Dubai's Cinemas 1970-80s

Going to the movies was an event for Expatriates in Dubai as it used to be. Movies shown usually originated in the Indian Sub Continent, Egypt or Lebanon. That is not to say Western Movies were never shown - they were - but not as frequently and not always the latest movies. These Cinemas provided entertainment which was in short supply in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Memories of Dubai's old Cinemas were prompted by an Email from an Emirati writing a PhD Thesis about Film in the UAE, asking for information on old Dubai Cinemas. Here are recollections of Dubai's Cinemas as they used to be.

Ahmad Golchin of Gulf Film remembers Dubai's Cinemas

Being in Dubai at a time when street names were non-existent, landmarks were used to guide visitors and cinemas seemed almost strategically placed on the city plan. I have found one in almost all directions forwarded by friends. "Take right from Strand", "Besides Deira cinema", "opposite Al Nasr" were common phrases not just in the 1970s and '80s but in the '90s too. On the eve of UAE's 40th National Day we revisit a lost era of film viewing in the UAE with Ahmad Golchin of Gulf Film, the first distributor of films in the UAE. "When I came here in 1963, there was only the National cinema in Nasr Square. Unlike today, Nasr Square was the end of the city then. The open air cinema was next to a cemetery and there were no bridges or tunnels that connected Deira and Dubai," Golchin says. The only transportation was the abra, but this did not stop people from attending the movies for it was the sole entertainment for people. Apart from this, there was a cinema at a military camp in Sharjah, which they kindly opened to the public, and a gold merchant opened a cinema on the Dubai side in Jumeirah, where now stands a petrol pump and shopping centre." The public's expectations from a cinema were few. All that was needed was a large wall painted white and a projector and it would run full house. "Where now we have proper parking spaces filled with the latest car models, there were donkeys and camels patiently waiting for their owners to return," says Golchin, laughing. "A bell announced the start of the show, and five minutes before the film ended, the bell was rung again so that taxis could arrive to take home those living far away". One of my earliest movie experiences in Dubai was at the Rex cinema on Al Khawaneej Road which was popular with families who would arrive with picnic baskets and let the little ones run around while enjoying the film on mats or in cars with piped-in air conditioning.


In the 1970s things started changing. While the National and Jumeirah cinemas were demolished in the wake of development, names such as Deira, Strand, Plaza, Al Nasr and Dubai cinemas became popular. Deira cinema was the first air-conditioned cinema, opened in the late 1960s. "Those days [in the '70s and '80s] we didn't watch so many movies but visiting the cinemas was a low-budget fun family outing. I remember going to the Strand, Plaza and Al Nasr, the latter for English movies," says Gauri Suri, an Indian who has grown up in the UAE. "Also, we did not have so many movies showing at the same time. Show times were fixed and everything was planned around it." In the 1960s, to accommodate families, "boxes" were created. "At the end of the saloon, enclosed areas were created out of cardboard cartons to provide privacy to families," says Golchin. Due to the lack of television and with rare transistors, newspapers and telephones, movies were the only entertainment. Films were shown through the week, often alternating. "There was one set shown on the weekends, while the others ran through the week. Some repeated several times. There was no way of advertising them. We would either put up a placard on the abras announcing them or hire a town crier to wear written posters if the film was important".

Most popular

Arabic and Hollywood films were rare, with Bollywood most popular. "Getting Hollywood films was very difficult in the 1960s and '70s. Indian films were brought by gold merchants who traded with the country. And even when the prints were really bad, nobody minded it," said Golchin. In 1998, Golchin took over Al Nasr cinema and converted it into the first cinema in the UAE offering Dolby sound. But the building itself was faulty and Golchin recalled an incident that took place at the time Titanic was released. "Titanic was released in the UAE at select cinemas in the UAE. Unfortunately, it rained very heavily in Dubai that year and the building's roof, which was not built to withstand such weather, started leaking. Water was filling in the hall and viewers were getting angry. Just as the Titanic, it seemed we were sinking too." Though the Galleria at the Hyatt Regency was the first "twin" screen cinema in Dubai, the multiplex culture became strong only in the '90s with the opening of Grand Cineplex and Cinestar (Deira City Centre) cinemas. "Though Firdous and Al Maria were the first cinemas in Abu Dhabi, El Dorado was the first ‘twin cinema' to be built there. The first cinema in Al Ain was built by a Pakistani who fell on hard times. But I remember there was no electricity there then and the projector ran on a generator," adds Golchin. "We were not allowed to go to the cinemas alone when younger," recalled Suri. "Mainly for security reasons but today I feel it's safer with the multiplexes and I see a lot of younger viewers going to the movies without adult supervision". "A multiplex is like buffet offering a variety of cinema to the viewer — action, comedy, classic, drama — while earlier people had no option but to watch what was running," said Golchin. "Countering piracy is another reason why multiplexes happened. But the younger generation cannot imagine what we've seen, except in photos and what we tell them."

