Whenever I first move to a new city, I gas up my car on an early weekend morning and purposefully get myself lost so I can try to find my way home. About a month after I arrived in Abu Dhabi I hired a tiny rental car and did just that.
I’m proud to say that I have mostly learned my way around the city after 9 months. Let me tell you, doing that was no small feat. Here’s why. The addresses here aren’t like the ones most of us American expats are used to seeing. There’s no 123 Main Street because… Addresses don’t exist here yet (more on that in another post). There are no streets and perpendicular avenues on a perfect NYC grid like I’m used to, either. The way you tell people where you are is by giving the name of the closest big intersection, neighborhood, or landmarks. For example, a hair salon I used to go to was once described as being “in the Tourist Club area across the street from Abu Dhabi Mall, near Kia Motors, and behind ADCB.”
If you’re new and don’t know where any of those landmarks are, you’re screwed. Or, if you’re like me, you will spend over 30 minutes driving around in circles going down every tiny little alleyway trying to figure out where the heck you are.
Oh, and if you are lucky enough to get a street name, beware.
I once called a business for directions and it went something like this:
“Can you help me find your location?”
“Yes, we are on Falah street across from the petrol station in the building behind the Citibank between Najda and Muroor.” Sounds simple enough… Except, on the new street signs, Najda is now called Fatima bint Mubarak and Muroor is now called Sultan bin Zayed the First. In a rapidly expanding city such as Abu Dhabi, street names will change quickly on you if you’re not careful.
The history of Abu Dhabi Street Names
Streets here have been known by at least 2 or 3 different names than what is listed on the current signs. Apparently, all the major roads had a designated number once upon a time. Roads going parallel to the corniche (major beach area) were odd numbers. Roads going perpendicular to the corniche were even numbers. This gave the city a wonderful quasi-grid that somewhat made sense. Needed to find a place? Ask the number and you could generally figure it out.
The people who have been in Abu Dhabi for a while are those most likely to talk about streets in terms of numbers or, my favorite, the old landmark names. From my understanding, the old street names were based on the landmarks or neighborhoods in which the streets were located. For example, the one road that used to lead to the airport was called… Wait for it… Airport Road. Simple, no? Electra Street, from what I was told, was/is called such because of all the shops selling electrical wares concentrated on that road. Passport Road used to be where many embassies were located. Defense Road leads to the Naval base. You can always tell how long someone has been living in Abu Dhabi by the street names they use when giving directions.
So, if you’re keeping up, that makes at least 2 names for every street – the old number and the old name based on the most famous landmarks. Well, because that made too much sense and wasn’t confusing enough, yet another change has happened with the street names.
Onwani: New Street Names in Abu Dhabi
There’s a new initiative in Abu Dhabi called Onwani (Arabic for “my address”). This is the city’s attempt at following global addressing practices and making it easier for people to find their way around the city. Besides ordinary people like residents and tourists, this system is also slated to help official people such as utility service providers and emergency personnel find locations. Imagine needing an ambulance and they can’t get to you because there’s no address. Now you see the real problem the city faces.
Thanks to Onwani, many of the streets have been given new names to honor famous or prominent people of the UAE and reflect the culture of many Abu Dhabi districts. It’s a pretty lovely notion, I think. But now we are up to at least 3 names for the same street. And if you know anything about people’s names in Arab culture, many of them are long as they are a way to trace family lineage. I think the formula goes something like this:
Given Name + son (bin)/daughter (bint) of + Father’s Given Name + son/daughter of + Grandfather’s Given Name + son/daughter of+ Great Grandfather’s Given Name + Family’s Name.
I imagine putting all of that on a sign was way too long, so the new signs stop after the father’s name. We now have streets called Zayed the First, for example, which refer to the grandfather of the late ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed. Confused yet? We also have Sultan bin Zayed the First, Hazza bin Zayed the First, and Sheikh Zayed. Get the order of Zayed wrong and you’re exactly where you don’t want to be.
Some time around November new signs popped up around the city. I will say that one of the cool things about these new signs is that they hint at the neighborhood you might be in. Look at the upper left-hand corner of the sign below. I think this one is in the Al Nahyan area of Abu Dhabi.
They also have triple digit numbers listed on them in the upper right-hand corner, but I’m not sure what they mean. Perhaps it’s a clue that building numbers will be coming soon? They’ve added all of these cool features, but are still missing something on the sign. What happened to the old numbers?
Well, my friends, several months after the picture above was taken guess what has happened? The street signs have been modified AGAIN. Now the signs contain a proper name, a neighborhood name, a triple digit number (for buildings), and a double digit number.
Some of the double digit numbers correspond to the old street numbers of the past. Others, such as the even numbered streets from the past, have completely changed. So, what used to be street number 28 could very well now be street number 6. While only slightly frustrating, I’m secretly excited that I will now know something that newbies to the city will not. It’s like a rite of passage being able to refer to streets by their old names – and now numbers. Hooray for me!
Navigating Abu Dhabi
Just to recap, most of the maps that businesses provide usually refer to streets by the old numbers. Most of the names that people, especially taxi drivers, use when giving you directions are by using landmark names, the old numbers, or the old names. All of the street signs, however, use the newest set of names and newest set of numbers. In other words, be prepared to be utterly lost and confused for a bit when you ask people for directions when you first arrive. One thing that may help you navigate the city is to use a GPS system or app.
Waze or Google maps apps are likely the best options because they are free and updated frequently. Why does this matter? Abu Dhabi is growing rapidly. I left for work one morning using a road that was a one-way street. When I returned home 8 hours later, it had morphed into a two-way street. The next week another road appeared that changed the traffic pattern once again. Trust me. Reliable apps and a good data plan on your mobile are the way to go.
Despite the frustration that sometimes comes with driving in this place, I’m glad that the price of gas is ridiculously low and that Abu Dhabi isn’t exactly a huge city. After all, if you drive more than 40 minutes (without traffic) on a major road in the city you should be halfway to Dubai if you’re going north… Or in the sea if you’re going in any other direction. 🙂