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The uae is well known for the ambition of its building projects, which vary from dhow-shaped seven-star hotels to palm-like islands and the world’s tallest building: the Burj Khalifa. But the nation’s first high-rise was the relatively modest Dubai World Trade Centre, a neat, 149m-high, 38-storey building at the eastern end of Sheikh Zayed Road that still adorns both the city and the 100 dirham banknote.

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King Faisal Mosque in Sharjah

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Dubai World Trade Centre

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Saeed Obaid Al Mazroui building in Abu Dhabi

However, as with most things here, when you look past the cliché of the uae being solely a sandpit for starchitects (see here), you’ll spot all manner of odd and intriguing buildings that tell another tale about the nation’s development. These mid-century structures speak of well-meaning modernist master plans, architectural experimentation and intense ambition (sometimes justified, sometimes a little wayward in execution). Those precious early decades of development represent a unique history that deserves conservation and care, and a story to be told. In recent years the reputation of the nation’s beautiful stock of Arab-influenced modernist buildings has found a proud and receptive audience, and calls to preserve and protect them are getting louder and more convincing.

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Flying Saucer, Sharjah

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Abu Dhabi’s central bus station

So here is our singular celebration of the uae’s oft-overlooked edifices, from Sharjah’s space-age Flying Saucer and the interlocking concrete façade of Abu Dhabi’s tessellating Al Ibrahimi building to the stark, sandy-hued majesty of the Dubai Petroleum building. After all, this nation didn’t suddenly transform from a place of desert dwellings, tents and coral houses to the heights of air-conditioned glass-and-steel citydom in one fell swoop. Can we show you around?

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Al Ibrahimi building in Abu Dhabi

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Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi...

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... with its distinctive tiled flooring

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Monocle 24

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  • The Bulletin with UBS