Downtown Abu Dhabi 1975 and a photograph that now speaks of unexpected continuities, then served as evidence of the fruits of the early 1970s oil boom – Abu Dhabi’s oil revenues stood at a record-breaking US$3.5 billion in 1974 – and the breakneck pace of the capital’s oil-fuelled urban change.
Captured by the French photographer Alain Saint-Hilaire as he made one of his many airborne forays over the capital, the picture focuses on the dusty roundabout at the junction of the roads then known as Khalifa Street, Al
Istiqlal Street and Airport Road, and its improbable, many minareted mosque.
Renowned for its ornate style, the Al Fahim mosque was commissioned in the 1960s as an act of piety by Abduljalil Mohammed Al Fahim, the scion of a local family whose fortune was to become synonymous with the emirate’s economic rise. Abduljalil’s brother, Ahmed Mohammed Al Fahim, became the mosque’s imam and its rich, Mughal-influenced decoration is believed to have resulted from the background of its construction team, who were originally from Pakistan.
Like memories of the mosque, the building only survives as traces in photographs and in the crumbling footings that still poke through the grass that now covers the roundabout, one of the few that are left in Abu Dhabi’s downtown.
Remarkably for a city whose character is defined by a process of near-continual construction and demolition, the roads and the roundabout are not the only survivors in Saint-Hilaire’s frame.
Rising above the curve of the Corniche at the very top of the image stands the Hilton Abu Dhabi, built in 1973 and still operational, while just to the left of the mosque stands another survivor, the eight-storey Mohammed Al Fandi Al Mazroui building, which was just receiving its final fit-out in 1975.
* Nick Leech