UAE then and now: From RAF runway to busy Sharjah street

Use our interactive slider to explore how the old runway has lived on as King Abul Aziz Street

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Related: UAE then and now: Centuries go by but Qasr Al Hosn remains the heart of Abu Dhabi

Life in the UAE moves in the fast lane. In a new regular series to mark the 50th anniversary of the UAE, we take a look at some familiar places as they once were and see just how much has changed in 2021.

Always busy with traffic, King Abul Aziz Street runs straight as an arrow into the heart of downtown Sharjah. It’s also the main road to Al Mahatta Museum, a fascinating window into the country’s aviation history.

There’s a reason for this. Al Mahatta was once the UAE’s first airport, while King Abul Aziz Street was the runway.

It opened in October 1932, an overnight staging post for Imperial Airways, which operated passenger and mail flights from London to British India and Australia.

The huge propellor driven Handley Page biplanes had a limited range and needed multiple stops to reach India, with Sharjah and the Arabian Gulf a key link.

Passengers would stay overnight in a comfortable guest house, fortified against imagined “bedouin raids”.

Travellers were also forbidden from visiting the town without the Ruler’s permission after the unfortunate “beach pyjama incident” of 1933, when a group of British women scandalised local sensibilities by going to the souq in the flimsy and revealing trouser suits made popular by Coco Chanel and Hollywood stars.

All this ended in 1939 with the outbreak of the Second World War. From then until 1971, the airport became RAF Sharjah, first patrolling against German U-Boat submarines and later flying combat missions against insurgents in Oman and Aden.

The Royal Air Force withdrew with the formation of the UAE in December 1971, and the rapid growth of the city saw the new airport opened in 1976. The old runway was paved as a road and named in honour of the first Ruler of Saudi Arabia.

The aircraft seen here are Hawker Hunters, jet fighters flown by the RAF from the mid 1950s until the early 1970s, although they were still operated by the Lebanese Air Force as late as 2014.

They are taking off in 1970 as part of a military exercise off the coast of Iran as part of the Central Treaty Organisation (Centro) formed by the UK, Pakistan, Iraq, and Iran, until the overthrow of the Shah in 1979.

The fighters are performing a manoeuvre known as “hi-lo” in which a formation of four aircraft could take off simultaneously, the leading pair hugging the ground while the second climb steeply.

With a maximum speed of 1,150 kph, today’s motorists crawling along on the old runway can only imagine matching even matching a fraction of that performance.

Sharjah's role in the Second World War