Jumeirah Cinema

This Open Air Cinema was located on Jumeirah Beach Road where Magrudy's Mall is today. Built in 1960s, Jumeirah Cinema was apparently operated by Dubai Petroleum Company. It initially showed a mix of western and Indian film. Later this cinema catered solely for Sub Continent Workers arriving in Dubai for Port Rashid's construction. This small complex included a Cafe and a Supermarket. Jumeirah Cinema complex was demolished in the early 1970s making way for modern Shopping Malls.

We watched movies at an open air cinema run by Dubai Petroleum Company on Jumeirah Beach Road. I saw "The Sound of Music", "Fantasia", the "Blue Max" and "Fraulein Doktor".

Tim Nichols recalls his visits to Jumeirah Cinema

Strand Cinema, Dubaiside near Karama

Showed both Hindi Films and Western Movies. Became as a landmark both as a Cinema and for directions e.g. behind the Strand Cinema, next to the Strand Cinema, opposite the Strand Cinema etc. Strand Cinema has closed but still seems to be used as a traffic marker!

Al Ghurair Cinema

Al Ghurair's Shopping Centre, Dubai's first Shopping Mall, opened in 1982 complete with a cinema which showed both Western and Hindi films. The Shopping Centre and its Cinema soon became popular with Dubai Residents.

Deira Cinema, Al Rigga

Deira Cinema was the first Dubai Cinema I visited in 1971. Located on Al Jazira Road, Deira Cinema was a popular venue. There were two seating choices - sit upstairs, pay more but have reasonably comfortable seats and buy ice cream or a drink from the Attendant in the Interval (there was always an Interval) OR pay less, sit downstairs on uncomfortable seats amongst an all male audience and buy a Seven Up in the Interval. 7Up Sellers each carried a crate of cold 7Up bottles on their shoulders. They ran their metal bottle openers backwards and forwards over the bottles creating an incredibly and unforgettably loud noise to attract customers. That "7Up" sound is indelibly etched on my memory - I can hear it now!

Al Wattan Cinema

Dubai's first Cinema. This Open Air Cinema was located next to Jashanmal's first Dubai Store and Al Nasr Trading Company's store in the middle of a traffic roundabout. Al Wattan Cinema was demolished in the 1970s to make way for new developments.

Rex Air Cinema Airport Road

Gary Crossman recalls visiting the Rex Drive-In Cinema opposite Mirdiff Interchange on the Khawanij Road. It had flexible piped air-conditioning you had to hang on your window to keep cool together with the Speaker. Later the cinema was abandoned and was still there as a derelict site just past Dubai Airport into the 1970s. There were similar open air drive in Cinemas opening in Kuwait and Bahrain. Maybe the Rex Drive In was just ahead of its time!

Plaza Cinema, Dubaiside

Opened in 1972 and was Dubai's first "modern" cinema. Cinema was large and furnished in an "opulent" style for its time. I can recall seeing Marlon Brando in "The Godfather" in a special showing at the Plaza Cinema around 1972. All the seats were sold, perhaps oversold as there were people sitting on the stairways! The film started late and, with two long intervals, finished in the early hours of the next morning. An unforgettable evening! Later Plaza Cinema also presented stage shows and underwent a revamp but in 2011 the cinema finally closed to make way for new developments.

Hyatt Regency Cinema

Hyatt's Galleria Cinema was Dubai's first dual screen cinema. It became popular during the 1980s and still operates today. Regrettably no images are available.

Al Nasr Cinema Karama

Al Nasr Cinema located near Al Nasr Roundabout and Pyramids Shopping Mall was a popular cinema showing a mix of Western and Hindi movies. It opened in the early 1980s (I think!) but closed in 2007 pending redevelopment of the area. Al Nasr Cinema burned to the ground in December 2008.

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