British couple return to a transformed UAE in first visit in 35 years

Former residents Linda and Patrick Ford are revisiting their old life in 1980s Abu Dhabi and beyond

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When Linda Ford moved to Abu Dhabi in July 1982, the country was little more than 10 years old.

People still wrote letters, listened to cassettes and the souq was where people did their shopping.

Mrs Ford came to work at the medical records section in a clinic that served the new oil town of Ruwais about 240km west of Abu Dhabi.

A year later, she met her future husband, Patrick, who worked at the same clinic and nearby Ruwais hospital. Aside from a brief stopover en route to Australia 14 years ago, they have not spent any time in the country since they left in 1988.

The social life was hectic. Someone was always having a party. We had a nine o'clock curfew - which was ignored
Linda Ford

Forty years on from their first meeting, they have returned to a country transformed.

The two arrived last month and have spent the past three weeks tracking down their old haunts. Their journey has taken them back to Ruwais, down to Liwa, up to Dubai and north and east across the Northern Emirates in a trip filled with nostalgia and amazement at the changes.

Mrs Ford, who was 23 when she moved to the UAE, said very few people in the UK had heard of the Emirates in those days.

“The roads were sandy, the buildings were sandy and the air was sandy. I had never seen so much sand,” she recalls of her first impression of Abu Dhabi.

From the airport it was then a bus ride down to Ruwais.

“In 1982, the supermarket received fresh milk and meat once a week and there was a mad scramble to get supplies before the shelves were empty,” she says.

“Most frozen meat was labelled in Arabic and difficult to recognise. I once picked up what I thought were meatballs, only to discover they were brains when I took them out of the packaging at home. I went hungry that evening.”

A company beach club in Ruwais and The Ramada Hotel, which is still there as the Dhafra Beach Hotel, provided entertainment.

“The social life was hectic. Someone was always having a party,” said Mrs Ford. “We had a nine o'clock curfew which was also ignored.”

Their adventures in the UAE in the 1980s were chronicled in a series of remarkable photographs showing an older way of life and increasing modernisation.

They portray old Ruwais, Abu Dhabi’s transforming Corniche, Fujairah's snorkelling haven Snoopy Island, a much smaller Sandy Beach Hotel with a simple line of chalets and simpler times in Khor Fakkan with old wooden dhows in the harbour.

One evocative shot captures a classic 1980s-style shop in Ruwais — which sold everything from pirated cassettes to shawarma — called “Honest supermarket” but which was known informally as Honest Joe’s.

“Honest Joe’s had everything,” said Mrs Ford, who is from Wales. “Walls lined with cassettes, tape after tape and they were all pirated. It was just there in the middle of the desert. Just sand, then a shop and then sand for miles and miles.”

The couple married and moved to Abu Dhabi in 1984 and lived on the Corniche before leaving the UAE permanently in 1988 in search of a new challenge. But memories of the UAE stayed with them and finally prompted the return trip.

“Treasure hunts are normally looking for jewels amongst the rubble but we were looking for rubble amongst the jewels,” she said with a smile. “We were told we wouldn’t find anything. But a lot of things were in the same places.”

Going back in time

The couple found the beach between the hotel and what is now the Adnoc Club where Mr Ford proposed.

“It is totally different now with a pier but we knew where that was, so that was quite romantic,” she said. “We are making new memories as well.”

The villa where Mrs Ford lived and the clinic where they worked is gone, the old hospital is derelict and a new hospital has now been built to serve the community. Ruwais is also much larger.

“It is a city now. Before it was just a small housing complex,” she said. “There is a massive shopping mall there as well now, big for Ruwais, all glossy and glistening but quiet.”

In the Northern Emirates, they felt the pace of change was slower and flickers of the old life remained in places such as in Fujairah.

“The Sandy Beach hotel was fantastic,” said Mr Ford. “The old chalets are still there.”

His wife agreed: “It was so tranquil. Like a haven of serenity. We thought maybe we’ll have to come back and spend a week here.”

Abu Dhabi is a different place now. But despite that, the city “still feels like home”.

“It would have been very transient in our day,” said Mrs Ford. “People left at retirement but now quite a few people have retired there now. It does seem to be evolving,” she said.

“We were also really blown away by people of determination [how the UAE describes people with special needs or disabilities]. We want to take that home. Why isn’t this happening everywhere? It also hasn’t lost its kindness. And we feel safe.”

The couple leave for the UK on Monday. They are proud of the time they spent at an early and important time in the UAE’s development.

“We both look back on it really fondly,” said Mrs Ford. “We were also very proud to have been there close to the beginning. We were small cogs but felt we were contributing.”

Updated: May 15, 2023, 5:46 AM