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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

Hilton Abu Dhabi: The hotel opened by Sheikh Zayed that changed the city forever

Forty-five years ago this week, Sheikh Zayed opened the Hilton Abu Dhabi, bringing a new luxury - and smoked salmon - to the city

Hilton Abu Dhabi and the Corniche as it looked around 1975. Courtesy Alain Saint Hillaire 
Hilton Abu Dhabi and the Corniche as it looked around 1975. Courtesy Alain Saint Hillaire 

On a sunny afternoon in 1973, a group of people gathered on what had been an empty sandbank just a few years before.

They were waiting for Sheikh Zayed, who on May 23 was about to open a building that would change Abu Dhabi for ever.

At around 1.30pm, the late president cut the ribbon on Hilton Abu Dhabi using golden scissors.

On that day forty-five years ago, the late president toured the function halls, swimming pool and tennis courts along with the manager, Ahmed El Nahas.

Afterwards, hundreds attended a lavish state lunch at the hotel’s Liwa ballroom, the police band played while a model of the Maqta Bridge was placed on the centre table.

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Built at a cost of Dh38 million, it represented a new era of internationalism for the city.

Abu Dhabi had hotels before. The Beach Hotel had operated on the site of the modern-day Sheraton Corniche, the Al Ain Palace was open, while Al Ain already had its own Hilton.

But this was the first five-star brand in the city, redolent of a glamourous era when top hotels where the place to be seen. Abu Dhabi also desperately needed to cater for the surging number of visitors arriving on the back of the oil boom.

News of the 1973 opening was carried comprehensively in all the newspapers including Al Ittihad, Gulf Mirror and Abu Dhabi News, with Al Ittihad devoting an entire page inside to the opening.

An advert for Hilton Abu Dhabi that appeared in Gulf Mirror, May 1973.
An advert for Hilton Abu Dhabi that appeared in Gulf Mirror, May 1973.

Hilton Abu Dhabi had ten floors, about 180 rooms, five function halls, a bowling alley, arcade games, tennis courts, an outdoor pool with air-conditioned cabins and a view of the Arabian Gulf on one side and Al Bateen beach on the other.

“We drove in cavalcade down a tarmac road through flat desert towards the sea. There was a town there. A new town spreading over the sand. It was Abu Dhabi,” wrote Patricia Holton in her 1991 book, Mother Without a Mask, about the hotel in the 1970s.

“We drove along the seafront to a new Hilton hotel which stood on lonely splendour at one end of narrow road that would eventually become … the Corniche,” she wrote.

“The hotel looked like a fort, standing strong and tall in the desert night. Inside its lobby was cool and broad with a few white couches. The space seemed right for the white-robed Arab men and the long, full skirts of the European, Indian and Mediterranean women who dressed in the evening.”

Hilton Abu Dhabi not only dominated its surroundings, it introduced new foods, higher levels of service and a breakfast buffet of such variety that had never seen been in the city.

New foods included iceberg lettuce, artichokes, smoked salmon, avocado and foie gras. French food dominated the menus and everything had to be flown in from London once a week.

Selim El Zyr was Hilton Abu Dhabi’s first food and beverage manager.

“Smoked salmon – that was a big story,” recalls Mr El Zyr.

“And the vegetables that are today in every supermarket and back streets of Abu Dhabi were then were a novelty,” says Mr El Zyr, who went on to co-found Rotana.

A view of Hilton Abu Dhabi from the sea, which was taken around 1975. Courtesy Alain Saint-Hilaire
A view of Hilton Abu Dhabi taken around 1975. Courtesy Alain Saint-Hilaire

Of course a night at the Hilton did not come cheap. Mr El Zyr recalls a one-night stay cost then cost about Dh450, which is more expensive than a stay today during Ramadan.

The day after the official opening a more informal cocktail party was held. Music was laid on by the Toni Rossi Group, who rocked out in safety helmets and overalls on a stage designed like a scaffold underline the epic effort to get the hotel built. In the middle of the ballroom was a huge model of the new Hilton.

“I must admit to thinking it was a real edible cake, so did a lot of other people,” wrote Janet Godfrey in a lively account of the night for Abu Dhabi News.

“I was not the only one caught poking a sly finger through a 4th floor window to see if it came out coated with jam and cream."

In the years that followed, many new hotels sprung up and trends had begun to swing from business to tourism. By 1994, Hilton Abu Dhabi went through a renovation. The bowling alley became Hemingway’s, the Hiltonia beach club opened, while a new wing added sorely-needed rooms. But it also strove to maintain the spirit and sense of home as those early days. Twelve years ago, Hans Schiller used to walk the Corniche and tell his wife that one day he’d become manager there.

“It’s very seldom that a hotel is 45 years old and still has the spirit. Look at all the modernity around us and people still like to come here,” says Mr Schiller, a German hospitality veteran who has been manager since last August. Many guests come back again and again to celebrate anniversaries and birthdays and for Mr Schiller, it’s like coming home.

Hilton Abu Dhabi veteran employees, from left: Samir El Kerwash, chief liaison officer; Naeem Ahmed, senior supervisor; and Sulaiman Taha, public relations officer. Mr Ahmed is the longest-serving employee and arrived from Pakistan in 1979. Mr El Kerwash, 61, and Mr Taha, 56, started in 1994 and 1983 respectively. Victor Besa / The National.
Hilton Abu Dhabi's veteran employees, from left, Samir El Kerwash, Naeem Ahmed and Sulaiman Taha. Victor Besa / The National

According to the most recent figures Abu Dhabi has at least 169 hotels and in 2017 welcomed more than five million guests. It now boasts a number of five-star hotels run by Jumeirah, St Regis, Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons. But they all owe a debt to that May 23 day.

“The impact that it made was tremendous,” recalls Mr El Zyr. “For entertainment in the city, it was Hilton. If you wanted to eat a decent meal, you went to Hilton. That was the place to be.”

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