The first cinema in the United Arab Emirates celebrated its 80th anniversary on May 4, 2023. Today, it is part of the Al Mahatta Museum in Sharjah. It is a place that was created in order to entertain the RAF (Royal Air Force) squadron but also the local population during the Second World War.
80 years of cinema in the UAE
In 1943, the first motion picture was shown in the United Arab Emirates, in what is now the Al Mahatta Museum in Sharjah. The cinema was opened to boost the morale of the RAF squadron that was stationed in Sharjah during World War II and to entertain the local population. The cinema allowed both sides to coexist and is a testament to the strong relationship that was formed between the Emirati hosts and their allied guests.
Ali Lqbal Chaudhry, historian and researcher, sheds light on the fascinating history of the country’s very first cinema. While going through the archives of the Sharjah-based squadron, he discovered a statement that reports that the opening of the cinema on the resort was a great success. The 80-year-old screening was the first cinema screening ever recorded in the Emirates.
During the period of World War II, a squadron of the Royal Air Force (RAF) was tasked with defending Allied ships operating in the Gulf and Arabian Sea against enemy submarine attacks from German, Japanese and Italian forces. Equipped with Bristol Blenheim aircraft, the squadron was plagued by engine failure and mechanical malfunction. With the repair time, the airmen could take their minds off the problems by going to the movies.
“It allowed both sides to coexist, and that ethos of cultural cohesion is still there,” Chaudhry says.
An innovation in cinema by the UAE
To boost morale, the idea of installing an open-air cinema on the base was implemented. The open-air cinema was originally made from gas cans and used water. The idea quickly appealed to the RAF members and the Emirati population. The projection screen was simply a white wall at the back of the courtyard.
Although the movies shown were mostly comedies and action films from the early 1940s, the latest releases were not available, which annoyed some members of the community.
Famous films such as “Winter Carnival” in 1939, “Tight Shoes” in 1941, and “Badlands of Dakota” in 1941 may have been shown in this theater.