Despite being one of the world’s most popular tourism destinations, the UAE is relatively young and turns 52 on Saturday.
Over the last five decades, the country has built a name for itself on the global tourism circuit and is famed for being home to some of the best luxury hotels in the world. From the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, the only self-titled “seven-star hotel”, to the recently opened Atlantis The Royal and the golden arches of Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental, visitors are spoilt for choice.
But it hasn’t always been like that.
The country’s first hotel opened in Sharjah back in 1932 as a humble rest stop designed for transit passengers. With only nine bedrooms and water supplied by donkey caravan, the BOAC Rest House was also home to the country’s inaugural cinema.
As more visitors began to arrive in the country, the need for new hotels grew and many of those built back then are still welcoming tourists today, despite hefty competition.
These grandes dames of the UAE offer travellers not only a place to lay their head, but a walk down memory lane and a glimpse at the country before it became the tourism hub we know today.
1. Al Ain Palace Hotel, Abu Dhabi – opened in 1967
Launched in 1967, Al Ain Palace Hotel is Abu Dhabi’s longest-running hotel. Opened by Sheikh Mubarak bin Mohammed Al Nahyan – who went on to become the UAE’s first interior minister – this was the second property to be built in the capital after The Beach Hotel, which was demolished in the 1970s.
The hotel, which was constructed in a matter of months, was built as a place to stay for the increasing number of people travelling to Abu Dhabi during the UAE’s oil boom. Today, the four-star hotel is known for its central location on the Corniche and its lively nightlife, including the popular Easy Tiger bar and Mediterranean restaurant Little Soho.
2. Ambassador Hotel, Dubai – opened in 1968
The Ambassador Hotel is located in Bur Dubai, in the buzzy Meena Bazaar area. It was built more than 50 years ago by Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the city’s ruler at the time, for Indian resident Lakhmichand Lulla.
It was the second hotel to open in Dubai, after the Airlines Hotel – a two-storey, eight-room property that opened in 1959 – which was purpose-built for travellers connecting on flights at Sharjah International Airport.
That hotel – also owned by Lulla – was demolished in 1975, but the Ambassador Hotel had already opened its doors seven years prior. The then 40-room, eight-storey property has since been extended and remains the oldest operational hotel in Dubai. And while it can’t boast a prime location or five-star facilities, it offers a historic place to stay in the heart of the old city.
3. Hilton Al Ain – opened in 1970
The Hilton Al Ain opened in 1970, making it older than the UAE itself. Its arrival was something of an occasion in the quiet desert-surrounded town, where, even today, high-rise buildings are few and far between.
With air-conditioned rooms, the city’s first conference rooms and a large swimming pool, it was deemed fit for a queen and, fittingly, the late Queen Elizabeth II did stay here during her first state visit to the Gulf.
About 53 years since its opening, the hotel is still welcoming guests to the Garden City, although it has since been rebranded as the Radisson Blu Hotel & Resort.
4. Hilton Abu Dhabi Corniche – opened in 1973
The Hilton Abu Dhabi – today the Radisson Blu Hotel & Resort, Abu Dhabi Corniche – was opened 50 years ago by the UAE Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
Back then, the hotel was surrounded by little more than sand, and while it wasn’t the first hotel in Abu Dhabi, it did represent a new era of internationalism for the city, as it welcomed the emirate’s first five-star brand.
With 10 floors, five function halls, a swimming pool, tennis courts and a bowling alley, it soon became a firm favourite. Renovated in 1994 with a new wing bringing additional rooms, it was rebranded as Radisson Blu Hotel & Resort, Abu Dhabi Corniche, in 2018 and remains a popular pick with tourists and locals alike.
5. InterContinental Hotel Dubai – opened in 1974
The InterContinental Hotel Dubai on Baniyas Street in Deira – which in 2006 rebranded as Radisson Blu Hotel Dubai Creek – was the first five-star property in Dubai and the brand’s second in the UAE.
