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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

The Good Old Days: Facebook group chronicles evolution of Abu Dhabi through its residents

The Facebook group has attracted thousands of followers in just a few weeks with its nostalgic look back at the changing face of the city 

The clock-tower roundabout and old souq are just some of the famous landmarks that have forever disappeared from Abu Dhabi. But who can remember the Beach Hotel, El Dorado Cinema and the time when boxing legend Muhammad Ali visited Saadiyat Island?

While buildings may have faded in the sands of time, their memory has found a new lease of life online.

A Facebook group Abu Dhabi Good Old Days went live on September 1, and has already attracted more than 6,000 members. Residents past and present have been sharing memories of the capital city as it used to be – a time before Mawaqif, baqala and 5 per cent VAT. Unlike today's restricted beaches and chunks of privatised land, back then Fridays meant taking a 4x4 and camping almost anywhere.

The group was established by Ron McCulloch, a doctor who ran a private medical practice in Abu Dhabi from 1974 to 2012. He came across a similar page for Dubai and wondered why the capital did not have its own.

“By the next day we had 55 members and after a week we had 3,000,” he said.

Faded newspaper cuttings, sepia-tinted images of hotel staff, laminated membership cards of forgotten beach clubs and the ghosts of house parties past – they all paint a vivid picture of the oilmen, aviators, domestic workers, labourers, engineers, pioneering nurses, doctors and so many more, who had a front-row seat to the capital’s transformation.

Group member Harry Bonning, British, worked in Abu Dhabi from 1988 to 1994. Some considered the UAE a hardship post but Mr Bonning dismisses this.

“I actually found moving to Abu Dhabi less of a culture shock than when I moved to Germany — everyone spoke English. We had maids, some even had drivers,” said Mr Bonning.

“I believe one US company still paid their staff a hardship bonus and everyone found that hilarious.”

An excursion to Liwa in the early 1990s. Courtesy Harry Bonning
An excursion to Liwa in the early 1990s. Courtesy Harry Bonning

When exactly were the good old days? For many it was more of a spirit, a memory or a feeling than an exact date range. But for David Pryce, the timeline is from 1977 to the mid-1990s. Mr Pryce was just 20 when he arrived to manage an afforestation project in Ghayathi, about 250 kilometres west of Abu Dhabi.

The country had recently been established and the territory was harsh, but, to Mr Pryce, everyone had a pioneering spirit. There was also practically no tourism.

“The work experience was completely different from the West – exasperating at times, but there were no unions to get in the way, no strikes, and if a job needed doing you simply got stuck in, all of you,” said Mr Pryce, who is also from the UK.

"Looking back it seems our feet hardly touched the ground."

Many of the group's posts track the changing landscapes, unusual events and bittersweet transitions. A striking aerial shot taken in 1974 by Mr McCulloch, who was also a pilot, shows the first buildings on Hamdan Street.

As the Sheraton Corniche prepared to welcome its first guests in 1979, a picture shows there was a huge clock outside counting down the days to opening. There are snapshots of the late Muhammad Ali visiting Saadiyat Island and fighting in Dubai. Many members have shared memories of the late President, Sheikh Zayed.

Mr Bonning, 69, recalled one unforgettable trip with an Emirati friend to a camel race in Al Ain. This was the era when boys were used as jockeys, a practice since banned in the UAE.

“There were cars everywhere, some driven by youngsters who had to stand up to see over the bonnet,” he said.

“Think of twenty or thirty 4x4s racing alongside each other through the sand. I was hanging on for dear life. A totally exhilarating experience.”

But war clouds were on the horizon. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 cast an air of uncertainty over the Arabian Gulf and this has been chronicled on the group. Troops with heavy-machine guns were stationed on street corners in Abu Dhabi. Convoys of refugees also wound their way through Saudi Arabia to the emirate.

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Read more:

Fifty years on: How the opening of the bridge to everywhere changed the face of Abu Dhabi

Photographs of old Abu Dhabi chronicle a time long forgotten

Time frame: Winter storm surges of the 1960s

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

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“One abiding memory was of the dark haze that hung over the city from the oil well fires in Kuwait. If it rained, your car would be covered in dark spots of oil,” said Mr Bonning.

Another series of photographs shows the demolition of the much-loved volcano fountain on the Corniche in 2004, another shows the eagle’s head being placed on the clubhouse of Abu Dhabi Golf Club during its construction.

Now in his 70s and back in the UK, Mr McCulloch said the response to the group has been overwhelming.

“So many people were complimentary. It is the equivalent of Buckingham Palace calling and being offered a lordship," he said.

Over the past 20 years Abu Dhabi has grown beyond the main island to encompass Reem Island, Saadiyat and Khalifa City. It could never stay the same. But on social media, the city is now frozen in a rose-tinted age.