How was life in Abu Dhabi before the progress?

As a civil engineer who helped build iconic landmarks like Heritage Village and the Etisalat building, veteran Abu Dhabi resident David Spearing has seen tremendous changes in his 50 years here. Ahead of the country’s 46th birthday, David relives his first days in the country before it was officially formed

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David Spearing on Hamdan Street, 1968.

I arrived here in July 1968 on a Wednesday night. Basically, I came here because my boss in the UK was able to secure projects in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi.

In Al Ain, we constructed a hotel, which is now the Hilton, and a palace where I remember meeting Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who was then still a young boy. Then in Abu Dhabi we did a building next to the British Political Agent office, which is now the British Embassy.

My boss needed someone to help and he couldn’t convince anyone to come here. I had heard of Dubai and Abu Dhabi before through a colleague when I was working in Ghana back in the 50s.

After much convincing, I gave in because he really couldn’t find anyone to go. I told my boss that I would stay for only three, and a maximum of six, months until he found a permanent replacement.

I imagined going back to the UK that year for Christmas – it didn’t happen. Since then, I think I’ve only managed to do two or three Christmases back home.

Coming here was a total surprise and it was a horrendous start. I should have been met at the airport in Dubai at midnight but no one was there. It didn’t even look like an airport; it was just sort of a small building.

The officers on duty came and switched off the lights, locked the doors behind them, jumped in their Land Rover and drove off into the distance. I mean, there was no actual road, but just sand, basically.

Fortunately, I was able to get in touch with a friend and he was able to arrange for a vehicle to take me to what used to be the Airlines Hotel and that’s where I spent the night.

I reached Abu Dhabi on Friday around lunchtime after going through a checkpoint where I was asked by two policemen to open my bags resting in the boot of the car.

I was booked in a beach hotel where the Corniche Hospital is now located. There were only 20 rooms so there were lots of portable cabins outside for the other guests to stay in.

When I came here there was a Spinney’s just behind the Al Ain Palace Hotel. It wasn’t a big store, just a simple booth but it sold basic necessities. I remember that there was also a Jashanmal shop.

There was no fresh milk so we had canned milk; the famous brand is Klim which is milk spelled backwards!

The water was piped down from Al Ain; they established a pipeline from Al Ain, bringing water from the oasis there to Abu Dhabi. Tankers used to go to Mafraq and bring the water into the towns and put it in the grand tanks in the hotels and villas.

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Photo courtesy of BP

In those days we all had what we call septic tank soakaways. The old sewage was collected and they would just drain it away and once every so often someone would come and collect it. That was life for us but we did have facilities to use for our hygiene needs.

At that stage, the Trucial States was still a British protectorate so anybody coming here would have to go the British Embassy from the country where they’re coming from to obtain a visa to land in Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

The build-up leading to the founding of the UAE actually started in the mid-50s when the [UK] prime minister announced that they’d be pulling out from the countries, except Hong Kong, where they had military presence.

People here actually didn’t want the British to leave and local leaders were trying to lobby for them to stay because obviously the seven emirates were not ready to become a country and it was kind of forced upon them to do this.

I remember [British] opposition leader Edward Heath coming down here to The Club and telling local leaders that they would look into the possibility of the British staying if they win, and although he did come into power, it was already too late to change the policy.

But at the same time, negotiations were already moving for the establishment of a federation under the tremendous leadership of Sheikh Zayed [Bin Sultan Al Nahyan] and Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum.

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Abu Dhabi Corniche, circa 1950. Photo courtesy of BP.

I remember many of us were saying, ‘We’re building these structures and places but who’s going to live here when we’re all gone?’ Because we’d heard of the squabbles between the emirates during the negotiations and based on what we’d heard around the region, we dreaded that maybe after six months or a year, things would fall to bits.

But look at it now: the country hasn’t stopped developing and it’s just amazing to see how far they have come.

Do I miss anything from the old days? Of course; I’m an engineer and I build things and I do miss seeing the old structures around the city. In fact, the oldest commercial building that I built, Rashid Al Wida next to Crowne Plaza on Hamdan [Street], I think is about to be demolished.

As for me, I’m still here… And I hope to be here as long as I can.

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