Interview with Len Chapman

Len Chapman came to Dubai in 1971 as one of Port Rashid's 3 man "Start Up" Team. Len Chapman intended to stay a couple of years: he stayed 30+ years working in Dubai's Ports. Len Chapman came to Dubai in 1971 as one of Port Rashid’s 3 man “Start Up” Team. Len Chapman intended to stay a couple of years: he stayed 30+ years working in Dubai’s Ports. In that time Len Chapman saw Dubai change from small coastal trading town to internationally recognised Financial, Business, Trade and Tourist Centre.

Len’s “snapshot” photos of Old Dubai now have historical and nostalgic interest as will many of the photos taken by Dubai’s Expatriates over these years.

Dear Len, first of all thank you for your time and availability.

It’s a honour for us to share your experience of Dubai with our readers.

On 2nd December 2011, it was celebrated the 40th National day, the 40th Anniversary of the signing of UAE’s Declaration.

What can you say about the “First National day”, 2nd December 1971?

In 1971 the signing was low key with very little publicity or public celebration. In fact it was almost a private event taking place inside Sheikh Rashid’s Beach Palace in front of invited guests. There were no local newspapers or television to cover the event so few published photographs or films reached the public domain.

"First National day", 2nd December 19712nd December 1971 was a Thursday, a working day back then. Signing was scheduled for Thursday afternoon. This news spread by word of mouth as much as by public announcements. I lived in Jumeirah Road so around 3pm I drove down to the Beach Palace, parked on the sand and joined the small crowd waiting by the roundabout outside the Beach Palace. We saw cars arriving and driving into the Beach Palace grounds. When this activity stopped nothing else seemed to be happening. Later cars began driving out from the Beach Palace. The first car was a very large black Cadillac. A rear window had been opened just a fraction. A hand hung out through the opening and slowly waved. It was impossible to see who the hand belonged to since all the car windows had dark tinting. We waved back. We assumed it was the new UAE President Sheikh Zayed returning to Abu Dhabi. Sheikh Rashid’s usual white Mercedes Benz drove out but it was difficult to pick him out from among the several people traveling in his car. The flow of cars stopped so the small watching crowd dispersed and went home. I did the same. Signing of the Declaration seemed a non event from a spectator’s viewpoint. But that changed in later years!

"First National day", 2nd December 1971

The climate in Dubai is changing. close to Ras Al-Khaimah we could observe a snowfall some weeks ago, and sometimes I personally found cold temperature. What about the weather in Dubai? Is it or not very hot in Dubai?

For about four months of the year, the temperature is very hot.

There are also about four months of Mediterranean climate and four months when its quite cold and anything can happen. In 1963 it did happen! Heavy winds and rain brought havoc to Dubai Airport and Dubai’s houses and roads. These unique photos taken by Ludwig Hejze of Overseas AST show the extent of the damage. Mr Bulard, Overseas AST’s General Manager, was a keen Glider Pilot as well as designing Dubai’s Clock Tower, building Zabeel Palace, establishing Dubai Zoo and later establishing Al Ain Zoo. Sadly his glider was a casualty of the storm.

Many of Dubai’s inhabitants lived in traditional Barasti houses that could not withstand the storm. Roads were still sand tracks with no drainage so the heavy rains brought extensive flooding. The resulting stagnant water was a breeding ground for mosquitos. Dubai was an unhealthy place after the storm in 1963.

For about four months of the year, in Dubai the temperature is very hot. In 1963 heavy winds and rain brought havoc to Dubai Airport and Dubai's houses and roads. Picture taken by Ludwig Hejze of Overseas AST

One of the symbol of Deira, is the clock tower. What can you say about that?

A view has developed that Deira Clock Tower is the proper name since the Tower is located in Deira . This view ignores the fact Sheikh Rashid was presented with the Clock as the Ruler of Dubai i.e. it was a gift to the Emirate of Dubai and not the “suburb” of Deira .

A view has developed that Deira Clock Tower is the proper name since the Tower is located in Deira.

