I remember a time when I had to fight to get into the Al Maya supermarket in Satwa. The reason? The large display board at the entrance where customers put up their typed or hand-written advertisements. It used to be teeming with offers or requests for ‘bed space'.

Bed space means exactly that; a space to put up your bed. The crowd around this area right there in front of the store made it difficult to even push through the throngs. Finally, I gave up going to the store.

A few months ago, I visited the store again, while I was researching this story. Though it was around 8pm, once a prime time for bed space hunters, there were just a few stragglers desultorily scanning the once-coveted board.

The board itself which used to overflow with the handbills that had to be removed every three days, had exactly seven coloured bits of papers requesting large-minded individuals to take on a couple of cats, an over-grown dog and offers for assorted furniture and household items waiting to be disposed of.

“It's been like this from early this year when we started getting letters of notice of demolition for the villa owners in this area,'' says Ronald Peros*, a Filipino national working at a hotel on Shaikh Zayed Road nearby.

“And when the officials started visiting the villas to find out how many were staying in each, we knew they meant business, the end was near.''

What Ronald says, casually smiling, touches on the core of the problem; the area that boasted some of the lowest rents in the city and has been home to many Pakistanis, Filipinos and Indians on a tight budget is no longer the haven they could fall back on; a haven they had even when they were not employed, when their friends would allow them to sleep on their beds while searching for a job.

Ronald was told by his sub-agent, an Indian, that his tenancy contract, which was due to expire mid-year, would not be renewed. Initially he thought the agent wanted to hike the rent of Dhs600.

But when the Land Department's notice in the form of the numbers painted in green appeared on walls of the villa, marking it out as a property to be bulldozed, he knew he had to find another bed space.

When the villa across the street was razed two months ago, he was forced to face the bitter truth; the days of the Satwa he knew were itself numbered. Today, he's only buying a small can of milk and a loaf of bread; he's stopped cooking completely.

By the time this goes to press, he'll have moved in with his friend behind the Crowne Plaza on Shaikh Zayed Road. Closer to where he works, but he doesn't expect to stay there long.

For one, he will have to shell out Dhs100 more, cutting into what he usually manages to send back home to his wife, child and parents in a village near Manila. And then, who knows when the dreaded green numbers are going to appear on those walls too?

This is the outcome of what is tentatively titled ‘Jumeirah Garden City'. Still in the design and planning stage, the project is expected to have several gardens, canals and green areas, and is expected to run parallel behind the towers on Shaikh Zayed Road from the Defence Roundabout to Al Safa Park.

The canals will be linked to Dubai Creek's extension passing through Safa Park. These canals will also pass through Satwa, Jumeirah and Al Wasl areas.

Details of the project are not available, but it aims to make the areas one of the most beautiful places in the emirate. However, the flip side is that thousands of residents living in decades-old villas in Satwa have been served with eviction notices .

“It's almost like we have no other choice but to go,'' says a weary Shaukat Hussain*, originally from Hyderabad. Shaukat came to work in Abu Dhabi as a cook in 1977.

He moved to Dubai in 1979 and has since lived in Satwa, rising to run his own shwarma kiosk. He has since brought many of his nephews, and cousins to Dubai. But his own sons have not been allowed to work as cooks.

“They should study and rise in life,'' he says, visibly filling up with pride as he thinks of his elder son who will graduate in electrical engineering next year, and his younger son and two daughters who are still in school.

He pays around Dhs40,000 a year for the tiny space where he rolls out the shwarmas that are sought after in the evenings, and serves sandwiches and tea during the day. “So far, we are safe,'' he mutters. “But for how long? And why don't they come right out and say what they're going to do, and when? This suspense is killing.''

Even if the building where his shop is located is spared, Shaukat does not see much of a future for himself in Satwa. “If the villas are demolished, our customers will vanish, so what business are we going to have?'' he asks.

The very same question that's troubling Faisal, a barber at a shop about a kilometre from Shaukat's ‘restaurant'.

“So far our boss has not told us that we will have to move,'' he says. “But we have been hearing about the villas being demolished all over Satwa, so we can't really expect to stay long.''

But the crux of the matter is money, and with rents increasing Faisal is finding it difficult to survive, let alone save money to send back home in Kerala, India. “I pay Dhs550 for the bed space I share with seven others in a room in the villa across,'' he says.

“Now prices have gone up, and the price of a meal at the local restaurant we eat at has gone up from Dhs3.50 to 5.50. A cup of tea which was 50 fils now costs Dhs1.25. So we're spending around Dhs500 for food alone compared to the Dhs200 we used to. I make around Dhs1500 on a good month, more often less. So, what's left for me to send home?''

Indeed. What worries Faisal even more is that his clientele is mostly made up of workers like him who too have started feeling the pinch. “Cutting your hair is not a basic necessity like food,'' he sighs.

“That's what most men forgo when they are tight in the pockets – a haircut. Now most of them come for a haircut only once in two and a half months. And hardly anybody comes for a shave any longer. If they need to, they use a disposable razor at home.''

However, Faisal has still not lost hope: he holds a driving licence and will apply for driver's job if the saloon is closed down. His colleague, Raman, also from India, is not so lucky.

He's been here for a year, but has still not been able to send any money back home to pay back the debt of Rs1,60,000 (approximately Dhs15,000) he incurred to pay for the visa to Dubai.

While Faisal says he will go back to India if he can't find a suitable job when the honeymoon ends, Raman has no such back-up plans. “Unless I can pay off my debt, I can't go back,'' he says, smiling bravely, but with little hope.

More than what is set to befall them, it is ‘if' and ‘when' that plagues most residents of Satwa who are affected by the developments. “Some say it will happen in December,'' says Pieter Grunwald*, who's been residing in a two-bedroom villa in Satwa for the past eight years.

“Some say it will take a year or two… why can't they be specific so that we can make arrangements?'' Pieter says he's willing to put up with the development “because it's development after all. But where will all these people go? Are they all going to have to go back to their countries? Why can't they be given alternative accommodation that's affordable? We'll still need their services, after all.''

What will this mean for the city? What's the fallout economically and culturally? “Dubai seems to be slowly becoming a city where only the rich are welcome,'' says Pieter. So is that what's going to happen? Are we seeing the end of the old Dubai and the erosion of a familiar identity into something altogether new and different?

“It would be a great mistake to change Satwa into one of those shiny new communities you see coming up everywhere in Dubai,'' says Jalauddin*, 60, a Balochi resident who runs an automobile accessories shop in Satwa. “This is one of the last places that is ‘real' in Dubai.''

“He's right, you know,'' says a customer who overhears our conversation. The South African man doesn't want to reveal his identity, but is voluble on the subject.

“We need to preserve places such as Satwa. I feel so sad that many expatriates are contemplating to leave. Every time friends come to visit I take them to places like Satwa, Karama and the souks in Deira. They are what make Dubai what it is.''

There is another side to this. Jamshed Khan, a tailor, voices it when he says: “New opportunities and developments will improve the quality of life of everybody. I am sure that no one will be left behind. We should be open to the future.''

Progress means growth, which will include separation and pain. Many people may lose their homes. They may be re-housed. But when and where it will be is up for grabs. And what about the tenants?

There are no clear answers as yet. But the affected are not waiting. They will pick up their belongings, dust off their dreams and move on. To wherever they sense the next opportunity will arise. Hopefully to a new Dubai.

* Names have been changed upon request.