The UAE’s first hotel is four decades older than the country

With only nine bedrooms and water supplied by donkey caravan, the BOAC Rest House has been welcoming guests since it opened in Sharjah 90 years ago

The BOAC Rest House was the first hotel in what is now the UAE, opening in a Sharjah airfield in 1932. Photo: Wam

Today, the UAE is a haven for holidaymakers with hotels to suit every type of trip.

Whether you seek a family-friendly resort with a water park for the children, a luxury escape in a gilded palace or craving a designer suite within the world’s tallest skyscraper, you’ll find it in the Emirates.

But the country’s glittering skyline was a rather more humble affair 90 years back, and travellers had only one place to lay their heads.

The BOAC Rest House in Sharjah is the UAE’s oldest hotel, dating back to 1932 when it opened in a Sharjah airfield.

Guests staying at BOAC Rest House had access to heated water, collected from a nearby well and transported to the hotel by donkey caravan. Photo: WAM / Dunn

It was conceived as a stopping place for passengers flying on Imperial Airways’ western Gulf air routes to India, according to an article in Liwa, a journal published by the UAE’s National Archives.

Built in nine months, it was a fortress-like structure with only nine guest rooms when it opened.

There was no swimming pool or water park in those days, but foreign passengers did enjoy a relatively pampered stay, according to Nicholas Stanley-Price, an author and former strategic adviser at the Sharjah Museums Department.

Overnight guests dressed up for dinner and feasted on food and drinks with provisions supplied from the on-site storehouse.

They had fresh water, drawn from a nearby desert well and delivered by staff by donkey caravan to the hotel. If a hot bath was needed, water could be heated using chopped firewood as fuel.

BOAC Rest House had 14 rooms by 1935, and would soon be the site of the UAE's first cinema. Photo: Wam

A central courtyard and a shaded sitting area on the upper level of the two-storey building served as communal spaces in which guests could mingle. And there was an outpost from which mail and telegrams could be sent and received.

In 1935, another five rooms were added to the tiny building. It would soon be branded the BOAC Rest House when, in 1939, Imperial and British Airways Ltd merged into the British Overseas Airways Corporation.

By the mid-1940s, the hotel registered another first, becoming the site of the country’s inaugural cinema. People would sit in its courtyard and watch silent films, mostly documentaries and comedies, according to records from the Sharjah Museums Authority.

During this time, while the airport and adjoining base was used by the RAF and US Air Forces, the rest house remained primarily for civilian passengers.

It was a key stopover point for international travellers until 1947, when BOAC ceased flying the route.

The earliest production de Havilland DH-106 Comet 1 four engined pressurised passenger jet airliner registration G-ALYP of the British Overseas Airways Corporation flying above the United Kingdom with the first prototype Ministry of Supply Comet DH106 G-ALVG during trials on 4th April 1951. On 2nd May 1952, as part of BOAC's route-proving trials, G-ALYP took off on the world's first commercial"r"n jetliner flight with fare-paying passengers and inaugurated scheduled service from London to Johannesburg. On the 10th January 1954 after suffering an explosive decompression at altitude BOAC Flight 781 Comet G-ALYP crashed into the sea near the Island of  Elba off the Italian coast, killing all 35 people on board. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).

It then became a place largely for air traffic controllers in the Gulf to stay, and remained the only hotel in the Trucial States until the 1960s.

According to Stanley Price, it was the only lodging “to western standards” available near Sharjah or Dubai and played host to several prominent guests including British explorer Wilfred Thesiger and American archaeologist Wendell Phillips.

In the 1960s, Egyptian journalist Salim Zabbal said the rest house was the “only hotel in all the Trucial Coast that provided a good meal and an air-conditioned room for sleeping”.

Today, almost a century since it opened, the UAE’s original hotel is part of Al Mahatta Museum, which is run by Sharjah Museums Authority and tells the story of aviation in the Gulf.

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Updated: March 21, 2022, 12:26 PM