The early to mid-1980s marked the beginning of an era when everything was available and so much was fresh and exciting. Nationals and expats had swelled to around 200,000 and were reveling in a life of ease and plenty.
Supermarket shelves were groaning with every kind of imported foodstuff, including Australian lamb, American beef, giant prawns from Thailand and things most people take for granted like fresh milk and bottled mineral water. Tens of new restaurants had opened up and most of the hotels, including my own, were offering vast buffet breakfasts, lunches and dinners that outdid anything we saw in Paris or London.
The nice thing was that nobody was treated as just another number. You only had to eat once in a restaurant and the staff would remember your name months later – and would sometimes even recall how you liked your steak cooked or what you drank with your meal. Visitors were made to feel special; everyone was treated like a VIP.
There were boutiques selling the latest fashions from Paris and London in Satwa and Deira and in our lone shopping mall, The Al Ghurair Centre, could be found every type of imported cloth and extensive ranges of leather shoes, sunglasses, watches and perfumes. Foreign newspapers were now available with newsagents, but at that time, were heavily censored with black marker pen or in some cases, were sold with entire pages ripped out.
The city came alive in the evenings now that there were so many places to go and so much to do. Residents were spoilt for choice when it came to deciding what to do during the weekend. People would often head to the simple Sandy Beach Hotel near the Hajar Mountain range in Khorfakkan or the nearby Hilton in Fujairah, to dive in the warm waters of the Gulf of Oman that merges with the Arabian Sea.
Or they would drive past orange-coloured dunes to the mountainous area of Hatta that borders Oman where they would be warmly greeted by the Hatta Fort Hotel’s warm and effusive General Manager, Sergio Magnaldi, before their stay in one of the Hatta Fort Hotel’s Alpine-type chalets. Magnaldi’s professed love of Hatta wasn’t just sales talk. He retired with his wife, Sandy, to the Isle of Man in 1997, only to return to his old job six years later.
First-time visitors to Dubai would be bowled over that such an idyllic place even existed. Dubai was like a best-kept secret as it didn’t yet feature on the international map. The government now saw a massive potential in tourism, but it wanted to avoid mass tourism, preferring to retain Dubai’s exclusive, upmarket ambience. It wasn’t until the mid-80s that Dubai began to be seriously marketed abroad as a new tourist destination for the well-heeled.
Instrumental in the promotion of Dubai far afield was Dubai Duty Free that opened in 1983 as the first modern, Western-style duty free in the Gulf. It was set up by an Irish advisory team from Aer Rianta; two of the team’s members, Colm McLoughlin and George Horan, stayed on as General Manager and Deputy General Manager respectively. They never returned to Ireland; they hold the same positions today. Head of Marketing was Anita Mehra, a young American-Iranian woman whose father had set up the Iranian hospital in the 1970s. Not only was she responsible for marketing the Duty Free, she was also tasked with marketing Dubai as a hot new destination. Ms Mehra was an outstanding example of women power in what was then a man’s world. She did an excellent job.
Dubai Duty Free soon gained a reputation as being the most value-for money operation of its type; industry awards followed and the organisation began to sponsor international sporting events, such as the Dubai Masters, the first major snooker tournament in the Middle East. Dubai Duty Free is one of the emirate’s greatest success stories. From an initial annual turnover of just 70 million dirhams, its turnover in 2010 reached 4.66 billion dirhams.
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