How air conditioning changed life in the Gulf

Early devices, often haphazardly installed, could be basic. But chilled air brought with it an economic and social boom

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On a scorching Dubai August day in the early 1950s, the last thing guests at the house-warming lunch wanted to hear was that an equally hot curry was on the menu.

No need to worry, Mark Stott, manager of the British Bank of the Middle East, reassured his eight guests, who included Desmond McCaulley, the town’s only doctor, and Edward Henderson, later to become Britain’s political agent in Abu Dhabi.

His home, Stott explained, had been fitted with a new device known as an air conditioner. No matter how ferocious the spices in the dish, guests would remain beautifully cool.

As the meal progressed, even Stott, who had acquired his taste for curry in the Indian Army, was beginning to sweat heavily.

Henderson, who later described the meal in his memoirs as “the hottest curry I can ever remember”, suggested that the ceiling fan might also be turned on.

No need, Stott insisted. The air conditioner was new and probably just needed time to “settle down”.

Later, the gathering moved outside to the garden, which seemed considerably cooler than the house, helped by a steady flow of cool air from what should have been the exhaust of the AC unit.

It turned out the unit had been installed back to front. “We had been air conditioning the garden and breathing in the exhaust,” Henderson recalled.

Such incidents were not unusual in the early days of air conditioning in the Arabian Gulf. Technology that in much of the world was an increasingly common way to beat the heat was still a novelty there.

Yet in just a couple of decades, air conditioning would transform the way people lived and the way cities were built.

For centuries, people had managed the blistering heat and drenching humidity of an Arabian Gulf summer as best they could, retreating indoors where wind towers might bring down the thermometer reading by a few degrees, or escaping to the relative cool in the mountains of Al Ain.

Suddenly a new invention promised instant relief from the most brutal July day. But air conditioning did more than that. It made the modern Gulf possible, with its office blocks, apartment towers, shopping malls and hotels.

It is fair to say that without air conditioning, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the modern cities of the GCC countries could not exist.

The widespread use of air conditioning in the UAE and Gulf really began with the expansion of cities and oil-fuelled economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s.

But cooling machines powered by electricity had first appeared in the region the late 1930s, as sweaty colonial administrators tried to make their lives a little more comfortable.

Modern air conditioning ― essentially circulating air over coils that were chilled by special gases ― was invented in the United States, where it was used to cool cinemas and theatres in the 1920s. The first units were large ― up to four metres long ― and extremely expensive, but by the 1930s, the familiar window ledge version for home use had been developed.

Thousands of kilometres away, British workers sweltering in their Bahrain offices cast envious eyes at this new innovation. For more than a century, Britain and her Empire had been effective masters of the Gulf ― but they couldn’t control the weather.

The unbearable summer heat, which could last from May to October, was a major factor in jobs in the Gulf being labelled “hardship postings” to be endured for only a couple of years at best.

Orders from Manama were placed with the manufacturers in San Francisco in February 1936. Archive documents reveal this was the second attempt to introduce air conditioning “with many difficulties found in the ones tried out last summer".

The first customers were oil companies, including the Bahrain Petroleum Company, then part of Standard Oil, and in Saudi Arabia, where employees of Aramco, the Arabian American Oil Company, could rent them for their rooms.

British diplomats were next, although the cost to the Foreign Office budget was a significant factor. A “rather high” estimate for just one room in the Bahrain Political Agency worked out at 4,000 Indian rupees ― the currency in the Gulf at the time ― or equivalent to nearly £16,000 or Dh74,000 at today’s prices.

Approving a seven-and-a-half horsepower unit for the same agency in 1947 meant a price tag of 7,733 rupees, or nearly Dh140,000 today. And that was only for buying and installing air conditioning. The annual running costs were calculated at 1,500 rupees, or almost Dh28,000 today.

Still, what price expatriate comfort? Throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s, air conditioning spread to wherever westerners worked in the Gulf, from Muscat in Oman to the port of Bushehr, in what was then called Persia.

Pity those who had to go without. “I find it extremely difficult and sometimes impossible to work in the heat of the summer in my present office,” the chief of Dubai police, Maj P G Lorimer, complained in 1963.

“In the past, I have taken work and clerical staff to my house when it was too difficult to work in the office, I have not had air conditioning in the past as the local contractor's electricity was insufficient to run it and I had no provision for it in the current year's budget when the Dubai Electricity Company's supply became available.

“I am now one of the very few people in Dubai who does not have air conditioning in his office.”

Lorimer’s plight was unusual for a western expatriate. At the time, air conditioning was generally considered an unnecessary luxury for workers from hotter countries.

“Muscat is a filthy climate and I remember being hot enough even in October without air conditioning,” one British diplomat wrote impolitely in a memo from 1968. “I have recommended air conditioning for the offices, so that our own expatriate staff will at any rate derive some benefit from this measure."

In Abu Dhabi, things were a little different. The first western family arrived in 1954, with Tim Hillyard appointed to run the off-shore oil concession, and accompanied by his wife Susan, and infant daughter Deborah.

Abu Dhabi Marine Areas, a subsidiary of British Petroleum, had built a house for the Hillyards, to Tim’s design, and which included gaps in the exterior walls to improve air flow, and porous coral blocks for the bottom of walls.

As it turned out, this was a sensible precaution. Susan, who died in 2014, recalled in her memoir, Before the Oil, that BP had provided two air-conditioning units but not the generators to run them for another two years.

These were the only AC units in Abu Dhabi. Most of the population lived in homes built of palm and rope, with no electricity or running water. Before the discovery of oil, air conditioning would have been an impossible luxury for almost everyone.

From that point, the bedrooms in the house were air conditioned, but when it was proposed to extend it to the sitting room, Hillyard put his foot down, saying he wanted somewhat of the same living conditions as the local population and specifically the Ruler, Sheikh Shakhbut, a traditionalist.

“If my living conditions aren’t to be like his, however can I get on his wavelength?” Susan remembered her husband saying.

Such hardships rapidly ended with the discovery of oil in 1958. Abu Dhabi began to expand, with the traditional arish houses replaced with buildings of concrete and glass.

Canny local businessmen set up thriving import businesses on the back of this new wealth and, as the population grew rapidly, air conditioning units were soon in high demand.

Today air conditioning is ubiquitous and all-powerful, to the extent that even in August, it is often a sensible precaution to take a jumper for a visit to the cinema.

Marwa Koheji, a doctoral student at the University of Bahrain, has studied the impact of air condition on her native Bahrain and the Gulf countries.

“Air conditioning does not only produce expectations of comfort but can also shape users’ everyday life, marking and making social distinctions. This technology travels, changes places and people, and is in turn also changed by them,” she says.

Air conditioning is a major factor in the astonishing population growth of cities in the Gulf, from 500,000 at the end of the Second World War to more than 20 million today.

One consequence is that as much as 70 per cent of electricity in the region is used to power air conditioning, contributing to one the world’s highest carbon footprints. As a way to keep cool, air conditioning has become a hot topic.

Updated: May 28, 2022, 12:21 PM