Beach Rotana: the 1990s hotel that electrified Abu Dhabi

The hotel – which has just turned 26 – marked the start of the capital's waterfront development

Powered by automated translation

Abu Dhabi, 1993. Yas Island theme parks and Louvre Abu Dhabi were just a dream. The tourist industry was non-existent and it was only businessmen who filled the handful of international hotels in the capital.

But change was coming. That year a striking new building opened on the waterfront in the Tourist Club area, which is now known as Al Zahiyah. Its design was new, its style modern and it even had a Trader Vic’s.

That building was the Beach Hotel. Established as the first Rotana hotel by Nasser Al Nowais and Selim El Zyr and backed by the hotel’s owner, Sheikh Suroor bin Mohammed, the three men foresaw that streams of tourists would one day clamour to visit the city.

I had no money and no food. When they told me I got the job, I said now I can eat three times a day. I'm not hungry any more because of Rotana

“Many people tried to tell me – what are you doing [opening a hotel here]?” says Mr El Zyr, who was also the hotel’s first general manager.

“But it was too late. I was committed."

When it opened on October 10, Beach Rotana – as it became known – was the first major hotel in Abu Dhabi since the 1980s. Archive posters played this up.

“Not just another hotel. It is another world,” ran the tagline of one brilliantly retro advert.

The design was also new. Canadian architecture firm Crang and Boake devised a building in the postmodern style with a minimal use of concrete sun shades, a common feature of modernist arcades in the older Hilton and Sheraton hotels.

“We opened a hotel with the dreams of that time,” says Mr El Zyr, from Lebanon.

“And within six months we had the biggest market share.”

If the opening in 1973 of Hilton Abu Dhabi represented a new era of internationalism and Le Meridien and Sheraton's appearances some years later were the second wave of development, then the Rotana represented the third. Here was a local brand, with local backers who considered Abu Dhabi its home.

Beach Rotana had modern rooms and refreshed menus. But its ace card was Trader Vic’s, which opened in 1994. It was the first branch of the Polynesian-themed outlet in the UAE and diners had to wait a week for a table, something unheard of in Abu Dhabi today.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, October 24, 2019.  
Description:STORY BRIEF: Beach Rotana anniversary – story of Rotana’s first hotel .
(L-R) Muhammad Nisar Khan, Theresa Aungon, Nadeem Taj, Rosie Andraze and 
Rafi Ali Kunju.
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  John Dennehy
Beach Rotana's longest serving staff. Left to right, Muhammad Nisar Khan, Theresa Aungon, Nadeem Taj, Rosie Andraze and Rafi Ali Kunju. Victor Besa / The National

“Every day I had people calling me to help them get in,” Mr El Zyr says.

Early photographs show just how isolated the hotel was. Empty sand lay where the huge towers of Al Maryah Island loom today, while the famous Tourist Club leisure centre – which gives the hotel’s neighbourhood its name – was still to open.

Since then, the hotel has gone on to host numerous famous figures, including Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, the UK's Prince Charles and Hollywood stars such as Laurence Fishburne.

Yet the Beach Rotana’s long-serving staff have not forgotten the early days. “I was applying to many hotels,” says Theresa Aungon, who came from the Philippines in 1993 in search of a better life.

“But no one got back to me. I had no money and no food.”

Ms Aungon, who was 38 at the time, had almost given up finding work when she saw the Rotana under construction and sent in her CV.

“I prayed that God will help me. When they told me I got the job, I said now I can eat three times a day. When I go back to my country I’m not hungry any more because of Rotana. I’m really proud to say that," she says.

Ms Aungon, a ladies tailor, is one of four staff who have worked at Beach Rotana since 1993.

Muhammad Nisar Khan joined as a bus driver from Pakistan that year, transporting crews from Philippine Airlines, Royal Jordanian and KLM, as well as taking guests to and from the airport. He was only 21 at the time.

“Around this area was all sand," he said. "And we were thinking: 'who would live here as this is out of the city?'. But today guests still ask for me by name.”

The hotel has expanded, its restaurants have been renovated and its number of rooms quadrupled from 250 to about 1,000. Trader Vic’s is found where the original reception was.

Rotana now operates more than 100 hotels across the region. It is a staggering local success story in a hotel landscape which has been totally transformed.

Back then Abu Dhabi had up to 4,000 rooms. Today there are 30,000.

Would it be possible to replicate the success of the hotel if building from scratch today? Mr El Zyr says he isn’t sure.

“In the past it was personal. Nasser Al Nowais knows somebody so he goes to him and says: ‘you are building a hotel, we would like to manage it for you’. But today that is not possible. It has become more institutional," he says.

Another prohibitive factor is the money. The Beach Rotana cost Dh80 million to build at the time but would cost Dh500m today.

“Beach Rotana changed the city,” Mr El Zyr says.

“The first change was Hilton, the second was Sheraton and the third electric shock was Beach Rotana.

“I want to thank everyone who supported the hotel in the past 26 years. We count on them.”