The Clock Tower’s location in Deira was chosen because it was (in those days) an important access point to Dubai and the first significant structure seen by travellers and traders arriving overland. Dubai’s Clock Tower may be a more “correct” description but generally people simply refer to the Clock Tower.

The local builder who constructed Dubai’s Clock Tower around 1964 used unwashed beach sand for the concrete, a common practice in Dubai in those days. Beach sand contains salt and allows water to find its way through the concrete which starts to corrode the reinforcing steel. Corrosion cracks the concrete and the structure begins to deteriorate. This is commonly called “concrete cancer”. The Clock Tower began to crack and disintegrate and by 1972 urgent repairs were necessary. Overseas AST was given the task to refurbish the Clock Tower removing defective material and encasing the complete structure in a new “skin”. The Clock was refurbished (said to have been Seiko who did the work) and the Clock Tower restored to its former glory.


The First Dubai Grand Prix Circuit took place in 1981…

In mid 1970s Deira Coastline was extensively eroded. Beachside roads and buildings were threatened. Residents complained. Dubai Creek was silting up, restricting Dhow traffic and adversely affecting trade. Sheikh Rashid resolved two problems with one solution by dredging Dubai Creek to 20 feet depth to make it navigable and using the dredged material to reclaim Deira’s disappearing coastline.

Newly reclaimed Deira Corniche was intended for Foreign Embassies, Consulates and quality Hotels. First and only substantial building built on Deira Corniche to date is Hyatt Regency Hotel.

This newly reclaimed Corniche was ideal for Dubai’s first motor Racing Circuit in 1981. Circuit was laid out using newly constructed roads around the new Hyatt Regency Hotel. Road system remains almost the same today as it was for Dubai’s First Motor Racing Grand Prix. Only the traffic’s speed has changed!

David Piper and Nick Mason racing past the Hyatt Regency Hotel in a supporting event for Dubai Motor Racing Grand Prix 1981.

David Piper and Nick Mason racing past the Hyatt Regency Hotel in a supporting event for Dubai Motor Racing Grand Prix 1981.

How often do you come back to Dubai? What are your feelings when you are there now?

I’ve been back several times since. My last visit was in 2010. I was surprised by the amount of new development. For example Dubai’s Airport is now almost a small city with a multitude of shops, restaurants and cafes. I flew out from Dubai via Gate 297! There was just one gate in the original airport. Dubai is now home to about 2 million people, mostly expatriates from around the world. 30 years ago Dubai’s population could be counted in thousands. Most people around the world did not know Dubai existed. We thought Dubai was the world’s best kept secret!  So astonishment is another feeling. Astonishment at the number of people now in Dubai, their cultural mix plus I can now speak to almost anyone and they will know something about Dubai.

Nostalgia of course! I can recall Dubai when it was a small coastal town. Many of the old buildings from that time have gone to be replaced with modern hotels, shopping malls, entertainment facilities. But the old Dubai is still there. Dubai Creek is still the heart of Dubai and as busy as ever. The markets still operate as they did 40 years ago. So to answer your question, I have mixed emotions when I visit Dubai.

What do you want to say to our readers?

Visit Dubai! It is an amazing place. Dubai’s growth and development is based on Trade and Commerce in much the same way as Venice developed long ago. In fact Dubai is called the “Venice of the Middle East” because of Dubai Creek and Dubai’s dependence on the sea. Dubai has a lot to offer for everyone in the family but if you want to see the “real” Dubai then these are “must do’s”:

  1. Take an Abra (small boat) trip on Dubai Creek.
  2. Visit Dubai Museum in Al Fahidi Fort and see Dubai as it used to be.
  3. Visit the Spice, Textile and Gold Soukhs (markets) in Deira
  4. Visit Bastakia Area and see the Persian Merchant Houses with their unique windtowers.
  5. Enjoy an evening meal overlooking Dubai Creek at Bayt Al Wakeel Restaurant on Dubaiside
  6. Take a Cultural Tour of Jumeirah Mosque. The Mosque was built by Italian Craftsmen in 1970s.
  7. Take a Tour to the Hatta region where mountains takeover from the desert.

When to go? My recommendation is between January and April when the weather is cooler.

Grazie Len, شُكْراً  Len

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