x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Qasr Al Hosn: a fortress of memories for old soldiers

The historic fort stood out from the palm-frond huts in the days before concrete and glass skyscrapers came to dominate the city skyline.

Qasr Al Hosn in 1967/68. Courtesy of Neville Ryton
Qasr Al Hosn in 1967/68. Courtesy of Neville Ryton

ABU DHABI // Today it is dwarfed by the gleaming, glass-clad buildings that stand near by, but as recently as the 1960s, Qasr Al Hosn dominated views of what was once a small coastal town.

The fort, with its ancient watchtower, was a familiar sight for passing British servicemen stationed in what was known before the formation of the UAE in 1971 as the Trucial States.

Qasr Al Hosn was way back from the water’s edge all on its own with palm trees around it,” says Michael Curtis, who was a squadron commander in the Trucial Oman Scouts.

“The only permanent buildings were the Abu Dhabi Petroleum Company’s new compound. The banks had concrete buildings, and Spinneys did as well.

“There were just the beginnings of a place called the Beach Hotel on the waterfront.

“There was the odd mosque and certain buildings were being put up by the trading community, but the rest of Abu Dhabi was more or less all barasti [palm-frond huts].”

Neville Ryton, who served with the British Army Air Corps in Sharjah in 1967 and 1968, recalls: “Qasr Al Hosn was very imposing and, as far as I can remember, was by far the largest building in Abu Dhabi, not counting the hotel.

“Abu Dhabi was really nothing more than a small town surrounded by huts and a ‘motorway’, an unfinished four-lane highway that only went a few miles in the direction of Buraimi Oasis before suddenly coming to a halt, right in the middle of the desert.”

Mr Curtis met Sheikh Zayed many times. The most memorable encounter was at Qasr Al Hosn on August 6, 1966, the day the man who is now revered as the father of the nation became Ruler of Abu Dhabi.

“It was perhaps the hottest day I can remember, the humidity was absolutely crippling,” says Mr Curtis, 73. “Sheikh Zayed said, ‘Why don’t you go round behind the wall of the fort and I’ll be with you in a minute?’

“He came round with his people and a Bedford-load of tepid Pepsi appeared, so we all drank Pepsi.

“We sat under the wall chatting away. Zayed had his little bedu pipe and he was rubbing the tobacco in his hands and putting it in. He would have two puffs and that was that lot gone, and then he’d have another lot.”

Both servicemen were impressed by Sheikh Zayed. Mr Curtis said: “He was a kind man, a bedu at heart, and he had his people’s interests foremost in everything that he did. He was always great fun and was always laughing, I got on very well with him. He’d drive a big black Chrysler Imperial with sand tyres across the desert as though he was going down the motorway.”

Mr Ryton, 67, said: “I met Sheikh Zayed a few times. I thought him impressive, imposing, a very polite man with a charisma about him.”

Mr Curtis is the co-author with the late Antony Cawston of Arabian Days: Memoirs of Two Trucial Oman Scouts.

He met Sheikh Zayed’s predecessor as Ruler, Sheikh Shakhbut, at Qasr Al Hosn.

“On high days and holidays one used to call on the Rulers,” he said. “We were in Sharjah at the time as resident squadron, and we called on Sheikh Shakhbut in his majlis on the occasion of Eid. We went in and shook hands and said Eid mubarak to the Sheikh.

“There were lots of people running around, the fort was cool, and it was in pretty good order. It was a nice place, it had a great atmosphere.”

csimpson@thenational.ae