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Archaeological remains found at Al-Qusais, on the northeastern edge of Dubai, prove that there was some form of human settlement here as long ago as 8000 BC, though little is known about the development of the city until the 17th century, when the Portuguese occupied the area, followed by the French, Dutch and, finally, British. During these occupations, the people of Dubai made their living by pearling, and through a trickle of trade with India and the rest of the Gulf; the rest of the UAE was where the power and prosperity of the region was centred. This changed after 1833, when 800 members of the Bani Yas tribe under Maktoum bin Butti settled in Dubai, turning it overnight into a small town rather than a village.

In 1894 Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher al-Maktoum (r 1894–1906) declared Dubai a tax-free port, giving birth to what would become the modern-day economic phenomenon of Dubai. By this stage the population had grown to 10, 000. Though the pearling trade collapsed around 1930, Dubai’s status as the region’s major port continued to grow, supported by major works such as the dredging of Dubai Creek in the 1950s so as to allow large trading vessels to use the port. Under Sheikh Saeed (r 1912–58) and Sheikh Rashid (r 1958–90), the city cemented its reputation as the main trading hub in the lower Gulf.

In 1971, Dubai became one of the seven emirates of the UAE and for the next 19 years Sheikh Rashid acted as vice-president and prime minister of the federation as well as being the leader of Dubai itself. The city continued to grow and prosper during these years. Sheikh Rashid died in 1990, and was succeeded by his son Sheikh Maktoum who steered a steady course for Dubai until his death in January 2006. Now under the leadership of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum (commonly and affectionately know as ‘Sheikh Mo’ by expats), the plans for Dubai Inc are as ambitious as they are audacious.