UAE’s first-ever hotel tells how it all began 90 years ago

As thousands of hotels across the UAE prepare this year to welcome guests and delegates to Expo 2020 Dubai, the BOAC Rest House remains dearly remembered in the nation as the first hotel built in the 1930s.

By today’s standards, the number of branded hotel rooms in the UAE is expected to reach 108,300 by the end of 2021, according to a report by global professional services and investment management firm Colliers.

However, these massive numbers representing world-class facilities had a humble beginning with the very first facility established in 1932-33 at the Charjah Airfield.

Overnight stopover between the UK and India

Imperial Airways, which later merged with British Airways to create the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) in 1939, initially built the BOAC rest house in response to the need for an overnight stopover for its airliners on the Western Gulf air route to India, according to an article in Liwa, a journal published by the UAE National Archives.

For nine months, while the building was under construction, passengers spent the night in a tented camp. One wing of the four-square defensive fort was allocated for guest rooms. It appears that there were six single rooms and three double rooms, with a capacity of twelve people, says the article written by Nicholas Stanley-Price, an archaeologist specializing in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.

The building also had five additional rooms that were built in 1935 for Indian members of the weather service. However, the author did not specify their role on the airfield.

Only hotel in the state of
Sharjah, along with the neighboring emirates, was then part of the Trucial State, which was a collection of various sheikhdoms that allied themselves with the British through a number of treaties until the formation of the UAE in 1971.

In 1947, the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), announced that it no longer needed to call at Charjah and the last BOAC flying boat left Charjah on January 10, 1947, the National Archives newspaper reported.

When BOAC withdrew in 1947-48, a new company, International Aeradio Limited, took over the Charjah airfield as an important station for air traffic control in the Gulf. It remained the only hotel in the Trucial States until the 1960s.

Many visitors to the Trucial States in the 1950s and 1960s reported that the BOAC Rest House at Sharjah Airfield was the only accommodation available in the vicinity of Sharjah and Dubai, writes Stanley-Price.

First hotel paves way for bank and hospital

The Rest House also welcomed other visitors, such as British diplomats based in Bahrain during their visits to the Trucial Coast, which became more frequent after World War II, as well as businessmen and entrepreneurs who visited Sharjah and Dubai.

For businessmen and other visitors, it was the only “Western-standard” accommodation that was available near either Sharjah or Dubai, some 20 kilometers away, the author writes.

The Rest House had indirectly contributed to the creation of what became the British Bank of the Middle East and the Al-Maktoum Hospital in Dubai.

Until these institutions were built in Dubai, some of their staff lived at the airfield and commuted between Dubai and Sharjah.

The founder of the Dubai-based British Bank of the Middle East, Mark Stott, and Desmond McCaully, who had set up the Al-Maktoum Hospital, lived for long periods at the rest home, Stanley-Price reveals.

The novelist predicts that Charjah will be a future winter resort

He also names some distinguished guests at the rest home for a two-week period in November 1949, such as Colonel Moody, medical advisor to the political resident and political advisor to the Trucial Coast, and explorer Wilfrid Thesiger.

The author quoted novelist Hammond Innes in 1954 as saying that the Rest House was “just an airport transit hotel.” For a desert inn, it’s incredibly good,” while guessing that one day Charjah would be a colorful winter resort for wealthy travelers.

Around 1957, oilman and explorer Wendell Phillips arrived in Dubai to be told that the only real accommodation was the BOAC Rest House.

The only air-conditioned hotel until the early 1960s

In the 1960s, an Egyptian journalist, Salim Zabbal, called it “the only hotel on the entire Trucial Coast that offered a good meal and an air-conditioned room to sleep in.”

Stanley-Price notes that the Airlines Hotel in Dubai, opened in 1961, was not air-conditioned.

The construction of modern hotels in Sharjah had to wait until the late 1960s for three to open: the Seaface on the waterfront in the former residence of the British political agent, the Sheba in the new town, and the Carlton, still in operation today, near the beach in the al-Khan area, the National Archives newspaper reports.

The National Archives was originally established in 1968 as the “Office of Documents and Research” with the aim of collecting documents and information relating to the history and culture of the Arab Gulf States in general and the UAE in particular, from primary sources in Arab and foreign countries.

It is one of the oldest cultural institutions in the UAE and the largest organization of its kind in the Arab Gulf region. In addition to its documentation and archival role, the National Archives provides scholars with a series of publications, including Liwa magazine, that explore authentic and contemporary cultural issues of history and heritage.