Abu Dhabi social club reflects both old and new in UAE

The Club, never the British Club, is celebrating 60 years — while also looking to the future

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It was close to dusk in Abu Dhabi when a swashbuckling group descended on the beach.

They arrived wearing outfits resembling Blackbeard, the famed English pirate, and assembled close to where Sheraton Abu Dhabi sits today. Although they didn't know it back then in 1962, they were making history.

Boats would come in from Doha and land on the beach. I would go there and ask for six crates of Seven-Up and then take them on myself to The Club
Ted Willis

A shamal wind kicked up a dust storm, forcing the party inside and they decided a permanent base was needed.

Unbeknown to them, the group had just held the first meeting of The Club.

Related: Long-serving manager of historic Abu Dhabi social club retires

The pirate gathering reflected its era: a world of old colonials, gentlemen oil prospectors and adventure seekers amid the twilight of the British Empire’s presence in the Gulf. It was fitting, then, that it was opened by the British political agent Hugh Boustead, who had won a Military Cross at the battle of Arras during the First World War, represented Britain in the 1920 Olympics and eventually retired to Al Ain.

“In the 1960s, The Gulf was full of colourful and interesting people,” recalls Edna Green, a founding member who attended the first pirate event. Writing in The Club at 50, published in 2012, she adds: “They all met at The Club, so as a member in those early days you were surrounded by real characters.”

Cars at The Club in the 1970s. Membership was now expanding. Photo: The Club

From those humble beginnings, The Club has welcomed more than 50,000 Abu Dhabi residents from no fewer than 84 countries over its six-decade history.

The first clubhouse was Henderson’s Folly, a building located approximately 500 metres from where The Club sits today. It was named after Edward Henderson, a British oilman, who used the building as a base for his trips to Abu Dhabi.

There were no telephones or proper roads in early 1960s Abu Dhabi. For those lucky enough to have a radio, the BBC World Service crackled through from a relay station on Masirah Island in Oman. Neither was there a modern water supply, street lights or electricity. Generators were unreliable. Houses were chiefly made of coral or palm frond and mud. Fresh water was carried in on barrels and food supplies limited to rice four and the odd shriveled potato.

So, at Henderson's Folly, members had to manage as best they could. There was no restaurant, while kerosene fridges and home-cooked food were the order of the day.

“I first came in the 1960s during school holidays," Michael Daly, son of one of the The Club’s early chairmen Mike Daly, tells The National.

“Everything was basic. Cable wooden drums on the beach were tables. But it was pioneering stuff," adds Daly, who remains a member to this day.

The main beach at The Club in the mid-1970s. Note the cable drums being used for tables. Photo: The Club.

By the late 1960s, a surging membership on the back of the oil boom and larger plans for a port meant a new home was needed. Sheikh Zayed, who became Ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966, granted land and The Club moved to its current location on June 13, 1968.

Facilities were still rudimentary but there was a bar, restaurant and beach. At night, the club was lit by candles and hurricane lamps, while cassette players provided music. “Boats would come in from Doha and land on the beach,” recalls early member Ted Willis in Forty Years of The Club, which was edited by UAE cultural historian Peter Hellyer.

“I would go there and ask for six crates of Seven-Up and then take them on myself to The Club.”

By the 1970s, there was a lengthy waiting list to join the club. So much so, hopeful members had to endure being vetted at a cocktail party. The formality continued once you became a member. After 7.30pm, formal evening dress was obligatory. Ladies wore soiree outfits while gentlemen wore a tie and shirt. Membership fees were then Dh320 for a family.

Over the years, The Club has navigated recession, averted relocation and survived worrying times such as the 1990 Gulf War. “As dependents left, the military arrived, thousands of them, with naval vessels crowding Mina Zayed and planes constantly overhead,” Forty Years of The Club reveals.

“The port road after dark was a continuous convoy of trucks going back and forth, keeping residents awake with the noise. By early 1991, it seemed like a return to the 1960s in Abu Dhabi … with the city full of unattached men and many women and children still on ‘holiday’.”

After the war, the pace of change ramped up in Abu Dhabi. New beachfront hotels, restaurants and leisure facilities were opening and The Club needed to respond. A new health centre and a revamp of facilities ensured it moved with the times.

“If we didn’t raise standards in terms of service and infrastructure, our future wouldn’t be guaranteed,” The Club’s general manager Mike McGrath, who retired this week after more than two decades in the role, tells The National.

The Club has always reflected what the city goes through. “When Abu Dhabi is on a roll, the club is on a roll," says McGrath, who steered The Club through the Covid-19 pandemic when it had to close. "When there is struggle, it is reflected in our membership levels."

Despite the challenges, more than 35,000 members have experienced the club since that pirate party on the beach. Along the way, it has hosted gigs by Welsh star Tom Jones, Canadian artist Bryan Adams and been visited by former British prime minister Ted Heath and renowned British explorer Wilfred Thesiger.

The Club today, set against the backdrop of Abu Dhabi's skyline. Photo: Victor Besa / The National

Always The Club, and never The British Club, membership is still by application and volunteering remains at its heart. It retains a British ethos but now boasts a multinational membership. It has a sailing club, sports club, a pool, two beaches, a pool, a gym and multiple restaurants and is a home away from home for countless people. It is undoubtedly a place of certainty in a city of endless change.

Events to mark the 60th anniversary are also planned later in year, including a 1960s-themed welcome back party in September.

“The Club is part of the modern history of Abu Dhabi," says Daly. “It means a lot to expatriates and Emiratis. People would be lost without it.”

Updated: July 04, 2022, 5:13 PM