UAE then and now: When a 'flying saucer' landed in Sharjah

Use our interactive slider and scroll through the picture gallery to explore how space and tall tales of aliens influenced the UAE's architecture

Today, life in the Emirates moves in the fast lane. In a regular series to mark the 50th anniversary of the UAE, 'The National' takes a trip back in time to examine how much the country has changed.

In a 1978 edition of a local newspaper, there is a report of a “friendly flying saucer” that landed in Sharjah.

“The frustrating thing about UFOs,” the report goes, “is that they don’t stick around for very long … only one has been obliging enough to land in Sharjah,” it said. “Happily, it is on a friendly mission and looks like being around for a long time.”

Sharjah's Flying Saucer was bringing “space age shopping to Sharjah”. It opened in the 1970s and first hosted a French patisserie and restaurant, then Al Maya-Lal’s supermarket, followed by a branch of Sharjah Co-operative Society in the 1990s, and Taza Chicken in the 2000s.

The building is one of the UAE’s architectural gems. It speaks to an era when the space race and tales of aliens and unidentified flying objects influenced architecture, literature and popular culture.

Its designers were inspired by the Brutalist architecture style that rose in the 1950s and championed the use of concrete. Striking parts of The Flying Saucer include its star canopy, a circular dome and its V-shaped pillars around the outside. But when Taza Chicken opened there in 2008, the building’s dome was hidden with a false ceiling, while the exterior had been covered in cladding.

However, larger plans were in place for the building. Sharjah Art Foundation acquired it in 2012 and six years later began a careful renovation to “restore the building to its original silhouette”. The false ceiling was removed as well as the cladding to allow the original design to breathe. Two new elements: an outdoor space to host events and an underground community area with a library and cafe, were added and it reopened in 2020.

What is striking is how similar the structure looks in the old photograph and again when The National’s Chris Whiteoak reshot the building this year. The only major difference is the new motorway on the left.

The building is now an important art and community hub, free and open to all, with The Flying Saucer taking off on a new adventure.

Remarkable architecture of the UAE from the 1960s to the 1980s – in pictures

Updated: August 18th 2021, 6:29 AM