Opened on the banks of the Dubai Creek in 1975, the 307-room hotel had fully air-conditioned guestrooms and interiors designed by Neal Prince, who later received a token of appreciation for his work on the hotel from the then-ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum.
It was built on three acres of waterfront road. At the time, it was surrounded by desert landscapes and one main road that connected the boulevard with Dubai airport. The Fish Market opened at the hotel in 1989 as the first restaurant in the city modelled after a traditional fish marketplace and it remains popular today, after undergoing a substantial renovation in 2021.
Shabestan, the hotel’s Persian restaurant, is also a long-standing Dubai favourite and has been serving Iranian food to diners for nearly four decades.
6. Carlton Tower, Dubai – opened in 1977
Since its opening in 1977, when The Carlton Tower was inaugurated by Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the first prime minister of Dubai and first vice president of the UAE, the hotel on Baniyas Road has built a solid following.
The Dubai Creek-side hotel offers views of the waterway, which has been something of a blood line for Dubai’s progress over the years. Today it has a conference room, spa and health club and four restaurants, including a poolside terrace with views of the city skyline. While it might not be one of Dubai’s most glamorous hotels, Carlton Tower is an ode to the past.
7. Ras Al Khaimah Hotel – opened in 1977
Ras Al Khaimah Hotel first opened in 1977, when it was inaugurated by Sheikh Zayed and the late Sheikh Saqr Al Qasimi, founder of Ras Al Khaimah.
It is located on top of a hill, with fantastic views of Ras Al Khaimah’s creek, corniche and Hajar Mountains.
With 93 rooms, an outdoor swimming pool and several restaurants, catering for holidaymakers and business travellers, the hotel is proud of its Emirati heritage. While it’s showing its age in some parts, the fortresslike hotel is still a unique place to stay in the northern emirate.
8. Sandy Beach Hotel & Resort, Fujairah – opened in 1978
Nestled in Al Aqah, in the emirate of Fujairah, Sandy Beach Hotel & Resort was one of the UAE’s earliest coastal resorts. It opened in 1978, originally as a place where divers would rent a chalet after a day exploring the waves along the east coast.
Back then, it was rustic and laid-back, something that hasn’t changed much to this day. In fact, the carefree vibe that you’d expect from a former diving village remains at Sandy Beach Hotel even 45 years later.
Families renting chalets sprawl in the gardens or barbecue on grills, while those staying in the hotel rooms spend evenings enjoying the sea breeze from their patio or balcony. In 2020, a new water park and children’s splash pool was added, and the main draw remains Snoopy Rock, an imposing boulder shaped liked the cartoon beagle that’s located just off the resort’s private beach – a haven for snorkellers, divers, turtles and even reef sharks.
9. Sheraton Dubai Creek Hotel and Towers – opened in 1978
The foundation stone for what was originally the Dubai Sheraton Hotel was laid in 1975 by the then-ruler of the emirate, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. Three years later, the hotel formally opened to overnight visitors, offering uninterrupted views across Dubai Creek and a city in development.
Despite Dubai having grown up around the hotel, dwarfing it by comparison, it remains a mainstream choice for business and leisure travellers and was wholly renovated in 2002. The hotel’s Chelsea Arms, the first English sports pub in the city, which opened the same year as the hotel, continues to serve up classic British pub fare four decades on.
10. Le Meridien Abu Dhabi – opened in 1979
Bringing a taste of France to the UAE, Le Meridien Abu Dhabi opened in soft launch in 1979 and some of its first guests were the late Queen Elizabeth II and Sheikh Zayed, who had lunch there together during the monarch’s first state visit to the country.
The capital’s newest hotel at the time was a fitting venue for the meeting, with its seaside location, air conditioning, temperature-controlled swimming pool and colour TVs.
Formally inaugurated in 1980, the beachfront hotel channelled 1970s’ modernist style, interspersed with locally inspired arches and domes. It quickly became a popular place for business travellers and aircrew to stay when in the emirate, and more than 40 years on, the recently revamped hotel continues to welcome holidaymakers who flock to the five-star hotel for sunshine-filled days and dining in the hotel’s restaurant village.
