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Propsearch guide to Dubai

History of Dubai

History of Dubai

Once Upon a Time ...

Archaeological research shows that there have been human populations in the Gulf region for many thousands of years. In the Neolithic period, when the climate was wetter, people were able to settle here. They appear to have travelled abroad and encountered other civilisations with whom they probably traded.

One of many exquisite gold objects found at the archaeological site at Saruq Al-Hadid in southern Dubai.

Some three thousand years ago camels were first domesticated and their use as pack animals facilitated the development of foreign trade.

Pearling has, until recently, long provided those who lived here with a livelihood, and the trade in pearls grew along with the development of seafaring and improved access to foreign markets.

In AD 630 the region was converted to Islam and present day Ra’s al-Khaimah, already a major pearling centre, became an important military port as well.

As the Portuguese, Dutch, English and Ottoman navies jostled for control of shipping routes the Gulf became the scene of continual skirmishes between the rival navies and with local traders. Eventually, in 1820, the British Government and the sheikhs of Ra’s al-Khaimah, Umm al-Qaiwain, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi agreed a General Treaty of Peace in which the emirates agreed a maritime truce and the British would police the Gulf waters. The seven participating emirates became known as ‘The Trucial States’.

The early settlement of Dubai was first noted in 1799, and at the time it was dependent on Abu Dhabi. In 1833 around 800 members of the Al bu Falasah, a branch of the Bani Yas tribe in Abu Dhabi, came and settled by the Creek in Dubai under the leadership of the Maktoum family. The Creek was a natural harbour and gradually it grew into a centre for pearling, fishing and maritime trade.

Until the 1930s pearl trading remained Dubai’s main source of wealth.

Pearl trading remained the Dubai’s main source of wealth and by the 1930s Dubai's population had grown to almost 20,000, including some 5,000 expatriates. However, in the same decade the Japanese began flooding the market with cultured pearls, and before long Dubai’s trade in natural pearls collapsed.

The Beginning of Modern Dubai

During the 1950s the British transferred their offices from the Emirate of Sharjah to Dubai, and that marked the beginning of Dubai’s economic advancement.

In September 1958 Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum became the new Ruler of Dubai at the age of 46. He immediately set about developing the emirate and is recognised as the Father of Modern Dubai.

Dubai Airport in the 1960s.
Maktoum Bridge, the first bridge across the Creek.  Before it opened in 1963 the Creek could only be crossed by boat.

In order to get anywhere quickly you need an airport. So this was Sheikh Rashid’s priority, and Dubai International Airport was duly inaugurated in 1960. And to spread your wings you need good connections, so Maktoum Bridge, the first permanent bridge over the creek, was built and opened in 1963.

As a symbol of the emirate’s importance the Dubai clock tower was built in 1965, located in Deira at the place where the major routes into Dubai converged in the days before the Dubai- Abu Dhabi Road was built. It was designed by Ziki Homsi, a partner at Architecture Design Construction (ADC).

Dubai clock tower in Diera c1965.

And then things really kicked off. In 1966 oil was discovered in the sea off the coast of Dubai in what is known as the Fateh field.

Overnight Dubai became rich, and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the de facto Ruler of Dubai since 1939, made sure that the enormous revenues were used to modernise the city by building hospitals, schools and roads, and a contemporary communications network.

Perhaps the most significant development project in terms of Dubai’s economy was the construction of a new port at the mouth of the Creek. Sheikh Rashid had long wanted to develop port facilities on the Creek and in 1967 detailed planning began for Port Rashid, which opened in 1972. The port not only lead to a huge increase in trade, but it facilitated the import of building materials to support the burgeoning construction industry.

Meanwhile, as the crude oil flowed it had to be stored somewhere whilst waiting to be loaded onto tankers for export. So the government commissioned two vast storage tanks, which were built on shore and then floated out to sea and submerged, where they remain and are still in use to this day.

Two giant oil storage tanks under construction on ‘Chicago Beach’ in the 1960s.

The Chicago Bridge and Iron Company won the contract to build the huge tanks, which are 90 metres in diameter and 70 metres high. The gigantic onion-shaped structures were a major attraction among residents when they were being welded on a lonely stretch of beach up the coast from Jumeirah. Known locally as Chicago Beach, the place later became the site of the Chicago Beach Hotel, which was very popular in the 1980s and 1990s, even though it was a long way out of town.

But the pace of change was accelerating, and in 1997 the Chicago Beach Hotel was demolished to make way for the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, and the offshore Burj Al Arab.

