UAE life in 2008: recalling those hazy, crazy days before baqala

The National at 10: White and gold taxis, sand parking, Ikea within easy reach and having nowhere to live, James Langton takes a nostalgic walk down memory lane … to 2008

Abu Dhabi - April 1st 2008 -  A Taxi sits in traffic on in central Abu Dhabi (Andrew Parsons / The National) *** Local Caption *** AP007-0104-AD24.jpg
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How did we live all those years ago, when the first edition of The National hit the streets of Abu Dhabi on the morning of April 17, 2008?

Asked almost anywhere else, the question would seem facetious given such a brief passage of time. But such is the speed of change in the UAE that going back just 10 years takes you to a different world.

In Abu Dhabi in 2008, almost any journey began with the search for a passing white Toyota Corolla with gold panels over each wheel and a green sign on the roof with the word “taxi” in Arabic.

This was the city’s main method of transport for those without a car. The strongest point in favour of the gold and white taxis is that they were cheap. Almost any journey within the city cost no more than Dh5, except during prayer times when the entire fleet would vanish from the streets.

The drivers were almost exclusively Pashtun, clad in salwar kameez, all claiming to be from Peshawar as they tried to negotiate an off-meter fare that would bring them a few more dirhams.

Their knowledge of the geography of the city was generally as sparse as their command of the English language, which did little to stem the endless flow of questions.

Unaccompanied young female employees of The National were generally assumed to be in search of a husband, while any citizen of Britain – the first question asked was "Where are you from?" – was able to procure for them a visa for the UK and a job offer.

The days of the gold and white taxi were already numbered, as they were to be replaced by the silver Corollas of TransAD – more reliable but also far more expensive.


Read more of our 10-year anniversary coverage here:

SPECIAL REPORT: Chronicling 10 years of change in the UAE

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The process of finding a taxi is also a useful reminder of how our lives in 2018 are so much easier than they were in 2008. The TransAD app involves a couple of clicks and a driver is summoned automatically to your door.

Almost every government service these days can be accessed with an app or a website. Utility bills can be paid in seconds. Many services 10 years ago would have involved a long queue at a chaotic government office.

And not just public, but also private services. When was the last time any of us needed to pay a visit to our bank?

This was the age before smartphones, of course. The first iPhone was only a few months old, and the preferred instrument of communication was the sturdy Nokia 3120, with a BlackBerry 8800 the ultimate status symbol.

It would be a mistake to think, though, that life was somehow less complicated in those days. If you did own a car, finding a space to leave it was a major headache. This was the age of sand parking, finding a vacant plot of land with a drop in the kerb to reach it. Having four-wheel drive was a major bonus.

Then came Mawaqif, the era of paid parking, and inevitably parking tickets. The blue and black or white lines first arrived in 2009 around Hamdan Street but inexorably spread across the capital. Like other changes, it has made life a little easier but also costlier.

The geography of the city has changed too. Back in 2008 Ikea, then as now often the first stop for any new arrival furnishing their home, was in Marina Mall. Today it is next to Yas Mall on Yas Island and perhaps busier than ever.

The crowds at off-island locations such as Yas Mall, with its multiplex cinema and brands that once required a trip to Dubai, illustrate a broader point. Abu Dhabi has become suburban in the past 10 years.

Khalifa City once seemed a remote place, a name on road signs leaving the island. Today it is a thriving community of Emiratis and expatriates, attracted by its excellent schools, the city’s biggest Spinneys and with a second hospital near completion. There are parks now and even some bike paths.

Back in 2008, the city was in the grip of a housing stock crisis. For new arrivals there was almost nowhere to live and what was there was massively expensive. One entrepreneur famously even tried to pass on a windowless garage as a studio apartment.

Today new arrivals are spoilt for choice – a sea vista at Al Bandar or Saadiyat, a high rise on Reem Island or a villa in Al Raha Gardens.

Back in 2008 the concept of underground parking and a swimming pool and gym was unheard of. Today it is pretty much non-negotiable.

How we are spoilt for choice in 2018.

When Jones the Grocer opened just a stone's throw from The National's old offices in Al Mamoura in 2009 it heralded a gourmet revolution in a dining landscape until then largely dominated by the shisha cafe.

Back in early 2008, the city was agog at the opening of the Shangri-La hotel at a location that even when meticulously explained to a taxi driver took some finding.

In 2018, the opening of a new luxury hotel barely raises an eyebrow. There is the Fairmont, Dusit Thani, a brace each of the Ritz Carlton and the St Regis, and the rapidly expanding Rotana Group, which has just opened a beach resort on Saadiyat.

Yet for all the changes in Abu Dhabi from then to now, families still head for the parks, seeking the cool of the evening for a picnic or an impromptu game of cricket or football.

The streets still quieten for Friday prayers and the best flatbread is still found in fresh from the oven for the price of a few coins.

 If the competition in 2018 is fierce for the best wagu burger or sashimi platter, so it still is for a Chips Oman sandwich or chicken shawarma.

At its heart and in its soul, the city remains the same.