x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Le Meridien commemorates three decades in Abu Dhabi with art exhibition

It has been 35 years since the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth inaugurated Le Meridien hotel, one of Abu Dhabi’s best-known landmarks.

Queen Elizabeth and Sheikh Zayed at the hotel’s inauguration in 1979.
Queen Elizabeth and Sheikh Zayed at the hotel’s inauguration in 1979.

ABU DHABI // It has been 35 years since the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth inaugurated Le Meridien hotel, one of Abu Dhabi’s best-known landmarks.

Having hosted numerous foreign and local dignitaries such as former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and former French president François Mitterand, the hotel has become famous in the capital.

To commemorate its history, the art exhibition A Journey Through 35 Years will be held in the hotel lobby and showcase exclusive photographs for public viewing.

The hotel, built in 1979, precedes the Corniche and the Abu Dhabi Mall (by more than two decades), and much of the city’s skyline.

Many of the hotel’s staff have been working there for almost as long.

Sous chef Elias Antonios Dagher has been toiling in the kitchens for 28 years. In the mid-1980s, the then 20-year-old left the Le Meridien hotel in Syria to join the newly-opened sister hotel.

Back then, Abu Dhabi was little more than a quiet town in the desert. The hotel has since had three renovations and is due for its fourth in May.

“People here have become like my family,” said Mr Dagher. “I see them more than my family back home, especially my colleagues.”

The familial feeling at the hotel is what draws guests to the hotel for repeat visits, according to him. Those are the guests whose first names staff members know by heart.

“It’s a very special place,” said the chef. “They [the guests] like the history they feel when they come here.

“When you walk in the lobby you see the photos of Sheikh Zayed and Queen Elizabeth and feel there’s something historic about the hotel. It represents something to people here.”

In the 1980s there were only three other five-star hotels: the InterContinental, the Sheraton and the Hilton, all hives of activity.

Sainalabdeen Saliabee, 58, has been with the hotel since 1984, and is one of its longest-serving employees.

He began as a driver and now supervises the automotive team. A Keralan, Mr Saliabee remembers clearly the drive to Abu Dhabi from Dubai, where he first came to work as a shopkeeper in 1976.

“It took three hours from the Trade Centre to Abu Dhabi,” he said. “There were just two lanes and it was a very long drive with no shops on the journey. It’s not like things are today. The whole city was much more deserted.”

In the Madinat Zayed area of the city, he remembers the barasti huts, now long gone in favour of blocks of flats, supermarkets, the shopping mall and gold souk.

“I love working here, to meet so many people from so many nationalities,” he said, in spite of having had to leave his wife and two sons behind in India. Now, however, his sons, aged 30 and 22, work in Abu Dhabi.

Mr Saliabee remembers meeting Dr Abdul Kalam, who was India’s president from 2002 to 2007.

“He [Dr Kalam] asked me why I left India,” he said. “I told him it was for a better life. He thought we should be serving our country but he understood.”

Although the hotel wants to retain him, Mr Saliabee thinks his time in Abu Dhabi is drawing to a close. He longs to go home to his wife, who has only been able to visit because Mr Saliabee had no family visa.

Le Meridien will always bring back fond memories for him.

“The hotel has become an icon in Abu Dhabi,” he said. “Anyone who comes to downtown Abu Dhabi wants to see Le Meridien.”

According to Hisham Ishak, the hotel’s marketing manager, its guests are becoming more diverse. Russian and Chinese tourists have added to the usual mix of French, German and British guests, many of whom have been loyal patrons for years.

Mr Ishak said the service consistency of the staff played a big role in the hotel’s success.

“We have nine staff who have been with us for more than 25 years,” he said. “They know these repeat guests on first-name terms. People like that about this hotel.”

mswan@thenational.ae