UAE then and now: Burj Al Arab, the hotel that introduced Dubai to the world

Use our interactive slider to explore the construction of Dubai's enduring landmark

Powered by automated translation

Today, life in the Emirates moves in the fast lane. In a new regular series to mark the 50th anniversary of the UAE we take a little trip back in time and see just how much the country has changed.

The brief was simple: deliver a building that would introduce Dubai to the world. Just as Sydney had its Opera House and New York the Empire State Building, Dubai needed a structure that would become synonymous with the city. That was the task handed to British architect Tom Wright in the early 1990s.

The site chosen for the new building was about 20 kilometres out of town and far from the action. The area had been informally known as Chicago Beach, named after the Chicago Bridge and Iron Company, which built oil storage tanks there. It was also home to the 1970s-era Chicago Beach Hotel. While still popular, it had become jaded by the 1990s.

Abu Dhabi residents residents Omeir Nasir, left, and Owais Nasir, right, visit the Burj Al Arab between 1999 and 2002. Courtesy: Sarwat Nasir

Wright, then in his 30s and working for the Atkins design firm, delivered a sail-inspired structure that reflected Dubai′s maritime heritage. It was approved in 1993 and dredging work to create the man-made island it would sit on started almost immediately. By 1996 the hotel was starting to rise. The entire project was a complex feat of engineering. Scores of concrete piles were driven into the sand to support the hotel, while a honeycomb collection of rocks ring-fenced it against sea intrusion.

The pace of construction was staggering. In the older photograph from 1997, the hotel is already almost complete, while some workers take a rest on the beach. A mere two years later Burj Al Arab – Tower of the Arabs – opened its doors in time for the new millennium. People from across the UAE came to view the new attraction.

The 321-metre high hotel has 202 rooms and one of the world's tallest atriums. The Burj Al Arab's architectural height is taller than the Eiffel Tower. The interiors are gilded in 24-carat gold, while its helipad has also been put to good use. In 2004, Tiger Woods teed off from there, while a year later, Andre Agassi and Roger Federer faced off on a makeshift tennis court. Along with Jumeirah Beach Hotel, it has become synonymous with Dubai.

As for the Chicago Beach Hotel, it was finally demolished in 1997 and the Wild Wadi Waterpark stands on the spot today. In the years since, Dubai has built the world's tallest building and a host of other super structures but the hotel remains a modern symbol of Dubai's ambition.

Burj Al Arab: the global landmark of Dubai – in pictures