Saleh al-Tamimi, Abu Dhabi, 1980s – man sporting a short afro with long sideburns and a 70s moustache, sitting on a fence between a motorway and the beach. In the background, the city’s skyline composed of low-rise buildings.
Photographer Saleh Al-Tamimi, sitting by the Abu Dhabi shore in 1979. In the background, there’s the US Embassy building in the centre, while the glass skyscraper to the left is the iconic BCCI Bank. All photos are taken by Al-Tamimi, courtesy of Gulf Photo Plus.


Photos of Abu Dhabi Before the Oil Boom

Photographer Saleh al-Tamimi has been shooting his city since the 1970s, long before skyscrapers and luxury hotels took over.

This article originally appeared on VICE Arabia.

Before the 60s, the area now known as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was a collection of independent states, each headed up by a different family. Far from the international business hub it’s known as today, the Emirates’s economy depended largely on fishing and the pearl trade.


In 1962, oil was discovered in the region – albeit in much smaller reserves than its neighbours Saudi Arabia and Iraq. It marked a turning point in its history, as the seven independent emirates united as one country, with Abu Dhabi as its capital in 1971.

That same year also saw the creation of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), a state-owned enterprise born to hold on to the profits of oil extraction and refinery in the country, rather than letting Western companies take over. The founding of the ADNOC attracted foreign workers from all over the world – and among them was photographer Saleh al-Tamimi, 66, who came to the UAE from Yemen in the 70s and worked for ADNOC for 45 years.

Al-Tamimi has been photographing Abu Dhabi since he was young and now owns a large collection of archival images documenting the city’s staggering transformation against the backdrop of the oil boom.

"I was one of the few people who owned a film camera at the time,” al-Tamimi says. “I discovered Abu Dhabi through photography.”


Four decades later, while cleaning out a storage room in his home, al-Tamimi came across a few old albums containing pictures of the city. “I couldn't believe the pace at which Abu Dhabi has grown,” he tells VICE. “Yes, I witnessed these changes because I grew old in this city, but it’s different when you look at them in retrospect.”

One of the parts of the capital that saw the biggest transformation is the Abu Dhabi Corniche, the road along the city’s coastline. Utterly transformed by land reclamation projects, the Corniche is now punctuated by public beaches, glitzy hotels and restaurants.

Al-Tamimi’s images show Abu Dhabi in the 70s and 80s as the city bubbled over with change. They also feature a number of buildings that are still famous today, including the former Hilton Abu Dhabi hotel, currently Radisson Blu, which was opened in 1973 by al-Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, the country’s first president and founding father.

The photos are part of the series "The Story of Time", which Al-Tamimi worked on for three years until 2015. Currently, the photographer is working on expanding the project by continuing to document the same sites as they keep evolving in the coming years.

Scroll down to see more of al-Tamimi’s pictures:

Saleh al-Tamimi, Abu Dhabi, 1980s, Volcano Fountain – view from the sea of a complex of three high-rise buildings, including a small glass-covered skyscraper, with a large volcano-shaped fountain in the front, sitting on top of an artificial hill with greenery planted in three-teared circles.

Al-Tamimi took this photo while on a boat trip with his family from the city’s port to the former Hilton hotel. It pictures the city’s Volcano Fountain, a beloved monument on the Corniche.

Saleh al-Tamimi, Abu Dhabi, 1980s – photo of a semi-built plot of land near at the seaside. The ground and buildings are white and there are a lot of empty spots near small buildings and a few plants.

One of the oldest images in the photographer’s collection, taken in 1978 from the rooftop of a centre where al-Tamimi was receiving his job training. “There are so many stories and changes in this one shot,” he said. The structure in the middle to the left was a police station, while the sandy plot before the sea would be the future site of the Volcano Fountain.

Saleh al-Tamimi, Abu Dhabi – A group of man standing near a parking lot covered in baskets filled with fish laid on the ground near an intersection.

A photo taken in the early 1980s of the fish market at the intersection of Sheikh Rashid Street, the highway leading to the airport. The market used to be indoors, but there’d be an auction where sellers would display their catch on the street every day at 7AM.

Saleh al-Tamimi, Abu Dhabi – man with a shaved head and a 70s moustache, wearing a white linen shirt and posing in front of an empty lot with low and mid-rise buildings in the background.

The photographer posing at the Corniche in front of the Abu Dhabi National Insurance Company, one of the first glass buildings in Abu Dhabi. The photo was taken in 1980.

Saleh al-Tamimi, Abu Dhabi – group of men sporting 70s hairstyles sitting in a small room with two single beds and drinking soda.

The photographer as an intern in 1978, posing in his dorm room with colleagues from Yemen, Oman and Zanzibar.

Saleh al-Tamimi, Abu Dhabi – photo taken from inside the windshield of a car, picturing a road near a tall glass building and a clock tower surrounded by greenery.

A photo of the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce, built in the early 1980s. The famous clock tower seen in this photo was demolished in 2004 as part of the ongoing project to modernise the corniche.

Saleh al-Tamimi, Abu Dhabi – boxy, low-rise apartment buildings in 1970s style.

In 1978, when this photo was taken, most buildings in Abu Dhabi were five to seven storeys high, with the exception of those on the road to the airport which could reach 10 to 11 storeys.

Saleh al-Tamimi, Abu Dhabi – A young child standing on rocks at the seaside, pointing towards the horizon where multiple sail boats are sailing.

The photographer’s daughter, Shaima, at the sea. “We used to go there to see the traditional sailboat races,” al-Tamimi said. “I'm happy they still take place to this day.”

Correction: This story originally stated Saleh al-Tamimi came from Yemen to Saudi Arabia in the 70s. He came from Yemen to the UAE. We regret the error.