UAE then and now: one of the last standing buildings of Abu Dhabi's old Tourist Club area

Use our interactive slider and scroll through the photo gallery to explore how the Tourist Club area - formally known as Al Zahiyah - has changed over the decades

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

In the late 1970s, when the older of these two photographs was taken, a curious structure began to rise in the area of Abu Dhabi once known as Tourist Club.

Le Meridien hotel was the first building in the city constructed around a steel frame and went ahead despite objections from local cement manufacturers.

It was part of a brand established by Air France in 1972, with a deal signed by Abu National Hotels three years later, when the Hilton was still the only international hotel brand in town.

Le Meridien hotel was inaugurated by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II on her state visit to the UAE in 1979, with the first guests arriving a few weeks later.

As the tower blocks in the background of the current photo show, the area has changed beyond recognition in the past 42 years.

Le Meridien was once flanked by Tourist Club, a district of the city that was renamed Al Zahiyah in 2014.

Tourist Club was the city’s original entertainment district, created as a family-friendly zone overlooking the site of an annual sailing race regularly attended by Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father.

From a two-storey circular structure it expanded to become a complex that including a bowling alley, skating rink and a place to play the first video games, Electra Electronic Games, which opened around 1980.

As the city expanded, so did opportunities for leisure, and the Tourist Club name became more of a curiosity to baffle newcomers, especially after the original complex was knocked down as part of a major redevelopment of Abu Dhabi, of which the 2004 demolition of the Volcano Fountain was also part.

Many of the older buildings in Al Zahiyah are disappearing, unfit for use after so many years.

Le Meridien, though, is a survivor. Over the years it has hosted guests from all over the world, including Abdou Diouf, the former president of Senegal, Prince Albert of Belgium, the leaders of Tunisia and Morocco and the French singer Sacha Distel.

The hotel had a narrow escape in 2010 when it was scheduled for demolition to make way for a new bridge to Al Maryah Island, only to be saved by a deal between the owners and Abu Dhabi Municipality.

It has since undergone a complete refurbishment and is now managed by the Marriott group. Along with the Lebanon Fountain outside, also recently restored, it retains a link to Abu Dhabi’s past and many fond memories of good times gone by.

An image from the Itihad archive. Courtesy Al Itihad.
Abu Dhabi, UAE. 1975. Sheikh Zayed inspecting the expansion of Tourist Club area. Third from left is Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, now Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi *** Local Caption ***  000012.JPG
Updated: September 22nd 2021, 5:01 AM
EDITOR'S PICKS
NEWSLETTERS