What one photo says about Abu Dhabi's Khalidiya neighbourhood 50 years on
Writer Ali Khaled looks back on growing up in Khalidiya, and what it means to see an aerial image of the place taken by his late father in 1974
A picture, which belongs to my father, tells a tale of two buildings. Two of Abu Dhabi’s oldest, and for years the most recognisable, hotels. One remains defiantly standing. The other has disappeared almost without a trace.
For nearly three decades, The Khalidiya Palace Hotel, in the forefront of the fading photograph above, stood at the tip of Abu Dhabi, which was once sparse and desert-hued, with only a handful of buildings, never mind hotels, to its name.
One of those hotels, however, can be seen in the background; the institution that was the Hilton Abu Dhabi and is now the Radisson Blu. It was opened in 1973 by Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, and was the capital’s first five-star outlet.
There was no Corniche to speak of, not even by its early, modest incarnations of the 1970s. The two hotels stood as islands, with not even properly laid roads connecting them. It is a stark snapshot of what the Khalidiya neighbourhood, and in many ways Abu Dhabi, looked like in 1974.
At the time my father, Mohamad Khaled, a Haifa-born Lebanese civil engineer with a degree from the American University of Beirut, had set up a new construction company in Abu Dhabi by the name of Dar Al Binaa Contracting.
The photograph is part of a private collection, taken from a helicopter as part of an aerial survey of the building site where the Khalidiya Palace was taking shape.
Sheikh Khalid bin Sultan, brother of Sheikh Zayed, and after whom the neighbourhood of Khalidiya was named, had initially commissioned the construction of a luxury residence. In 1972, however, having passed the project on to his son, Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalid, consultant company William Sednaoui was instructed to turn the structure into a hotel.
Dar Al Binaa had already built a mansion and palace with a combined value of Dh9 million ($2.4m) for the sheikh by 1973, and this was a hugely coveted project for the relatively young company to add to its portfolio.
At the time, Abu Dhabi’s population was less than 100,000, and the UAE’s a little under 400,000. My family had moved to Abu Dhabi from Kuwait, where my father was an employee of the Public Works Department, in 1967, four years before the UAE became a unified nation.
It would be the last move my family would ever make. In the future capital, they found a welcoming home and an opportunity to build a life that would have been scarcely imaginable for many Arab expatriates at the time.
Between the mid-1970s and the start of the next decade, the area captured in that photo, and the wider Khalidiya district would undergo an astonishing transformation. Our family was fortunate to find itself at the heart of it.
The first phase of the hotel, with the two rectangular wings connecting to the original circular building, was completed in 1975, with a then distinctive kidney-shaped pool giving it a certain element of exclusivity.
For several years, there was a period of uncertainty for the hotel as international brands were considered for its management. Eventually it was decided, at the completion of the second phase in 1979, that it would bear the name of Khalidiya Palace Hotel. The third phase, which included the addition of cabanas overlooking the surrounding beach, was completed two years later.
For years, the outlets at the hotel were some of the most popular in a city still finding its identity. There was Dolphin Bar by the swimming pool area, the Lebanese restaurant Alf Leila we Leila, and Nico Garden Italian restaurant. There were nightspots Excalibur Disco and Talk of the Town. Ali Diab Salon became one of the city’s most renowned beauty outlets for women. And Studio Saeed provided photography service for the hotel’s clients and visitors.
The Hilton, for its part, would be home to Abu Dhabi venues such as Mawal Lebanese restaurant, Hemingway’s, the Jazz Bar and several nightclubs over the years.
Beyond the hotels, the Khalidiya neighbourhood was growing rapidly, at every step under the watchful eye of the nation’s Founding Father.
In those early days it was common for Sheikh Zayed to drive around the area in his Mercedes, always generously providing his time to those he came across.
The Founding Father would often be seen personally advising workers on the different projects that he would inspect, and the story of how he befriended a teenage Palestinian kiosk owner who would provide him with fresh juice as he sheltered from the sun, has become legend.
Radwan Al Tamimi would, through the help of Sheikh Zayed, open Abu Dhabi seafood institution Bu Tafish, minutes away in Mina Al Bateen.
In the summer of 1976, our family moved from our first home in Abu Dhabi, off Salaam Street near the old Tourist Club Area, to a new villa in Khalidiya. It would become a neighbourhood for life.
The white-sand beaches were a skip away from our new home, and most afternoons were spent playing football on the narrow streets and in empty car parks; streets that seemingly got narrower with every visit, and car parks that were gradually replaced by new high-rise developments.
In late 1977, ahead of the National Day celebrations, news swept our neighbourhood that armoured vehicles were lining the Corniche in rehearsal of a military parade on December 2. The soldiers of the UAE Armed Forces were happy to pass the long hours by humouring a bunch of noisy and nosy children, and one even let me take a peek inside his mini-tank. It was arguably the highlight of my seven-year-old self’s life up to that point.
Across from the Hilton Abu Dhabi, the towering, semi-circular buildings of Adnoc would become a feature of the landscape for years. Just down the road, the headquarters of Capital Radio 93.5 FM, was established in 1979. The InterContinental Hotel opened its doors within walking distance from the Hilton in 1981, and has the historical distinction of being where the leaders of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar convened to sign the Gulf Co-operation Council agreement on May 25, the same year.
In the mid to late-1980s and early 1990s, Dar Al Binaa, thanks to new projects with Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalid and Sheikh Tahnoon bin Saeed, further stamped its fingerprint on the area.
Abu Dhabi was now unrecognisable from the city that my parents had relocated to, though Khalidiya retained its own serene, detached charm. To much excitement, a new Spinneys supermarket opened in the early 1990s, and still provides a landmark for taxi drivers to this day, as did legendary seafood restaurant Golden Fish which had stood since the mid-1970s.
The onset of the 21st century brought major changes in the landscape of Khalidiya as it began to resemble what it is today. And sadly for many long-time residents, the old Khalidiya Palace Hotel ceased operations and was demolished shortly afterwards, and with it a piece of Abu Dhabi history seemed to have vanished into thin air.
If you search on Google for it today, the results will show listings of the hotel that has replaced it; Khalidiya Palace Rayhaan by Rotana, which opened its doors on June 1, 2010. Of the old haunt, barely snippets remain.
Meanwhile, The Hilton, or Radisson Blu since its rebranding last year, stubbornly remains, although it is now dwarfed by the metropolis that has risen around it. Endearingly, its exterior remains as recognisable as it was in 1973.
The Conrad Abu Dhabi, previously Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, The St Regis Abu Dhabi and the colossal Emirates Palace now dominate a skyline that could only have existed in a science-fiction version of Abu Dhabi from the old photograph.
My father sadly died last year, 52 years after making Abu Dhabi his home. He lived to see his beloved Khalidiya, the neighbourhood he helped to build over the years, turn into one of the Middle East’s, if not the world’s, most modern, visually stunning districts.
Magically, he was lucky enough to have seen it when it was still a blank canvas, too.
Updated: December 3, 2020 04:56 PM