24/02/2014 15:39 AST

A specially invited group of royalty, VIPs, and long-standing staff members will gather for a gala reception at Le Meridien Abu Dhabi this evening to celebrate the hotel’s anniversary, 35 years to the day after its inauguration by the late Sheikh Zayed and the United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth.

It is an anniversary nobody expected to celebrate, a party that everybody expected to be a wake. As recently as 2011, Le Meridien was still scheduled for demolition as part of plans to build new road bridges between Al Maryah Island, the capital’s new central business district, and Al Zahiyah, the area formerly known as Tourist Club.

The plans represented the death knell for one of the capital’s best-known landmarks. “From 2005, there’s been ongoing talk of this hotel being demolished,” says Nemo Acimovic, Le Meridien’s general manager. “When I took over in 2010, I was given nine months to hand it over for demolition because bridge number three, from Al Maryah Island, was meant to come right through the lobby here and connect to Electra Street.”

The marina precinct next to the hotel is being demolished and Hamdan Street has been extended to make way for the new bridges, two of 13 that will eventually link Al Maryah with its neighbours. However, thanks to an agreement between Le Meridien’s owner, Abu Dhabi National Hotels, the Urban Planning Council and Abu Dhabi Municipality, the hotel will remain as the focal point between the bridges that will eventually cross from Al Maryah on a new, adjusted alignment.

A look at any satellite image of the area reveals the remarkable nature of Le Meridien’s escape. The hotel sits across the path of Sheikh Zayed the First Street, or Electra Street, and extensive ramps were built – behind Le Meridien and across the water on Al Maryah – to allow construction of the new bridge to begin. Even as late as 2011, Le Meridien’s fate seemed certain.

“Investment had stopped a year or two before, the age of the property was showing and morale was very low,” Mr Acimovic says, “but just before August 2011 the works stopped in their tracks, the machinery moved away and from that point, there was no more talk about the demolition of the hotel.

“Our task from 2011 until now has been to secure reinvestment, to regain the confidence of the market, and to tell everybody that we are back and that we’re a force to be reckoned with.”

This evening’s gala event represents the latest chapter in Le Meridien’s great escape. Not only will it act as the launch of an exhibition, A Journey Through 35 Years, in which photographs from the hotel’s archive will be put on public display, but Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development, will unveil a plaque commemorating the anniversary while adding his signature to the hotel’s guest book, the Livre d’Or.

Even more than the hotel’s photographs – which capture its inauguration as well as visits by foreign dignitaries such as the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, King Juan Carlos I of Spain and even Muammar Qaddafi of Libya – the signatures in the Livre d’Or encapsulate the changing role the hotel has played in the fortunes of the city.

The agreement between Le Meridien and Abu Dhabi National Hotels was signed in 1975 at a time when the Hilton was the only international hotel operating in the city. With the city’s marina on one side and the original Tourist Club on the other, Le Meridien stood at the heart of Abu Dhabi’s earliest leisure complex with its pool, tennis courts, restaurant and beach.


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