Chicago Beach Hotel, demolished in 1997 to make way for the Jumeirah Beach Hotel and the Burj Al Arab.

Chicago Beach Village, a residential complex for oil workers next to the two hotels, became a desirable place to live, but in 2002 it too fell victim to the wrecking ball and the site was redeveloped as the Madinat Jumeirah resort. All that is left of the original enterprise is the pier built by the Chicago Bridge and Iron Company, now home to the award-winning seafood restaurant, Pierchic.

At the close of the sixties Dubai exported its first shipment of oil, around 180 thousand barrels, produced from the Fateh field.

Independence for the Emirates

In 1968 the British had announced their plan to withdraw from the Gulf in 1971. As a result the rulers of the two most powerful emirates, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, brought together the emirates of Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah in a federation. It was inaugurated in December 1971 as the United Arab Emirates.

Sheikh Rashid Al Maktoum, third from left, with the UAE rulers on December 2, 1971.

Soon after the formation of the UAE, HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan became the president of the UAE, a position he held until he died in 2004. Under the leadership of Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Makthoum, the UAE grew to become one of the world’s richest countries.

In 1972 exploratory drilling began for oil in Dubai’s Falah field where production began in June 1978, and in 1973 a third new oil field was discovered at Rashid, which began production in March 1979.

It was during the 1970s that many infrastructure, housing and commercial building projects began, including Dubai’s first high rise, the Nasser Rashid Lootah Building. Built in the early 1970s, it was commonly known as the Toyota building because of the advertising hoarding it supported. This residential block is still standing on Sheikh Zayed Road, though now without its Toyota advertising board.

In 1976 work began on the new Jumeirah Grand Mosque, which when it opened was the only mosque in the UAE that welcomed non-Muslim visitors. It is said to be built in the medieval ‘Fatimid’ tradition.

In 1978 the World Trade Centre tower was completed at the north end of Sheikh Zayed Road, and Dubai’s first modern hotel, Sheraton on the Creek, opened to guests in Deira.

The World Trade Centre’s 39-storey, 184-metre-high tower was Dubai's first skyscraper, and during the 1980s and 1990s was a prominent landmark on Sheikh Zayed Road. Nowadays it is surrounded by a cluster of younger skyscrapers. The World Trade Centre has been hosting exhibitions since it opened, at first in a tented structure which lasted into the 1980s, and thereafter in the massive halls of the Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre.

The Sheraton on the Creek in Deira.

The Sheraton on the Creek was one of the first of Dubai’s buildings to present cutting edge architecture. Designed by Italian Architectural Rome Group in association with Rader Mileto, Rome, as an advanced bio-climatic building, the 255-room complex comprised a hotel and residential apartments. Construction work began in the mid-1970s and when it opened in 1978 hotel guests and residents enjoyed uninterrupted views across Dubai Creek to ‘Dubaiside’, yet to be developed, and onwards to the World Trade Centre which was still under construction.

Dubai’s Coming of Age

In 1979 it was decided that Dubai would rule many of its own affairs, in particular those related to trade, while Abu Dhabi would take control of the rest of the UAE.

The Jebel Ali Free Zone, comprising the Jebel Ali port, known to be the world's largest man made port, was established in 1979 to provide foreign companies unrestricted import of labour and export capital.

In 1982 an onshore oil field was discovered at Margham where production started in 1984.

Well aware that the oil would not last forever, the Dubai government decided to invest its resources in developing Dubai into a world-class tourist destination.

In 1985 Emirates airline began operations from Dubai International Airport with two leased aircraft, a Boeing 727 and an Airbus 300 B4. The inaugural flight, EK600, took off for Karachi on October 25th.

Emirates third Boeing 727, registration A6-EMC.

What started with an investment of $10 million and two aircraft flying to two destinations, Bombay and Karchi, has become one of the world's largest airlines, operating 272 aircraft and flying to over 150 destinations on six continents.

In the financial year 2017-18, Emirates reported revenue of AED 91.2 billion ($24.8 billion) and net profit of AED 2.8 billion ($762 million), and it carried 58.5 million passengers and 2.6 million tonnes of cargo.

The Economic Recovery

In October 1990 Sheikh Rashid died, having served as Ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister of the UAE for 32 years. He was succeeded by his 47-year old son, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

The Persian Gulf War in 1990-91 had a dramatic effect on Dubai’s economy. At first investors withdrew huge sums of money from the banks, but in the mid 1990s many foreign traders in Kuwait and Bahrain shifted their base to Dubai. This, together with the increase in oil price after the war, greatly assisted Dubai’s economic recovery.

