Most of the customers come in the evening.

“Even before it wasn’t easy ... but someone could park their car and come to see the showroom. Now they park their car and they get a Dh500 fine, which they have to add to the cost of the chandelier.”