On a hot summer day forty years ago, something unusual was happening in Abu Dhabi. Motorists gazed out their windows while pedestrians stopped and stared at a huge billboard planted in front of a hotel building site. Written in simple black and white was “100 days to go”.
Every day someone would change the number from 100 to 99 and so on.
At either side of the clock were two baby camels – Abu and Dhabi. Since 1973, the capital had just one international hotel – the Hilton. But in 1979 that would all change.
A huge Sheraton would join Le Meridien and become the third major chain to open in a city transforming beyond all recognition.
“There was big development of the oil industry at this time and lots of people were coming in,” says historian Peter Hellyer.
“Abu Dhabi was getting going. You needed more hotels.”
The media reported extensively on Sheraton's construction, adverts with the tagline “kiss a camel at the Sheraton” appeared around the city, while the countdown billboard became something of a talking point.
That August, Gulf News showed the hotel still partially covered with scaffolding.
“Unlike Dubai, which has more hotel beds than it knows what to do with, Abu Dhabi hotels still have not reached the stage where they have to worry about occupancy rates,” Pat Frances breezily noted in the piece, reflecting on the scale of Abu Dhabi’s hotel-building task.
Despite the pressure of the daily countdown, Sheikh Ahmed Al Hamed, Information and Culture Minister, opened the hotel, on time, on December 10, 1979.
The Dh120 million Sheraton took two years to build, had more than 200 rooms, 400 staff and the manager brought in twelve musicians and singers from Manila.
The hotel had a coffee shop, bowling alley and cocktail lounge, while prices started at Dh350 up to Dh1,500 for a presidential suite.
It was built in the modernist style through its use of concrete and echoed a traditional fortress. In those days, it stood right on the beach, close to the spot where Abu Dhabi’s first hotel – the Beach Hotel – once stood.
Up until then, leisure activities were confined to membership-only outlets such as Abu Dhabi's The Club but now access to beach clubs and pools became more public. The faint lines of a tourist industry were emerging. “It diversified what you could do,” notes Mr Hellyer.
“It meant businessmen could perhaps think of bringing the family instead of having to squash into small and overcrowded hotels.”
A town with just three international chains seems impossible now. But the old Abu Dhabi institution on the Corniche is also embracing the future. A huge Dh50m renovation over the next two years includes a major redesign of the lobby and complete overhaul of the 272 rooms. Restoring a much-loved hotel is always fraught with difficulty.
One popular Facebook group dedicated to the old days has scores of sepia-tinted photographs of the hotel along with faded images of parties past. The hotel's long-serving staff members agree the history is important.
“You feel proud when current guests talk about staying here 25 years ago,” says Hussein Tailoun, 50, an Egyptian who joined in 2005 to work in risk assessment.
“I have a photo of the [Late President] Sheikh Zayed in the hotel on my wall and I feel proud to work in one of the most famous hotels in Abu Dhabi.”
Mustafa Almulla, a Syrian chef at the hotel since 2005, agrees. “There is lots of competition in Abu Dhabi now but our name is still there,” he said. “It also makes me proud.”
But property’s owner has confirmed the renovation will honour the building’s history.
“We were the pioneers in the tourism in Abu Dhabi,” says Khalid Anib, chief executive of Abu Dhabi National Hotels. “Even though there is some constraints in having heritage buildings, we remain very positive and very happy to continue to take care of these heritage hotels.”
Mr Anib says the renovation will not involve changes to the beloved main building.
“For me it is nice but others say: ‘can we do something with the façade?’ But we will try to improve it in a way that doesn’t efface the hotel's identity.”
Sheraton Abu Dhabi is no longer on the beach because of land reclamation. High-rises tower over a hotel that once stood alone. But the sand-coloured hotel remains a striking reminder of the early ambitions of the capital and just how far it has come.