Central Souk in Abu Dhabi

The Central Souk in Abu Dhabi is a Foster + Partners design, set in the heart of the old city and intended to reignite the shopping experience

Built on the site of a market that was commissioned by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, to replace an even older souk close by in the 1970s, the original souk in Abu Dhabi was by all accounts a rough and ready collection of barasti stalls between the beach and Al Hosn fort when Abu Dhabi was just a fishing village.

But now, Abu Dhabi’s new Central Souk, which opened in 2010, is a gleaming example of the city’s development, while at the same time managing to fuse old with new in a way that only the UAE’s capital seems to master. All over the capital, the thriving centre of life in the UAE, there are marvels to behold. The shining gold of the Emirates Palace and the glittering blue seas that can be appreciated from the city’s sculpted breakwater. Not to mention all the construction that has taken place out of town over recent years, that are giving way to islands such as Saadiyat, soon to be home to the Louvre and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Yas, which is now an annual stop off in the prestigious Formula One calendar. But closer to home in the city’s centre, the souk is now drawing the crowds.



Designed by Foster + Partners, it is an expansive building, and has been laid out as a sequence of courtyards and alleys, integrating balconies and colonnades. With hints of the historic market that existed before it, the new souk presents shoppers with intricate wooden latticework, expansive indoor spaces and an Andalusian-style fountain.

The shops themselves are a mixture of high-end boutiques, souvenir shops and a smattering of cafés and restaurants. It is something that central Abu Dhabi was in need of, with most of the more modern developments being out of town in the malls or in the waterside developments near the bridges. However, the real show-stopper is the building itself.

Of course, with Norman Foster and his team behind it, it was expected that the souk would be something special. The British architect, who also designed Masdar City, the UAE National Pavilion and has a hand in the Zayed National Museum coming to fruition on Saadiyat Island, it was only fair that the city centre had its fair share of his creative expertise.

So, while the air conditioning and the wide corridors make it seem like just another shopping mall, the trick is in the design. Low rise and petite compared to the three Podium towers that surround it, when completed it will house residential developments, luxury offices and a hotel and the souk is scaled to the pedestrian. Inside, the intimate sequence of streets and alleys are supposed to recreate what the old souk would have been like, while the courtyards dissolve the barriers between inside and outside. It also has flexible sliding roofs and walls to enable control of internal environments, and to maximise potential for natural ventilation.



With such large amounts of wood, it can be quite dark in places but the souk is also a welcome relief from the scorching heat of the UAE climate and the bright sunlight.

Khalid Haddad, a teenager shopping with his friends says he prefers to come here rather than the malls. ‘I like it here,’ he says. ‘It is more relaxing and kind of old fashioned. But it is still really new and really cool.’ Nearby Heba Mohammed, a Palestinian housewife, says she comes here to pick up groceries.

‘There is a greengrocer here, which we don’t have anywhere else in Abu Dhabi and I like it because it is built like the souks used to be. I hope that more shops open soon.’

With many outlets still to be filled and the accompanying podium towers not yet complete, the souk still has a long way to go before it becomes the masterpiece that it is intended to be. However, for the time being there is no doubt that a trip to the capital is not complete without a stop off at the market.