The new souq has been the talk of Al Dhafra Festival, even before the Festival opened its ninth edition on December 10, in Madinat Zayed, the Western Region of Abu Dhabi Emirate.
As in previous years, the camel beauty competitions remain the focus of Al Dhafra Festival, organised by the Cultural Programmes and Heritage Festivals Committee - Abu Dhabi (CPHFC), but all aspects of Emirati heritage are celebrated during the 20 days Festival. The souq is one of them.
Spread over 48,000 square meters area, the souq has 200 shops, built both outdoors and indoors, in a traditional Arab architecture style. The indoor shops will remain opened throughout the year, thus making the Al Dhafra traditional market a permanent one for the first time during the nine years Festival.
Also for the first time during the Festival's history, the souq was moved from its initial location, near the entrance of the Festival area, right next to the Grand Stand, where the camel beauty competitions take place. The new location is also close to Liwa Tilal Hotel, thus making it an ideal shopping and attraction for the hotel's tourists and visitors, as well as the residents of Madinat Zayed.
"It is the first time we opened a shop in the Western Region and hopefully it will prove beneficial for us. So far, we had quite a bit of interest from the Festival's visitors," said Asif Ahmad, in charge of Tamreen shop, selling handcrafted, state-of-the-art camping and hunting knives.
Within the permanent souq there is also Randa's army fashion boutique, selling army clothing and boots, but also tailoring women dresses from silk and cotton materials with army style patterns.
Danat, who's products are also found in some of UAE's supermarkets, is selling at Al Dhafra souq regional food spices and ready mixed batter for cooking traditional Emirati pancakes and breads.
"Everything we make uses fresh, natural ingredients. We also show you how to prepare the breads or the pancakes on this iPad screen. If you are staying in the hotel and do not want to carry anything with you, we can even deliver to your hotel room," said Omar Buhaider, Sales Manager for Danat.
The outdoors shops, run by Emirati women mostly from the Western Region of Abu Dhabi, showcase some of the best of UAE heritage. Sadu (weaving), talli (embroidery) and khos (palm frond braiding) are present at Al Dhafra souq not only in final products, but also in workshops, showing visitors how to create their own basket or decorate their dress in traditional Emirati fashion.
"My mom, Hassa, made most of these objects. This medium size basket took her a week to complete. It's made from palm tree fronds and decorated with dates' stones. She also made these paper folders - they are so pretty I use one myself for collage," Hamama Al Mazrouei.
Hassa and Hamama, from Madinat Zayed, run one of the shops in the traditional market and everything they sell is hand made by them.
"Good quality traditional Emirati handicrafts are now in high demand. My mother, who entered the handicrafts business five years ago, is making now up to AED 50,000 in one month," added Hamama, who began working herself with handicrafts one year ago.
The less financially successful women of Al Gharbia (the Western Region) are supported in Al Dhafra Festival by the Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation. Established in 2007, the Foundation is helping pioneering initiatives for welfare, but also supports the needy communities particularly with building schools and hospitals.
"We help people with initiatives in health and education, also child protection here, at home, and abroad. At Al Dhafra Festival we are supporting 20 Emirati shops, all run by people from the Western Region," said Ali Mohammed Al Hamadi, representative of Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation.
Another star of the souq is Al Diwaniya, which cooks on the spot and sells traditional Omani sweets. Coming from Madha, an Omani town near Fujairah, the confectionary shop brought at Al Dhafra not only its products, but also its massive cooking pots and wood burning stove as well. In a massive, 24 kilograms capacity bowl, sugar, starch, ghee, nuts, rose water, saffron and cardamom are mixed for about three hours to make one type of Omani sweets.
"We make around 10 different halwa, including one with honey and nuts, and we cook them all here. When we finish preparing one halwa, we clean the bowl and start cooking another kind," said Badar Al Saadi, owner of Al Diwaniya.
The traditional market is opened daily throughout the Festival, which ends on December 30th, until 10 pm, with the permanent souq remaining opened all year round.