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Thursday, July 18, 2024

Portal to the past

by Erin Mc Cafferty

© Shutterstock, @, @ Al Habtoor Group: Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Khalaf Al Habtoor at the Metropolitan Hotel Dubai
© Almajid Center for Culture & Heritage: Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum with H M The Queen

There’s nothing like old photographs to make you nostalgic for times gone by. Erin Mc Cafferty takes a trip down memory lane with a UAE based company that launched a new website documenting history through old pictures…

You‘d be forgiven for thinking there was little documented history of the United Arab Emirates – a country which came into being just 41 years ago and is still to some extent developing.

A new website is aiming to uncover the rich and intensely dynamic history – through photographs. The website actually features a number of photos from the Al Habtoor Group.

Founded by Haykal Media, a company founded in 2003 by Syrian-born entrepreneur Abdulsalam Haykal. The website,, acts as a platform upon which members of the public can see and display old photographs. 

This is one of a number of projects undertaken by Haykal Media. The online and print publisher based in the Abu Dhabi Media Zone twofour54.

“UAEHistory’s purpose is to keep the memory alive, and is to collect and publish old photographs. We want to collect as many pictures as possible and to put them online so they’re available to the public,” explains Abdulsalam Haykal. “Here in the UAE, almost everything is new and constantly changing. It’s easy to think that there’s only today and tomorrow in this country. Actually there’s a very rich past. And it’s a past the Emiratis are rightly proud of. What’s more, it explains how the country came into being.” was based on the experience and expertise that Haykal Media accumulated in a similar endeavor,, which has become hugely successful since its launch almost 10 years ago. “Old photographs are a portal to the past,” comments Haykal. “They show a way of life that can easily be forgotten, so it’s important to preserve them, archive them and make them available to others.”

The curator and founder of is historian Sami Moubayed, who is also Vice President of Haykal Media.  He and his team travelled throughout Syria and bought over 5,000 photographs from the local people. Haykal recalls, “They used to go to people’s houses and shops in the old town and buy images of everyday life from ordinary people. But many people also donated them. In Syria, we now have a collection of over 25,000 photos and we publish new ones everyday.”

“The Syrian edition has been a great success,” adds Abdulsalam. “It has now become a household name in Syria. The presence and influence of reached a level that we hope will reach rapidly.  The signs we’ve seen so far are very encouraging.” contacted a number of companies and institutions around the Middle East to lend us their images. Many of them agreed. They also had individuals approach us with their personal pictures.

Haykal points out that each collection of photos is credited to a source on the site. Most date back 30 to 40 years but some are even older. Already they have about 1000 images, which vary from historic events like when Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II visited the UAE in 1979 to pictures of school children in Sharjah in the 1960s and a view of the Clock Tower in Deira in 1986.

Of course they hope to increase this amount. As a result they’re appealing to the general public – both individuals and companies in the UAE to come forward with their photographs to be uploaded onto the website.

“We know that individuals, companies and institutions here have photographs and we want to make them available to the general public,” says Haykal.

“We’re offering people a platform that they can use to exhibit their images. It’s not just about historic moments. It’s about ordinary everyday times that have been captured. We want people to see the images; relate to them and be inspired by them. “What’s more, it’s a mutually beneficial situation because companies can create a platform of their own with our website, just like a hall within a museum.”

The website is a non-profit venture. “Haykal Media has invested in launching this website, and now looks for partners to help grow it,” says Haykal. “But this may change in the future. If someone would like to approach us to take the project to the next level in terms of advertising, we’re open to the idea of generating revenue to re-invest in developing the website. But this project will never be purely commercial. “

Haykal Media has big plans for the future. It is about to sign an agreement with the official archives of the UAE. It also wants to create a website specifically for school children as a way of learning history. “It’s an easy way for kids to learn about the history of the country as they are automatically engaged by the images,” says Haykal.

He says they may well expand the concept to other countries in the future. “The fast pace of life is brutalizing our memory,” reaffirms Haykal.

To him, the project is about connecting the dream of the past to a vision of the future. wants to freshen up these moments of pride and achievement in the minds of its visitors, and give them the thrilling inspiration that overcoming the difficulties of the past provides. “The UAE has a vision that is peerless in the region. But molding the future to your own vision is a long and demanding journey.  There is no better than the great people and great moments on the walls of our online museums to keep you company.”


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