By Kareem Shaheen www.thenational.ae
DUBAI // Crowds gathered in front of makeshift stalls on the pavement. Tourists went past in horse-drawn carriages, taking in the sights and sounds. The atmosphere was lively. People queued for rides at a small carnival park and the roads were busy with traffic all the way over the nearby Al Maktoum Bridge.
That was Al Rigga Road during the Dubai Shopping Festival six years ago. But once construction work on the Dubai Metro began in 2005, the once popular area became deserted and desolate.
Barricades and diversions appeared seemingly overnight. Whole segments of the street were closed to traffic, scaffolding and cones marring an area that was once a tourist attraction.
Side streets became one-way, then two-way, then one-way again, confusing motorists. Signs warned drivers they were likely to be held up in traffic and to seek alternative routes.
But now, with its Metro station built and the service up and running since September, Al Rigga’s residents are hopeful that the very thing that almost destroyed the area could bring back its glory days as a shopping mecca for visitors to Dubai.
Many are optimistic that easy accessibility by train will bring in visitors who want to explore the city or shop in one of its older districts.
There is still some scaffolding to be removed and portions of broken pavement to be repaired, and unsightly silver equipment boxes for the Metro have been installed on a section of the road’s central divider. But life is slowly returning to normal. There are more people on the street, trees have been replanted, shops reopened, and the side streets are two-way once more.
“It’s easy to walk. Everybody’s free now,” said Mohammed Iftekhar, a 29-year-old Indian civil engineer who has lived in Al Rigga for more than four years.
He recalled the activity in the street during the 2004 Dubai Shopping Festival, before he moved to the area. “All the stalls were right there on the road itself. It was a nice moment. There was dancing, carnivals.”
The Metro construction work brought a range of inconveniences, including the endless diversions. “It was very difficult. We needed to [drive] around for long distances because a lot of areas were closed,” Mr Iftekhar said.
There was also the endless roar of drills and clang of construction machinery, and the temporary but extended closures of his favourite food outlets. “Everything in Rigga was cancelled,” he said.
“The street was almost completely shut down. You couldn’t even walk in the street,” recalled Zain al Abidin Sewar al Dahab, a Sudanese computer engineer who used to live in the area and at that time worked at a restaurant called Cactus on Al Rigga Road.
He said the restaurant’s business was also affected. “Before the Metro [construction work], what we used to make in the month of the festival was enough to cover the whole year. This place used to open until four, or five or six in the morning, and most of our customers were tourists.
“Rigga was a symbol of tourism in Dubai. Everything was special,” said Mr Sewar al Dahab. “I used to hear about Rigga Road when my friends would come back to Sudan and tell us about the shopping and the food there. ‘If you go to Dubai you have to visit Rigga,’ they told us.”
Al Rigga Street is bookended by its two major landmarks: the imposing Port Saeed mosque with its twin minarets, and Al Ghurair Centre, the oldest shopping mall in Dubai, inaugurated in 1983.
A short walk away is the Deira City Centre, the first of Dubai’s modern shopping havens whose opening in November 1995 paved the way for the shopping behemoths such as the Mall of the Emirates, Ibn Battuta Mall and Dubai Mall.
But beyond the glitter of brand-name storefronts is a variety of small businesses, antique shops, restaurants, shisha cafes, hairdressers and grocery stores that give the district a human touch. Many of the hotels on the street have been in business for years. Pedestrians pause to chat or stop for a cup of coffee.
Mr Iftekhar said the residents of Al Rigga were more friendly than elsewhere in Dubai.
“All people speak to one another. They say ‘salam’,” he said.
During the turbulence of the construction period, Mr Iftekhar said he found solace in the Port Saeed mosque, which he said had become a symbol of the neighbourhood.
“This is a famous mosque. Everybody knows Port Saeed mosque. I feel peaceful coming here,” he said as he put on his shoes after noon prayers.
He said he would meet friends later in the day for tea at a nearby cafe a ritual he has enjoyed almost daily during his time in Al Rigga.
Mr Sewar al Dahab still comes to Rigga once a day, despite getting a new job on Sheikh Zayed Road. One of the cafes he frequents is La Ibense, which draws a large number of the area’s Egyptian residents whenever their country is playing in a major football tournament.
“You should come to La Ibense when Egypt plays in the African Cup,” he said.
During major tournaments, a win by the national team, or Al Ahli, Egypt’s biggest club, sets fans parading down the street and honking car horns.
People here make their feelings known on other issues as well. In 2003, in the run-up to the American invasion of Iraq, more than a hundred demonstrators marched along the street to protest.
Al Rigga’s revival is perhaps most evident in its biggest restaurant, Al Safadi. Opened 10 years ago, it lost almost half of its patrons after Metro construction began in earnest.
“When they sat outside, there was no scenery. When the roads were closed, our work declined,” said Bilal al Bokharahli, who does the restaurant’s accounts. “You could walk on one side of the road without seeing the other side. People weren’t able to come here and nobody used the road. You felt like you were in a prison.”
Since construction finished, however, the restaurant, which is a franchise of a Lebanon-based company, has regained 80 per cent of its pre-construction business.
“There is a change after the Metro,” said Mr Sewar al Dahab. “There is movement. Life has returned to the street. I have hope that things will go back.”