Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Hesitant Hatta grows up fast

Older shops along the Hatta-Oman road have been affected by the opening of a mall in the village. Paulo Vecina / The National

DUBAI // Snug in its ring of protective mountains, Hatta has long been a haven of tradition, a village largely overlooked by the busy progress in Dubai and the nearby border region of Oman.

But with the rest of the UAE in a state of furious transformation, Hatta could not hold out forever. Now, the area’s old-fashioned house covered in white plaster, set out around untidy courtyards and alleyways, are being cleared away and the residents given spacious modern villas in orderly suburbs on the slopes.

New hospitals, schools, and a multi-storey mall have added a neon and concrete skyline to a once-uncluttered landscape.

The fruits of traditional practices such as date farming and animal husbandry have come under -pressure from mass-produced imports that line supermarket shelves.
The village’s location close to the tranquil Hatta Pools and rugged Hajar mountains have also made it a booming tourist destination.

For some, this is a double-edged sword. While many of the changes are inevitable and welcome, others risk destroying Hatta’s character, which is appreciated by residents and visitors alike.

One resident, Omar Obdi, 19, said government housing projects had improved the standard of living and given the younger generation the chance to make lives for themselves in the village.

“Hatta was unchanged for hundreds of years and the elders like to retain the traditional way of life. But the younger generation has new ideas and they are demanding modern amenities and job -opportunities so that they can stay in the village. A growing population needs more services and the Government has recognised this.”

However, Mr Obdi admitted too much modernisation could threaten Hatta’s popularity with tourists.

“With the new houses and amenities there is an incentive to stay in the community but if they build too many it will change the nature of Hatta and the tourists will go.”

Most Hatta residents have government jobs, in local offices of the health department and the military. However, many come from families that have been market traders for generations. Some still ply their trade in the village square or in the small shops that have sprung up around the main road.

Wahab Abdul Ratif, owner of an electronics store, said such traders were feeling the squeeze of the new competition, but that an increasingly profitable Omani market was keeping them in business.

“There are larger shops in Hatta now, with the mall offering a greater range of products and international brands. This has been popular with local residents and this has affected custom at the smaller stores.

“However, business is still good in the street markets, especially in electronics, because many people come over from Oman to get cheaper prices on goods.”

Hatta has also become a commuter satellite of Dubai as some dwellers of the city try to escape sky-high rents. While a three-bedroom flat in Dubai Marina costs about Dh11,000 (US$3,000) a month, a similar place to live in Hatta costs only around Dh1,500.

While such commuters represent only a small percentage of the population, residents fear their numbers could increase when a new road from Abu Dhabi is completed.
The opening of fast-food delivery outlets 18 months ago and a local taxi service last month suggest Hatta is indeed changing.

Haitham Layous, the manager of the Hatta Fort Hotel, one of the community’s main gathering places, described the rising standard of living as positive, but sounded a note of caution.

“The appeal of the village is its tranquillity. We have found that most of our guests come here to -escape the city and to find out more about traditional ways of life and the history of the UAE. Guided tours of the heritage village are very popular, as are trips to local sites such as the Hatta Pools and wadis.”

Mr Layous added that the area is seeing more “adventure tourism”.

“One of the current trends in the tourist industry is that people are demanding activities and adventures. We greet lots of groups who have lunch with us and then head into the mountains.”

Lewis Godinho, the hotel’s recreation manager and a local history expert, said the village had doubled in size over the past six years and that the community had become less isolated.

“Years ago you would only see one or two buses pass through the village a day. Now there is a permanent bus station and an hourly service to Dubai, Ajman and Fujairah. Locals used to farm dates and tobacco or sell goat meat at the market. This is less common now as people can work farther afield. But residents have an easier, more comfortable life now with new houses, a park and jogging track. A new school will welcome students in September.”

Driving through the narrow streets of the old district, Mr Godinho pointed to his old house, a crumbling shack, smaller than the garages of the villas on the new estates: “This will be cleared soon, they are building 300 more houses by 2011.”

He spoke with an emotion in his voice that suggested regret for something lost: a simpler life, age-old traditions and pride in his village’s independence.

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