Glory days return for Abu Dhabi hotel that once hosted Queen Elizabeth II

It hosted the British monarch and narrowly avoided being demolished — now a revamped Le Meridien is ready for the next illustrious chapter

A handout photo showing Le Meridien hotel in 1979 which will be displayed during the photo gallery exhibition from 23rd to 27th in the lobyy of Le Meridien (Courtesy: Le Meridien)
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On a sunny day in 1979, a crowd of people gathered in a part of Abu Dhabi known as Tourist Club.

Some waved Union Jacks, while others simply looked on curiously as a cavalcade swept through the city in a display of pomp and ceremony reserved for only the most important visitors.

They were there to see Queen Elizabeth II on her first state visit to the UAE. And at about lunchtime on February 24, the British monarch crossed the threshold of Abu Dhabi’s newest hotel, Le Meridien. Founding President, Sheikh Zayed, was hosting a lunch in her honour.

Sheikh Zayed and Queen Elizabeth II at the 1979 inauguration of Le Meridien Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Le Meridien

Abu Dhabi was in the throes of a gigantic building boom at the time. Every few months, new tower blocks, roads and buildings appeared all over Tourist Club, now renamed Al Zahiyah.

“Things were really changing,” says Nick Cochrane-Dyet, a long-time British resident of Abu Dhabi. “Come the late 1970s, it was boomtown — it was almost like gold had been discovered.”

Enter Le Meridien, the second international hotel to open in the capital after the Hilton in 1973. The Meridien chain was established by Air France in 1972 and this five-storey, air-conditioned establishment had 250 rooms, direct dial telephones, colour TVs, a private beach, an outdoor cooled swimming pool and 400-capacity conference facilities. Sepia-tinted images from 1979 show a striking modernist edifice sitting on the shore.

An advert for Le Meridien hotel in Abu Dhabi. Appeared in Emirates News newspaper, February 1979. John Dennehy / The National 

Lavish adverts heralding its arrival appeared in local newspapers, with the tagline “a French Arabian dream comes true”. It asked readers: “Can you find a place offering the best of the world’s two distinctly reputed cultures? The affirmative answer is Meridien Abu Dhabi.”

The hotel was designed in a series of crisp sharp angles, while a circular restaurant building stood alone close to the shore. It was a classic example of the 1970s modernist wave, but it also had some local motifs with the use of arches and domes.

The name of the architect was lost for years, but lead researcher for the Sharjah architecture project, Reem Khorshid, trawled archives in the UK and discovered it was Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners, a Scottish firm. The main contractor was Rashid Construction.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - February 18, 2019:   Interiors and Exteriors of Le Meridien hotel. Monday the 18th of February 2019 at The Le Meridien, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Local media reports described the building as a piece of art with Emirates News rather ambitiously describing the ballroom as a "reproduction of the fine architecture and arts represented in the Versailles Palace".

If the opening of the Hilton in 1973 had represented a new era of internationalism, Le Meridien now represented a second wave, cementing the city's status as a place on the move.

“When the Hilton opened, people weren’t sure if this place was going to come to something,” says Cochrane-Dyet.

“But it started to take off. Big time. People now don’t understand the change, but it was enormous — the type of change you’ll never see again.”

Le Meridien quietly opened to guests in March 1979, but it was not formally inaugurated until January 28, 1980, when planning minister Saeed Ghobash cut the ribbon in the presence of Henri Sauvan, secretary general of Air France, and Henri Marescot, president of the Meridien chain.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - February 18, 2019:   Interiors and Exteriors of Le Meridien hotel. Monday the 18th of February 2019 at The Le Meridien, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National

The 40-year anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s visit is reason enough to celebrate Le Meridien, but another is that the hotel very nearly did not make it that far. A bridge connecting Abu Dhabi to the new financial district on Maryah Island was planned to go straight through the hotel’s front door. Renovations that had been set for the mid-2000s had been postponed, investment stopped and the property began to show its age. Ongoing road works in the area compounded the problem, and the hotel stood forlornly — an emissary from a glorious past that faced a bleak future.

But for reasons nobody seems able to confirm, the bridge was moved and the hotel saved.

Abu Dhabi National Hotels, which owns the property, has now completed a huge renovation of Le Meridien to bring back the glory days. Khalid Anib, chief executive, said heritage properties are expensive to maintain and they have approached the tourism authorities for help finding financial support. Efforts are intensifying for the hotel to regain its five-star rating, having been downgraded to four-star during the roadwork project, which is now finally being completed.

Now the group plans to market the hotel with heritage at the centre.

“I am very honoured and privileged to play an instrumental role in the renovation of this hotel, not only to bring it to its glory days but also for it to make financial sense,” said Mr Anib.

Peter Hellyer, a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history, believes it is important to retain these buildings.

“They are examples of the 1970s modern development of the city,” he said.

“They may not be architectural gems but they are examples of the way in which the city has grown.”

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - February 18, 2019:   Chef Elias Dagher who has been at Le Meridien for more than 30 years. Monday the 18th of February 2019 at The Le Meridien, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Chef Elias Dagher arrived from Le Meridien Damascus in 1985. Standing in the revamped lobby, he recalled the good old days when there were constant aircrew arrivals from Air France, British Airways, Air Bangladesh and Syrian Air, alongside a stream of business and oil company representatives.

“I would like to go back to that time,” says Mr Dagher, 53, who is one of the longest-serving members of staff.

“Now (following the refurbishment) everything is modern. That’s just my feeling. But the guests are happy to see something new here and we are also happy for that.”