Sha‘biyat, The National Houses

Sha‘biyat, The National Houses

Architect: Abdul Rahman Makhlouf

Sha‘biyat, an informal Arabic word meaning “popular,” is the name for Abu Dhabi’s first modern residential building type developed by the authority. The oldest-known plans for Sha‘biyat housing dated back in 1962.  Initially, the Sha‘biyat were meant to accommodate Bedouin  families (one who lives out in the open, in the desert) who had been living a nomadic lifestyle. Abu Dhabi’s mass-housing plan was meant to help those newly declared Emiratis to “adapt to urban life.”

The 1962 master plan for Abu Dhabi already provided for national housing. But it is only when Abu Dhabi’s new town planner, Abdul Rahman Makhlouf, was hired by Sheikh Zayed that public housing was developed. Makhlouf was asked in 1968 to solve the city’s housing gap and build 2,000 family units.  He designed a plan that provided for clusters of seven to nine houses throughout the emirate’s main cities. Equipped with mosques, services, and schools, these clusters formed neighborhood units. The houses were arranged in a staggered formation so that each family could have enough land around the house to build future additions.
The Sha‘biyat have clear lines, simple looks, and use simple technologies. The Sha‘biyat house pictured above, located near downtown Abu Dhabi, is surrounded by a compound wall and a few more Sha‘biyat houses which have courtyards used for small livestock and gardening. The group of houses is rented out to expatriate workers. The houses reflect Makhlouf’s 1977 Sha‘biyat design, with minimal corridor space and ample outdoor living areas. Poor maintenance has led to severe deterioration of these particular Sha‘biyat, but they are still functioning homes.


Damlūji, Salmá Samar, ed. The Architecture of the United Arab Emirates. Garnet Pub Limited, 2006.
Sayed el-Aswad, The Folk House: An Anthropological Study of Folk Architecture and Traditional Culture of the Emirates Society, Al Ain: UAE University, 1996 p. 78-80.
Yasser Elsheshtawy, “Cities of Sand and Fog: Abu Dhabi’s global ambitions,” in Yasser Elsheshtawy (ed.), The Evolving Arab City: Tradition, Modernity, and Urban Development, New York: Routledge, 2003, p. 269.

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