Abu Dhabi: Its halls still echo with the footsteps of long gone dignitaries, celebrities, sporting icons, treasured guests and others. But this is not evident to those who don't venture beyond its quaint, white facade.
The Al Ain Palace Hotel was opened in 1967 by Shaikh Mubarak Bin Mohammad Al Nahyan, who became the UAE's first interior minister after the country's unification in 1971. It was then managed by a Greek hotelier known colloquially as C.E. Karantinos.
Now a three-star establishment, the hotel has been a silent witness to everything that has happened in the capital. Shaikh Mubarak's son, Shaikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, is the hotel's present owner.
"The hotel was built in six months and was actually established to cater to the increasing number of people coming to Abu Dhabi because of the oil boom. Shaikh Mubarak wanted to have a dedicated location to house guests and host various functions," Hassan Zainal, the hotel's present general manager, said.
"We were the second hotel to be built in the city. The first was the Beach Hotel, which was built in 1964 and was located between where the Corniche Hospital and Sheraton Hotel are now. It was demolished at the end of 1970. In 1969, the Zaker Hotel was established but was demolished in 2009. The Hilton and Sheraton hotels were established in 1973 and 1982 respectively," he added.
Legendary boxer Mohammad Ali (1974), squash superstars Jahanjir Khan, Jansher Khan and Rodney Martin (1990) were some of the celebrities who enjoyed the hotel's hospitality.
"I'm proud that the hotel hosted so many dignitaries and celebrities over the years. In fact, even until today, we still receive requests from several VIPs who have checked into more luxurious establishments to be moved to the Al Ain Palace Hotel," said Zainal, who joined the hotel in 1994.
"We have also been told by many who frequent our lobby café and other restaurants that they prefer the ambience the hotel exudes more than the atmosphere in the hotel they are staying in," he added.
Mohammad Hussain, the hotel's Director of Sales and Marketing, recalled that "at one point during the 1970s, demand for rooms was so high that rather than turn [people] away, we placed mattresses in the lobby". Hussain, who joined the hotel in 1972, also talked about a time when a prominent official from the public works department would visit the hotel every afternoon and stay for hours.
"He would always sit on our couch in the lobby. We had to install a dedicated phone line for people who were trying to reach him by phone.
"Many people would also come to have a meeting or discuss something with him before he left for the evening," he said.
The hotel had only 38 bedrooms and two food and beverage outlets, one bar and one coffee shop, when it was established. In 1970, an additional building was added, giving it another 66 bedrooms and two banquet rooms. In 1996, an additional six rooms were added, bringing the total to 110.
"We added a swimming pool in 1975 and it quickly became our most popular attraction ... Every weekend, 300 people would come to our pool and we always had around 150 people on our waiting list," Zainal said.
The Al Ain Palace Hotel underwent renovation two years ago. Zainal said he ensured the original elements were preserved and only an upgrade of the interior was undertaken.
"But even so, many of our loyal customers told us that they were upset with the changes that were made, as they felt it affected the atmosphere of the hotel," he said.
While the five-star Le Royal Meridien looms overhead, creating a metaphor of the competition the hotel faces, Zainal revealed that he was unperturbed as his hotel offers guests something that the present-day luxury hotels do not.
He added that rates haven't really changed since the hotel opened in 1967, offering "very good quality for a very good price".
He recalled the first National Day celebrations in 1972. He said the hotel organised a big party with people celebrating in the streets as well.
"We are all still very happy to celebrate this wonderful union and country, which has given us so many opportunities," Hussain said.