Former expat donates snapshot of UAE history to the Emirates

Michael Hamilton-Clark, with his wife Renee, lived in Dubai in the 1960s and 1970s, and have presented a series of photographs to The Majlis Gallery.

The boatyard near Maktoum bridge in the 1960s. Courtesy Michael Hamilton-Clark
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DUBAI // Seventy-one-year-old Michael Hamilton-Clark and his wife Renee remember a time when life in the Emirates was much, much simpler. The couple, who are now retired and living in British Columbia in Canada, have been living here on and off for more than 40 years.

"It was just a different life back then but I have to say it was fun," he says, smiling. "One had to improvise a bit. We had motorcars and we had to do the repairs on them. You couldn't just take it to the garage. If things went wrong, you had to just deal with it."

But not everything was so easy. One of their more memorable times came when the UAE withdrew the Indian Gulf rupee after it was devalued by India in the late 1960s. Its replacement, the Qatar Dubai riyal, took three weeks to enter circulation, forcing everyone to buy and sell things on a bartering system.

The retired British engineer first moved to the UAE as a newlywed in 1965, after being offered a job as site engineer on the original road between Dubai and Sharjah.

He remained with his French wife Renee, a teacher, in Dubai for six years, during which time they had two sons, Stephan and Edward.

The family left in 1971, but their love affair with the region spanned the next four decades and included further stints living in the Emirates.

"The Middle East is our home from home," Renee says. "We fell in love with it and we come back every year. It's a fascinating part of the world and because we've been here before we always feel comfortable."

The couple, who just celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary, are now back in Dubai to present a series of photographs at The Majlis Gallery which Mr Hamilton-Clark took with his camera between 1965 and 1971.

The black and white series show how Dubai used to be, before any of the main roads and buildings were built.

Several of the photographs show the Deira side of the creek which has little more than a few low-rise buildings and scores of dhows and abras.

"I'm an inveterate shutterbug," he smiles. "Things that took my fancy, I took pictures of. At the time things looked very different.

"A few years ago my son Stephan, who lives here, was at a party and he was saying what it was like back then. They said to him 'it was never like that'. He told them he could prove it and asked for the photos. I sent them to him, and it escalated from there.

"If you look at photographs today, you see it has gone from nothing to everything.

"There were no roads. In Dubai there was perhaps 20km of surfaced roads. In Sharjah and Ajman, there was nothing. And the route to Ras Al Khaimah was to drive up the beach or the dunes."

Before moving to the UAE Mr Hamilton-Clark, from Kent, England, was part of the design team for the Maktoum Bridge in 1961 so already knew a little about the country.

Nothing, however, prepared them for some the quirks of life that went along with living here.

Shopping, for example, was something of a hit-and-miss exercise. Much of the time the two main supermarkets - Spinneys and the Gulf Supermarket - wouldn't stock what they needed, but the shopkeepers were always happy to try and find it.

"I had heard of Milton for disinfecting baby bottles," recalls Renee. "There wasn't any here, but I had heard about it so I spoke to Hiro and he said 'don't worry, we will get it', and they did."

The Hiro Renee refers to is Hiro Jashanmal, who managed the first Jashanmal store in Dubai from 1958, two years after it opened.

"He was that sort of man, he was so nice. It was different back then. At Christmas time, Mr Reynold at the Gulf Supermarket got all his customers a box of chocolates. That's how many of us there were. If that happened now the shop would be bankrupt!"

The couple's first son Stephan was born in 1966 and their second, Edward, in 1969, both at Al Maktoum Hospital, which became the first in the emirate when it opened in 1951.

Stephan was only the eighth British birth registered at the embassy. "Having my children here didn't seem that extraordinary," Renee laughs. "The doctor was very good, the hospital was very good. I didn't think anything of it at the time."

The family lived in a small bungalow in Deira and designed all their own furniture as there were no ready-made goods.

"It's tricky, we had to guess how tall a bed needed to be, and how wide, things one hadn't thought about before," Mr Hamilton-Clark remembers. "It was things like that that made life interesting. The carpenters were excellent. They still are around here."

There was no television in the late 1960s so Mr Hamilton-Clark found another way to entertain their children. He had one of the few projectors in the country so would use it to screen children's cartoons like Tom and Jerry and Wacky Races at children's birthday parties.

"Life was whatever you made it," Renee says. "It could be as miserable as you made it, or as fun as you made it."

But by 1971 the family decided to return to the UK as their children were approaching school age and at the time there were no adequate schools to send them to.

If they had had the vision of Sheikh Rashid, they say, the would never have left.

Over the next 30 years they returned to the Middle East intermittently. Mr Hamilton-Clark spent two years in Oman, until 1984, and almost a decade in Abu Dhabi.

He was involved in the initial design of the road which winds up Jebel Hafeet, in Al Ain, and was also the site engineer for the dredging of the Umm Al Nar Channel in the capital.

He was also involved in the complicated process of building a proper harbour in Salalah, Oman.

"There was a war going on in Yemen, they were landing stuff in the surf break but you can't bring armoured cars and artillery ships in that way so they needed to build a harbour in a hurry.

"I volunteered, but what I didn't quite realise was it really was a war zone and people really were being shot at. It was certainly an interesting job!"

With their eldest son Stephan now living in Dubai with his own family, the retired couple visit at least once a year.

"Once you have the sand between you toes, you never really get rid of it," he says. "From a personal point of view, and maybe a selfish one, the work that I was engaged in was interesting, original work, it wasn't extensions, it was putting things where they hadn't been before. We had a lot of problem solving to do.

"But I think for all of us, the life was such an experience."

For information or to purchase the Yesteryear Photos of Dubai 1965 - 1971, contact The Majlis Gallery in Dubai.