UAE then and now: Images show the sands of old Abu Dhabi about to change for ever


Today, life in the Emirates moves in the fast lane. In a new regular series to mark the 50th anniversary of the UAE we take a little trip back in time and see just how much the country has changed.

Some of the earliest known photographs of Abu Dhabi where taken by the explorer British Wilfred Thesiger after his historic trek across the Empty Quarter in 1948.

His camera captured the local population walking the sands, lined by a cluster of coral houses and palm frond arish huts, while fishing boats floated off shore.

It was view little changed since the 19th century. What Thesiger did not realise was that within 20 years it would vanish forever.

The older of these two photographs also captures a view about disappear. It was taken by Alain St Hilaire, a French photographer who visited the UAE several times, with this shot taken early in 1971.

It shows a group of banks constructed in the same beach front in the early 1960s, when an influx of money and expatriates from the first oil boom meant the city needed a working financial system for the first time.

They include Grindlays Bank, closest to the camera and later merged with Standard Chartered, and the British Bank of the Middle East, still around today as HSBC.

The concrete structures, less than a decade old, are already looking shabby and will soon be demolished as part of the Founding President, Sheikh Zayed’s masterplan to rebuild and modernise the city.

The beach has already gone, replaced through land reclamation with the first version of the Corniche and a tarmac road.

As the second photo taken by The National‘s Victor Besa shows, the old seafront is today even more distant from the water, the result of further expansion of the Corniche from the beginning of this century.

The 21st Century skyscrapers are at least the fourth incarnation of building at this location, which, as close as can be determined, is now near the end of Airport Road, or Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Street, and Al Marakib Street, which, appropriately, translates as Boat Street.

The sands of old Abu Dhabi have been replaced today by a pleasant public park and the chants of of fishermen hauling their boats ashore lost to the rumble of traffic.

Abu Dhabi’s Corniche through the years


Published: March 31, 2021 08:00 AM