In the 1990s Dubai devised and implemented strategic plans to increase its popularity as an internationally recognized tourist destination, perhaps symbolised by the opening in 1999 of Burj Al Arab, the world’s only seven-star hotel.


Burj Al Arab. The building's design is influenced by the profile of an Arabian dhow.

At the end of the decade the Dubai government’s Emirates National Oil Company (ENOC) opened its first oil refinery, capable of producing 120 thousand barrels per day.

In October 2000 the Hilton Dubai Jumeirah opened at the end of The Walk in JBR, seven years before Dubai Marina and JBR were built. In the same year the Emirates Towers were completed on Sheikh Zayed Road at the other end of New Dubai.

In 2001 the six year development of Palm Jumeirah began, the first residents moving in by 2006.

In 2002 over 4.7 million tourists visited Dubai, and in 2003 Dubai Marina’s canal was completed and buildings began to appear around it, including the Grosvenor House hotel which opened on 21 June 2005. It is owned by HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, chairman of the Emirates group, and was named after the original hotel of the same name in London’s Mayfair.

2005 also saw the launch of the Dubai International Financial Exchange (DIFX), now known as DIFC, as well as the opening of Ski Dubai, the world’s third largest indoor ski slope, measuring 400 metres and using 6,000 tonnes of real snow.

A New Ruler of Dubai

Upon the death in January 2006 of Sheikh Maktoum, his 56-year old brother, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, assumed office as the Emir, or Ruler, of Dubai. One month later he also became Prime Minister and Vice-President of the UAE.

Sheikh Mohammed continued to press on with the development and modernisation of Dubai, whose population had risen to about 1.5 million.

In January 2006 he launched the Dubai South development, a new ‘Airport City’ in the Jebel Ali area, designed to connect with the port facilities there and to augment the operations of Dubai International Airport.

Jumeirah Beach Residence, the largest single-phase residential community development was completed in 2007, and today can accommodate 10,000 people. In the same year Mall of the Emirates opened, followed by The Atlantis in 2008.

The 35 towers comprising Jumeirah Beach Residence were built in just 40 months.

The Dubai Metro opened in 2009, four years after its construction began, and as the decade drew to a close Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, was completed. Designed by Adrian D. Smith, Design Partner at Skidmore Owings & Merrill, Burj Khalifa was originally called Burj Dubai but the name was changed in honour of H.H. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, the president of the UAE. ‘Burj’ is Arabic for ‘Tower’.

The financial crisis and subsequent recession in 2008 resulted in many building developments being cancelled or abandoned, and it was not until 2011 that construction work began to pick up again.

In 2013 the massive engineering project, Dubai Water Canal, linking New Dubai to the Old, was inaugurated. The three-kilometre long canal runs from Business Bay into the Persian Gulf through Safa Park and Jumeirah, with private marinas for boats and a trade centre at the entrance of the canal. It was completed in November 2016 and includes a shopping centre, four hotels, 450 restaurants, luxury housing, walkways and cycle paths.

In November 2013 Dubai won the right to host the internationally-renowned World Expo event in 2020, making it the first Middle Eastern city to win the award. The Expo site in Jebel Ali covers an area of 430 hectares and comprises a two square kilometre gated expo area surrounded by residential, hospitality and logistics zones.

Grimshaw Architects’ design for the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020.

In 2016 the Dubai Opera House opened to the public in the Opera District, Downtown Dubai. This 2,000-seat, multi-format performing arts venue was designed by WS Atkins & Partners and has a flexible interior space, enabling the building to be used as a theatre, a concert hall, or a 'flat floor' venue for banquets and events.

Population Growth

The population of Dubai has grown from around 20,000 in 1950 to an estimated 3,411,200 by the end of 2020.


References and sources

Government of Dubai: www.dubai.ae/en/aboutdubai/Pages/DubaiHistory.aspx

UK National Archives: livelb.nationalarchives.gov.uk/first-world-war/a-global-view/the-middle-east/trucial-states/

UAE National Archives: www.na.ae/en/archives/historicalperiods/britishprince.aspx

Gulf News: https://gulfnews.com/entertainment/arts-culture/know-the-uae-archaeological-site-found-south-of-dubai-shows-key-aspects-of-life-in-iron-age-arabia-1.1924218

The British Empire: https://www.britishempire.co.uk/maproom/trucialoman.htm

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