Photos: Sharjah’s airport, Abu Dhabi’s abandoned airstrip from the 1930s

Abu Dhabi - An airstrip existed on Abu Dhabi’s Sir Bani Yas Island since 1930, which also served planes on the route between Britain, India and Australia.

By Wam

Published: Thu 10 Jun 2021, 4:56 PM

A lot has been talked about the region’s first airport established by the British in 1932 in Sharjah, which catered to airliners on the western Gulf air-route to India.

However, an airstrip existed on Abu Dhabi’s Sir Bani Yas Island since 1930, which also served planes on the route between Britain, India and Australia, has not gained much attention of history enthusiasts for the obvious reason — it was mainly meant for military aircraft, not civilian flights, according to historians and documents accessed by Emirates News Agency (WAM) from the UAE’s National Archives.

Sharjah airport and fuel tank in Abu Dhabi in 1932

An administration report for the Trucial Coast for the year 1932 says, "The chief event of the year was the securing of the Airport at Shargah (Sharjah) from the Shaikh (sic) of that place in July." The report added that a fuel tank was established at Sir Bani Yas Island belonging to the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi in the same year.

Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, along with neighbouring emirates, were then part of the Trucial States, which was a collection of various sheikhdoms that allied themselves to the British through a number of treaties, until the formation of the UAE in 1971.

The 1932 report says the British Residency Agent in Sharjah, accompanied by the Political Agent in Kuwait, "succeeded after a further few days negotiations in persuading the Shaikh (sic) to put his signature to the required agreement [to establish the airport in Sharjah], which offered very favourable terms to the Shaikh (sic)."

On 5th October 1932, the first Imperial Airways flight landed and left Sharjah, said the report. (Imperial Airways later merged with British Airways to establish the British Overseas Airways Corporation in 1939.)

Tedious negotiations, agreement on Rs400 rent

However, the British officials had to engage in "tedious" negotiations with Abu Dhabi’s ruler for the facilities on Sir Bani Yas Island, located 250kms broadly west of the UAE’s capital.

Lt. Col. Gordon Loch, British Political Agent in Bahrain, persuaded Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, to sign the agreement in 1935 on the storage tank and landing ground on Sir Bani Yas Island, along with another landing facility near Abu Dhabi, according to a letter written by Loch to the British Political Resident in the Gulf, on February 17, 1935.

The negotiation was tough because "In 1930 the Royal Air Force (RAF) had established a landing ground on Sir Bani Yas, despite opposition of Sheikh Shakhbut [the elder brother of Sheikh Zayed, the UAE’s founding father]," writes historian Nicholas Stanley-Price in his book titled ‘Imperial Outpost in the Gulf – The Airfield at Sharjah (UAE) 1932-1952.’ The agreement, signed on February 18, 1935 between the RAF and Sheikh Shakhbut mentions Indian rupees 400 (then the currency in use in the Emirates) as monthly rent for the facilities to be paid to the Sheikh. The British Government also agreed to pay a sum of rupees 5,000 as a token of friendship and goodwill. The agreement was valid for 12 years, until 1947.

Air crash during Second World War

Talking about the security of the facility, Peter Hellyer, who has made a special study of the history of Sir Bani Yas, says, "A guard from Oman was recruited to look after the fuel tank, and lived a lonely life for many years before eventually marrying a servant of one of the Dalma families who visited the island in winter."

There proved to be little demand for the airstrip and the petrol tank, although there was a short flurry of activity during the Second World War.

Hellyer, an advisor on cultural heritage at the UAE Ministry of Culture and Youth, notes that: "On 22nd April 1944, two ‘Anson’ aircraft belonging to the Anti-Locust Mission crash-landed at the island, en route from Sharjah to Bahrain. However, it is not clear from the records whether the Ansons crash-landed at the airstrip, or elsewhere on the island."

Hellyer adds that the affected airmen were provided with a bag of flour and a bag of peas by the inhabitants on the island. Unfortunately, on 24th April, a serious mishap occurred with a petrol fire and one man was very seriously burnt. A B.O.A.C. flying boat landed at Yas Island and the injured were evacuated to Bahrain and later the aircraft were also flown off from the Island and arrived in Bahrain on April 26, he explains.

New Airport opens in 2008

The emergency airstrip on the island, Hellyer adds, "was officially abandoned in 1944, although the Ruler continued to receive payment for the facility until at least 1949."

He notes, a tarmac airstrip was opened on Sir Bani Yas by the early 1970s, situated on the western side of the island, although not for commercial use.

This was later expanded by the Abu Dhabi Airport Company, which opened a fully-fledged airport in 2008, to complement the island’s development as a nature-based tourist destination.

The island is also home to the only Christian monastery so far identified in the Emirates. Thought to have been built around 600AD and abandoned perhaps 150 years later, the monastery was rediscovered during excavations in the early 1990s by the Abu Dhabi islands Archaeological Survey, ADIAS, directed by Hellyer

No trace of fuel tank

According to the Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT-Abu Dhabi), which oversees Sir Bani Yas today, "there does not appear to be any surviving trace of the fuel tank. The particular area where it was probably located in between the Sir Bani Yas Clinic, Jetty area and Arrivals Hall, and the Petrol Station," a spokesperson tells WAM.

However, the DCT-Abu Dhabi has made out an approximate location of the tank from the historical documents of the National Archives. This location is also confirmed by later UK mapping from 1966, adds the DCT spokesperson.

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