Like the man himself, Sheikh Zayed’s palace in Al Ain, known by most as Al Ain Palace Museum, is an oasis of calm and simplicity. Its red mud brick arches and walls, reflecting the colour of nearby quartz and iron rich sand dunes, amid lush green palm and mango trees, bring back memories of Andalusia’s beautiful gardens and old palaces. Peeping through tiny windows or small carved wooden doors, Spartan rooms fitted with modest furniture reveal life as it used to be all these years ago.
Perhaps the most popular of Al Ain’s forts and palaces, Al Ain Palace Museum is the former residence of the founder and first president of United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. His second son, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who is the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi emirate and Supreme Commander of UAE Armed Forces, spent the first years of his life here.
Built in the early 1900s, on the western side of the 3,000 years old Al Ain Oasis, the palace was the home of Sheikh Zayed during his years as Ruler’s Representative for the Eastern Region of Abu Dhabi emirate, until 1966, when he moved to Abu Dhabi.
“It was built in different stages. The first one, about 1910, was a mud room, built with palm trunk. Then, in 1837, the initial palace was built. We believed it was used as a summer house, but we don’t know by whom,” says Omar Salem Al Kaabi, historic buildings researcher at Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.
In mid 1950s, Sheikh Zayed took ownership of the building and he fully restored it before moving in with his family.
“It became Sheikh Zayed’s main house in Al Ain. Before he moved here, he lived for a short period in Al Muwaiji Palace, also in Al Ain. When his uncle, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed died, Sheikh Zayed became ruler of Al Ain and he got married with Sheikha Hassa, who was the daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa, who inherited Al Muwaiji from his grandfather. This was in 1946. Later, when Sheikh Zayed married his second wife, Sheikha Fatima, he renovated the Al Ain Palace for her, also building special quarters for Sheikha Fatima and for her relatives, who came to live at the palace as well,” explains Al Kaabi.
The third construction stage was from 1960 to 1963, when the two-storey majlis and also the bridge that connected Sheikha Fatima’s rooms with Sheikh Zayed’s rooms were built.
In 1964-65, a primary school, a clinic and the main original gate were added.
Then, in 1966, Sheikh Zayed became the ruler of Abu Dhabi, so he and Sheikha Fatima moved to the capital, 150 kilometres away. The relatives of Sheikha Fatima, though, stayed on until 1982, when they too moved away.
Sheikh Zayed did some restoration work in 1988, and then again in 1998, when the palace was also enlarged. The long corridor near the entrance, the administrative area and the Al Nahyan family tree wall feature were added at this time. Eventually, in 2001, the fully restored royal home along with its courtyards and gardens, opened to the public as a museum.
“The palace has five sections: The Sheikha Fatima quarters, the majlis complex, the school, the quarters for the relatives of Sheikha Fatima and the new buildings that were added during the previous restoration, in 1988,” says Al Kaabi.
“Because it is built at different stages, there are various building materials, from mud and palm wood to stones, metal, even cement. It wasn’t cement like you know it today. In the 1960s, those materials has just started to come out and the local builders didn’t really know how to use them, so what they did was a kind of mix – stone with cement, metal and jas, a lime mortar made locally by burning stones, then grinding them. Mostly, though, we found stones in the cement mix.”
Altogether, the 15,635 square metres Al Ain Palace Museum has 11 majlis (meeting or guest gathering rooms), 37 rooms and two cafes, as well as a large outdoors tent. Among all these rooms there were kitchens, storerooms, coffee-making rooms, guest rooms, bedrooms and living rooms. They are all set among beautiful terracotta-coloured buildings and courtyards amid gardens of cacti, magnolia trees and date palms.
The towers on each side of the main entrance were added to reflect the architecture of desert forts. A Land Rover identical to the one Sheikh Zayed used to drive out into the desert was also placed in the main courtyard.
Mostly, Sheikh Zayed preferred to meet tribal leaders in their own dwellings, to better understand their needs, but when they did come to the palace, he used to receive them in a large open tent
erected in the main courtyard. This is also where meals, Arabic coffee and Bedouin poetry were shared with his guests.
“For me, what is special about Al Ain Palace Museum is its purpose. This was the palace of the ruler, so a lot of people, all tribes, came here to solve their problems. That is why there are a lot of majlis,’ says Al Kaabi.
“Sheikh Zayed used to sit with people every day. He even had different styles of majlis – he received his Western guests in a westernised majlis, which had seats and tables, and the Arabs in traditional majlis, where they sat on the floor.”
“I also think it’s special because this was the first home of Sheikh Zayed’s son, Sheikh Mohammed. He was born in 1961 a few kilometres away, in the Oasis Hospital, which is the first hospital in the emirate, and lived in Al Ain Palace for the first five years of his life”.
These days, Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority is working on a plan to renovate the Al Ain Palace Museum. There is no date set yet, but the building needs maintenance, as mud structures deteriorate with time. The plan is also to redesign some aspects of the modern side of the building, in order to add a fresh look and to change the visitors’ experience, without altering the structure of the building or its historical value.