UAE then and now: the hotel opened by Sheikh Zayed that put Abu Dhabi on the map

Use our interactive slider and scroll through the picture gallery to explore a hotel that marked a new era of globalism for the city

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.

Abu Dhabi had hotels before. But the 1973 opening of Hilton Abu Dhabi threw down the gauntlet.

The Founding President, Sheikh Zayed, opened the hotel on May 23 that year. It was the first five-star hotel in a city rapidly expanding on the back of the oil boom. Abu Dhabi had arrived.

Hilton Abu Dhabi had more than 170 rooms, a bowling alley, function rooms, tennis courts and stood in “lonely splendour” at the end of what would eventually become the Corniche.

“We drove along the seafront to a new Hilton hotel which stood on lonely splendour at one end of narrow road that would eventually become … the Corniche,” wrote Patricia Holton in her 1991 book, Mother Without a Mask, about her visits to Abu Dhabi in the 1970s.

“The hotel looked like a fort, standing strong and tall in the desert night.”

The Hilton’s first food and beverage manager and future co-founder of the Rotana hotel chain, Selim El Zyr, told The National how the hotel introduced new foods such as “smoked salmon, avocado and foie gras”.

“Smoked salmon – that was a big story,” said Mr El Zyr.

In the years that followed, more and more hotels were built and the Hilton Abu Dhabi added a new wing, beach club and other facilities. Then came the greatest change in the building’s 45-year history. From January 1, 2018, the hotel no longer carried the Hilton flag as Radisson Blu took over operations.

The old photograph, taken by French photographer Alain Saint-Hilaire, was shot from the water close to where the breakwater leading to Marina Mall sits today. It shows the hotel in that lonely splendour so aptly described by Ms Holton.

Today, the building is no longer lonely and is dominated by modern buildings that have been built on either side, such as Nation Towers and the Adnoc headquarters.

The photographer is also standing close to the Founder’s Memorial. This serene and peaceful part of the city celebrates the life of Sheikh Zayed, just footsteps away from where he toured the hotel all those years ago.

Remarkable architecture of the UAE – in pictures

Updated: August 25th 2021, 3:15 AM