Illustration by Ahmed Bilal

On Bus 170: The Dichotomy of the Changing Landscape

The polarity between Saadiyat and downtown Abu Dhabi is evident. I learnt this in a novel way — by heartfelt conversations with the very people who contributed towards building it.

Feb 13, 2022

Scratching my lime green and white Hafilat card, I made myself comfortable on the window seat in the third row of the public bus. Tall buildings on Al Reem were visible on the horizon. As I looked out at the barren land surrounding campus, I could see laborers in their fluorescent yellow vests toiling under the scathing sun. I could not digest the idea that I had reached Abu Dhabi. Moreover, it was my first time on a public bus.
Back in Mumbai, India, traveling by bus is not a safe or reliable option, for those with the privilege to avoid it. I have heard horrendous stories — from women being molested to individuals falling off jam-packed buses. Nevertheless, public transportation appears as a mystical attraction to me. Perhaps because it was always out of bounds, my rebellious nature exacerbated this attraction. For a city like Abu Dhabi which can get intimidating at times, public buses serve as an avenue for mobility for everyday, working-class people. In a city where there is a significant migrant population, public buses facilitate survival for workers who commute daily. On the other hand, they are also a safe and reliable option for tourists and middle-class expats as the skyrocketing taxi fares make taxis unaffordable.
I am overcome with a sense of satisfaction every time I get on Bus 170. It stems from the fact that bus schedules work like clockwork in the city and guarantee security. As I gazed through the window, I could not help but realize that Saadiyat Island carried itself with a sense of sophistication. With crystal blue water decorating both sides of the Sheikh Khalifa bridge, I could see the Louvre’s geometric silver dome glistening from as fancy cars roared past.
The first stop on our list was Jacques Chirac Street. The Jacques Chirac stop was a residential area with tall concrete walls. Sitting on the bus, it was virtually impossible to get a peek of the architecture of the houses. I was conflicted: why did the buses stop here, in a seemingly posh area where everyone seems to own a score of cars?
Soon, two young women with bulky side bags got onto the bus and occupied the seats in the row before me. As I heard them speak Marathi, my native language, I was delighted. Without hesitance, I chipped into their conversation. To my amusement, they were equally surprised to find a fellow Maharashtrian on the bus. As the conversation unfolded they told me they worked as nannies for two families near Manarat Al Saadiyat and how concerned they were about renewing their residency since their contract was almost completed. It suddenly dawned on me that my conception of the world was quite narrow, segregated to the binary of rich and poor, higher class and lower class. It was on the 170 that I came face to face with a physical space shared by people from different classes, from migrants employed as domestic workers on Saadiyat to NYU Abu Dhabi students like myself. This is where I had to grapple with the fact that there are unseen and unacknowledged entanglements cutting across socio-economic classes in Abu Dhabi.
As we crossed the Zayed Port, I felt that I had left my universe behind. I did not recognize the city I had come to. Despite it merely being a week since I had been on campus, I was used to being constricted to the Saadiyat bubble where day-to-day tasks could be carried out effortlessly. I could go down a floor to get my free weekly PCR test and a floor above to get my daily Starbucks Americano. The idea of toiling daily to earn a living and sending one’s earnings back home was a distant idea to me, but this bus ride acquainted me with the lived realities of Abu Dhabi that I was oblivious towards. Since I was a toddler, I grew up in a protective bubble and this dichotomy opened my eyes to the reality of making a living in a foreign country.
The next stop was the iconic Fatimah Bint Mubarak Mosque near Hamdan Street. On the bustling sidewalk I could see pedestrians with “1–20 dirham Stores” plastic bags walking, children riding the merry-go-round in Electra Park and the Starbucks on the corner busy with people. It was the first time I came face to face with the more humane side of Abu Dhabi. Suddenly, I did not feel like an urban misfit. It became an iconic melting pot where cultures amalgamate into an appealing cosmopolitan city.
Wealth disparity is so prevalent, that this bus ride planted within me the realization that there is an alternate city that exists within Abu Dhabi. And I internalized this in a peculiar way — on a recurring bus journey. Every time I travel on this route, merely looking out the windows acquaints me with a more nuanced understanding of the city: the pace at which infrastructural projects are being completed, the ever-changing billboards, the drastic differences in income levels, the enormity of the houses. The construction of our university itself is a pertinent example of this phenomenon, where students from all around the world attend an institution that was rapidly built using migrant labor.
With its immense wealth, Saadiyat is the haven that some eventually end up in, enjoying the fruits of a monetarily successful career, a place to raise your kids. Still, the adrenaline of savoring a 10 dirhams Shawarma will pull me to travel on 170 for the next four years to come. The biggest fear I have is that I might not be able to recognize the city when I return after graduating. Only time shall tell.
Aarushi Prasad is Deputy Opinion Editor. Email her at
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