x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The Club Abu Dhabi celebrates its 50th anniversary

The former British Club, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this weekend, had very humble beginnings.

The swimming pool of Al Mina's The Club is shown in the 1980s. Sheikh Zayed gifted the land the venue sits on.
The swimming pool of Al Mina's The Club is shown in the 1980s. Sheikh Zayed gifted the land the venue sits on.

ABU DHABI // There were two drawbacks for Edna Green when she arrived in Abu Dhabi from England in 1961, with her two-month-old baby and her pet dog.

The first, and most urgent, was that they had no place to live.

The second was that the social scene for expatriates was as spartan as the landscape in those days.

"I should have just turned around and got on the next plane out, but there wasn't another plane for two days," says Mrs Green, 78, of not having a home when she came to the UAE for her husband's banking job.

And of the social life: "There was just sand and sea. We had no television. We didn't even have telephones at that stage and very poor radio."

So one evening at a dinner party, she and five other expats decided to form a social group.

That spawned The Club, the historically British organisation in Al Mina. In the next five decades, The Club built facilities and recruited thousands of members as the city burst up around it.

"The Club is the modern history of Abu Dhabi," says Michael Daly, 58, son of the first elected chairman.

This weekend, it celebrates its 50th anniversary with live performances, beach camping, children's activities, an exhibition for local artists and more.

And in May, some of the original members plan to return to Abu Dhabi.

In 1962 The Club held its first event: a pirate-themed party in the desert. The participants formed a committee and talked to Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, then the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, who was supportive of their idea, Mrs Green says.

"They let us lease a building called Henderson's Folly, which was a tiny little house on the beach at one end of the island," she says.

"It was candles in the beginning because there was no electricity, and then finally somebody gave us a generator. But, of course, there were no roads either at that point, so somebody had to get kerosene up there.

"And there was no water, so somebody had to persuade a tanker driver to drive through the sand … but with hardship, people get together."

By the time David Spearing came to Abu Dhabi, in 1968, The Club had moved to a nearby site to make way for the port.

Sheikh Zayed - the emirate's new Ruler and later the country's founding President - gave the land The Club now occupies.

The facilities were simple and there wasn't much in the way of dining, says Mr Spearing, 75, a former chairman.

"It was basically just sandwiches," says Mr Spearing, also from the UK. "Otherwise, we had a Curry Friday. The wives cooked a curry and they all brought it down in big pots and put them all in the middle and we paid one dinar, which is about Dh10."

There was little else to do for expatriates, says Mr Daly, whose first memories of The Club date to the 1960s when he was a teenager.

"I used to come out every holiday - Christmas, Easter, summers - and stay with my father," he says. "I used to go to The Club every day, basically, because that was the only place to socialise with other people."

Entertainment was basic. Members played films on a projector or hosted theme nights.

In 1969, Mr Spearing served as a disc jockey. He asked a UK record company to send the top 40 records in the country. The hit song was Sugar, Sugar, by the Archies.

"I did a bit of talking on the microphone in between and that was it," he says. "So I claim to be the first DJ in the UAE."

The Club eventually became more professional, adding paid staff.

When Mr Daly returned to the UAE to work in 1975 it had a long waiting list. Expatriates who spent two years in Abu Dhabi might never get in back then, he says.

When the current chairman Hamish MacDonald moved to Abu Dhabi in 1986, membership had dropped to about 2,000 from about 2,800 in the early 1980s, he says.

"In the end, our children have basically grown up at The Club," says Mr MacDonald, 56, from the UK.

Prospective members underwent an old-fashioned vetting, attending a cocktail party to obtain approval.

"It was put up to be this challenge," says Mike McGrath, 50, from Scotland, the current general manager. "I think members enjoyed putting you on edge."

When Mr McGrath signed up in 1988, it was "the place to network".

"And if you didn't get in, you were very disappointed," he says.

Membership was never solely British, even in the early days, Mrs Green said: "We had Italians, we had Iraqis, Lebanese and so on."

But over time, the The Club grew more diverse.

"Now we're 50 per cent British," Mr MacDonald says.

"Now what we have is a welcome party to the new members. We invite them to the party to meet us, which is quite a change."

Once a year, some of the early members gather in London.

"It just grew, I think, because it was a necessity in some ways …" Mrs Green says. "It's amazing that six people at a dinner table can start something which ends up 50 years later with a wall of people."

vnereim@thenational.ae

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