11. Sheraton Abu Dhabi – opened in 1979
Back in 1979, a sprawling pink-tinged Sheraton hotel opened in Abu Dhabi under the watch of Sheikh Ahmed Al Hamed, the UAE’s first minister of information and tourism.
Joining Hilton and Le Meridien, it was the third major international hotel chain to open in the capital, and its modernist design – with traditional fortress influences – dominated its beachfront location.
Now, more than four decades later and having undergone renovation in 2021, the property remains one of Abu Dhabi’s longest-running five-star hotels and is popular with visitors and residents who flock to its private beach on the Corniche and its temperature-controlled swimming pools.
12. Hyatt Regency Deira Dubai – opened in 1980
Hyatt hotels joined the UAE scene in 1980 with the opening of the Hyatt Regency Deira Dubai. Located on the Deira Corniche – which at the time was the bustling central business heart of the city – the hotel took three years to build and was constructed on land dredged from the Creek and surrounding areas. It was one of the first steel buildings in Dubai and came with views over Bur Dubai and Deira.
This five-star hotel was also home to the Galleria, an attached shopping mall that housed Dubai’s first ice-skating rink.
The city’s first revolving restaurant, Al Dawar, was also on the 25th floor and became one of the original brunching spots in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The rooftop spot also offered fantastic views of planes taking off and landing at what was then Dubai airport. It’s still operational today, some 43 years later.
Hyatt Regency Deira Dubai was also the backdrop for the 1981 Dubai Grand Prix, a motorsport event staged under the patronage of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the founding of the UAE.
13. JA Beach Hotel, Dubai – opened in 1981
In 1981, Dubai’s first resort hotel opened in Jebel Ali, with the site recommended by Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the late ruler of Dubai. Back then it was simply named The Jebel Ali Hotel, and was a sole building in the midst of the desert (much like today).
In 1983, travellers could book a week at the hotel for just Dh900, including an optional midweek stay at the hotel’s sister property in Hatta. Today, a week’s stay will cost considerably more.
The heritage hotel was refurbished in 2019, but retains many of its signature features, including its sprawling landscaped gardens, free-roaming peacocks and access to a pristine private beach.
Now known as the JA Beach Hotel, it is the foundation of the wider JA The Resort – Dubai’s largest experience resort that spreads over one million square metres and consists of three hotels, with 795 rooms and suites.
14. JA Hatta Fort Hotel – opened in 1981
The first and only luxury hotel to open in Hatta was the JA Hatta Fort Hotel, which began welcoming guests back in February 1981 after being inaugurated by Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. The rustic mountain-surrounded escape promised travellers views of the Hajar Mountains and a place to relax in slightly cooler climes, given it’s 100 kilometres from Dubai.
Channelling Kellerman’s Resort vibes from 1980s hit film Dirty Dancing, the hotel was popular for its landscaped grounds where travellers could try their hand at archery and clay pigeon shooting, or relax at two oasislike swimming pools.
In 2017, the hotel was renovated and interiors were brought up to date, although they have retained some of their rustic chalet-style charm. It’s also now a dog-friendly place to stay, with select rooms allocated to travellers with four-legged guests and a new range of glamping cabins that also welcome the pets.
15. InterContinental Abu Dhabi – opened in 1981
This towering property in Al Bateen was the first InterContinental hotel in the UAE and a place where regional history was made.
On the morning of May 25, 1981, the InterContinental Hotel – Abu Dhabi hosted a summit for which six Gulf rulers came together inside the Dar El Istiqbal ballroom to sign an agreement that would form the Gulf Co-operation Council. Since then, the hotel has played host to other important figures, including royal families, politicians and celebrities.
Four decades later, the ballroom in which the GCC summit was held remains intact and the five-star hotel is still popular with visitors.
With 390 spacious hotel rooms – all of which have city or coastal views – the property offers temperature-controlled swimming pools, a children’s pool with water slide, 160-metre stretch of coastline and private marina, not to mention a host of dining options overlooking the water.
Updated: November 29, 2023, 1:24 PM