These unseen photos of Abu Dhabi transport you to another era

Images taken by German expatriate Peter Schneider in the 1970s show an old world being swept away

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When Peter Schneider arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1977, there was only one road that cut through the sand from the airport to what was then downtown.

It was just a few years after the UAE had been formed and Abu Dhabi was changing rapidly.

Palm trees lined the road and Mr Schneider got a glimpse of a restaurant, now fondly remembered, on his way into town from Bateen Airport.

“We were very much impressed by the palm trees on both sides of the road and the round Wimpy restaurant surrounded by a large lawn [Old Airport Park]," he says. "It looked like a small oasis.”

Mr Schneider had come to Abu Dhabi from Bonn to work as an electrical engineer on the emirate’s power system. He was based in a now-dismantled station in Mina Zayed and responsible for distribution – extending the electricity supply across the town through a network of power lines and sub-stations.

A Wimpy burger restaurant in Old Airport Park, Abu Dhabi, in the late 1970s. The park was next to Bateen Airport, then the city's international airport. Photo: Peter Schneider

It was an important task. Abu Dhabi at the time was in the middle of an oil-fuelled building frenzy. People were pouring into the city and new roads, hospitals, schools and hotels were being built at a breathtaking pace.

The old world of coral stone houses and barasti huts that prevailed for centuries was being swept away in a matter of years.

“I was clearly feeling and thinking that this was just the start of a very big thing,” says Mr Schneider, who was born in 1940. “This was just the first generation of Abu Dhabi.”

He had a front-row seat to these huge changes and chronicled them in a series of extraordinary photographs.

Shot on a Nikon camera, they show the construction boom that was turning sand into high rises; creating new roads through the desert; and the first international hotels.

One striking photo from 1978 shows Le Meridien hotel nearing completion. A year later, it would welcome Queen Elizabeth II of Britain on her first trip to the UAE.

Another shows a much-loved landmark, called the “Onion Tower”. This was a water tower on Abu Dhabi’s Electra Street (now Zayed the First Street), which has since been demolished but was a reference point for generations.

“I never saw a tank construction like this,” Mr Schneider says.

Abu Dhabi was then a smaller place. Airport Road (Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed) was the main motorway that he took that first day and it ran from Al Maqta Bridge past the airport and into town.

Buildings didn’t really appear until around Defence Road (Hazza bin Zayed the First). But what struck Mr Schneider was how a future Abu Dhabi was already being planned.

“The roads were already there,” he says. “This was interesting as the buildings were not there yet but the roads were.”

Peter Schneider loading his car for another adventure in 1977. Photo: Peter Schneider

His first apartment was in the Tourist Club neighbourhood of Abu Dhabi, named after the entertainment venue that once sat beside Le Meridien.

It has since been renamed Al Zahiyah but the old moniker lingers. In the late 1970s, this was the centre of the building boom.

The photos capture the frenetic pace of development with buildings appearing to shoot up overnight.

Mr Schneider was a member of the Tourist Club, which consisted of a small beach, palm trees and restaurants and he recalls seeing UAE Founding President, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, there when he tried some bowling.

“I was impressed by him,” says Mr Schneider. “He was just like us.”

Where Sheraton Abu Dhabi stands today was open sea and Lulu Island wasn’t there yet.

The social scene revolved around parties in people’s houses but Mr Schneider recalls making the most of his weekends to visit places such as Dubai Creek, camping in Khor Fakkan and Dibba but, particularly, the Liwa desert.

The photographs he took on the travels there on the edge of the vast Empty Quarter desert show the Bedouin way of life, the oil fields at Habshan and, despite the new roads being built, the undulating red sand dunes that stretched as far as the eye could see.

The images also show how he was able to walk onto an old airfield and inspect a plane that crashed there.

“It was an adventurous and pioneering feeling,” he says.

But nothing could stay the same. While Le Meridien hotel is still there, much of what Mr Schneider photographed at Tourist Club has since been demolished and new towers were erected.

The city no longer ends at Defence Road but has expanded to the islands and mainland. Abu Dhabi has become a city of suburbs unrecognisable to many who lived here in the 1970s.

Mr Schneider did several stints in the UAE before retiring. But he still visits every year with his wife and looks back fondly at being able to witness a crucial time in Abu Dhabi’s history.

“It was so exciting,” he says. “Every day with all this construction. It was fantastic. I would do it all again."

Updated: February 27, 2023, 10:44 AM