x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Photos from 1960s portray an Abu Dhabi long gone

The son of a British airman who flew for Gulf Aviation 50 years ago returns with a pictorial legacy of the pre-oil years of the desert city.

In Al Ain, the delegation of oil executives who were flown there by Michael Stokes’s father James to discuss oil concessions with Sheikh Zayed. Courtesy of Michael Stokes
In Al Ain, the delegation of oil executives who were flown there by Michael Stokes’s father James to discuss oil concessions with Sheikh Zayed. Courtesy of Michael Stokes

DUBAI // Today, Abu Dhabi International Airport has two runways and three terminals that handle more than 12 million passengers a year, travelling to and from 49 countries.

There are 109 check-in desks, 21 gates and attractive duty-free shopping areas. As delegates at the World Travel and Tourism Council summit in the capital heard yesterday, it has become a major global aviation hub.

But go back to about 1965 and the airport consisted of little more than a sand landing strip and a single small building that was cooled by a wind tower.

The scene was captured in a photo taken by Captain James Stokes, a pilot with Gulf Aviation.

His son, John, looking smart in his school uniform, stands in front of the arrivals passport area. The red-and-white Abu Dhabi flag flies overhead.

This is one of many previously unpublished photos taken by Capt Stokes that show the Emirates, known then as the Trucial States, in the pre-oil boom years.

Some capture historical moments while others show important places that look very different today. Together they present an evocative impression of a vanished world.

"In those days there was very little in the Trucial States," says Capt Stokes's other son, Michael, who hopes to publish the pictures in a book. "There were no roads in Abu Dhabi and it was always a problem getting to and from anywhere on the soft sand. You had to have four-wheel drive otherwise you would just get stuck."

One series of pictures shows an oil company delegation alighting from a plane after Capt Stokes flew them to Al Ain to meet Sheikh Zayed, the founding President.

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"This would have been to talk about the oil concessions and exploration that was going on at the time," says Mr Stokes, 55, who lived with his family in Bahrain in the 1960s and regularly visited Abu Dhabi, sometimes spending the summer holidays there.

Some of the photos show him with family and friends at the Maqta causeway to the island before the modern bridge was built. The old round tower that still stands nearby can be seen in some of the shots.

"There was a checkpoint with a gentleman with a .303 rifle," says Mr Stokes. "They didn't allow anybody to just come on to the island from the interior."

Photos taken from the air show a key moment in the development of Dubai - the dredging of the Creek in the early 1960s that gave improved access to shipping.

Barriers were built at the mouth to keep the waterway clear and the spoils were used to reclaim land long before the Palm Jumeirah had even been contemplated. There are also some atmospheric shots of dhows moored in the Creek.

"We all came down as mates to see Dubai," says Mr Stokes. "We were all Gulf Aviation brats apart from one and we just got on a flight and came down.

"We swam across the Creek where the abra station is and the St George Hotel on the other side."

Mr Stokes left the Arabian Gulf to attend school in the UK before going to university there. He returned in the early 1980s and has lived in Dubai for many years, working in the financial sector.

His father, who is 87, and his mother Joy, 86, live in the UK.

Although many of the photos show Mr Stokes enjoying what looks like an idyllic childhood, not everything was perfect.

"It was a lot of fun but very different," he says. "You had to put up with things - fresh food was a lot more difficult to get. There was only powdered milk.

"Getting on an aeroplane back to the UK was great because you could have fresh milk with cereal and not get weevils in the milk or the cereal, which was fantastic."

csimpson@thenational.ae