Travel along the main arteries of Dubai, and it's hard to picture this city before its modern incarnation. The term 'rags to riches' is used widely to describe its rapid development, but there's very little evidence now of the pre-oil days except in pockets of largely reconstructed heritage sites. History here has not been laid down in buildings and monuments but in customs and manners – these take longer to fathom, perhaps, but their foundations run just as deep.
Spearheads and other archaeological evidence suggest that human settlement in the region began early, with Homo sapiens arriving in the region by around 100,000 BC, attracted by the savannah-like grasslands that dominated much of the Arabian Peninsula. These hunter-gatherer groups burned fires and reared livestock, forming the first organised communities in the region.
As early as 6000 BC loose associations of Stone Age and Bronze Age individuals set up intricate trade routes between Arabia, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. They traded largely in copper mined in Magan (the ancient name of Oman) and exchanged goods with the Dilmun Empire (centred around modern-day Bahrain). It's easy to simplify the lives of the ancients, but the early seafaring traders of the Gulf were no barbarians: they spent their mineral wealth on fine glass, ate too many dates and suffered bad teeth. They took the time to thread beads, enjoyed complex legends, and expressed their interest in life through their administrations of death.
All trace of the great Magan civilisation ceased after the 2nd millennium BC, with some historians speculating that the desertification of the area hastened its demise. But the die was cast: this was to be a land of trading routes, where frankincense from the south, transported by camel caravan across the great deserts of the interior, were swapped for spices and textiles from India, silk and porcelain from China, and bitumen from the Dead Sea. Visit any souq in Dubai today and the pots and pans, electronic gadgetry, gold necklaces, plastic buckets and inlaid boxes, none of which are produced locally, are evidence of how trade continues to run through the blood of the region.
Given that today one out of every four people in the world are Muslim, there can be no greater moment of historical importance on the Arabian Peninsula than the birth of the Prophet Muhammad in the year AD 570. If you are in any doubt as to the lasting legacy of the religion he founded, just listen to call to prayer reverberating through Dubai five times a day. Mammon may have a foothold in today's malls, but a deep respect for Islam is at the heart of daily life, as evidenced by the innumerable mosques built in the last decade and, more to the point, the number of people frequenting them.
In historical terms, the arrival of Islam in the Gulf was significant for two reasons. Its ports helped facilitate the outward flow of Islam, transporting Prophet Muhammad's teachings across the waters of the Arabian Sea by dhow (cargo boat), uniting people in worship of the 'one true god' and the condemnation of idols. Equally, the same ports welcomed an inward flow of travellers in search of spiritual renewal during the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, in what is now Saudi Arabia. The ebb and flow of pilgrims brought a different kind of exchange, a cultural interaction with a succession of powerful dynasties such as the Umayyads and the Abbasids from the north. Their influence helped define the early nature of Gulf settlements and encouraged trade to flourish.
Given the lively trade of the region, it's not surprising that the Peninsula attracted the attention of European powers too. In 1498 a great Omani seafarer, Ahmad Ibn Majid, unwittingly helped a Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, to navigate the Strait of Hormuz. The Portuguese took advantage of this knowledge by annexing Yemen's Socotra Island, occupying Oman and colonising Bahrain. Travel along the Gulf today and Portuguese forts appear with regularity: cut inland and there's no trace of them. The Portuguese were only interested in protecting their trade routes and made no impact on the interior of Peninsula countries at all. When they were eventually ousted by the mid-17th century, they left not much more than a legacy of military architecture and the Maria Theresa dollar – an important local currency.
The Portuguese were followed in the 17th and 18th centuries by the French and the Dutch, who understood the strategic significance of the Gulf coast in terms of protecting their own trade routes to the east. Other powerful entities, such as the Wahhabi tribes (of modern-day Saudi Arabia), the Ottoman Empire and the Persians, were also attracted by the Gulf's strategic importance. But it was the British who most successfully staked a claim in the region's future.
The Trucial Coast
On the one hand, the various treaties and 'exclusive agreements' that Britain signed with the emirs of the Arabian Peninsula kept the French at bay and thereby safeguarded British trading routes with India. On the other hand, the British helped maintain the claims to sovereignty of the emerging Gulf emirates against Turkish and Persian interests, and from the ambitions of the eventual founder of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud. In exchange for British protection, the local sheikhs relinquished all jurisdiction over their foreign affairs. As a result of these treaties, or truces, Europeans called the area ‘the Trucial Coast’, a name the territory retained until the 1971 federation that created the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Dubai at that time was little more than a small fishing and pearling hamlet, perched on a disputed border between two local powers – the seafaring Qawasim of present-day Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah, to the north, and the Bani Yas tribal confederation to the south. In 1833, under the leadership of Maktoum Bin Butti (r 1833–52), a tribe from Abu Dhabi overthrew the town of Dubai, thereby establishing the Al Maktoum dynasty, which still rules the emirate of Dubai today. For Maktoum Bin Butti, good relations with the British authorities in the Gulf were essential to safeguard his small sheikhdom against attack from the larger and more powerful surrounding sheikhdoms. In 1841 the Bur Dubai settlement was expanded to Deira on the northern side of the Creek, although throughout the 19th century it largely remained a tiny enclave of fishermen, pearl divers, Bedouin, and Indian and Persian merchants. Interestingly, the Indians and Persians (now Iranians) are still largely the custodians of the area, providing the Creek with much of its modern character.
Visionary ruler Sheikh Maktoum Bin Hasher Al Maktoum (r 1894–1906) brought Dubai to international prominence in the 19th century. It was he who gave foreign traders tax-exempt status, leading to the establishment of Dubai as a duty-free port, a move that catapulted the emirate ahead of its rivals. Disillusioned traders from Persia crossed the Strait of Hormuz to take advantage of tax-free trade, becoming permanent residents in the Bur Dubai area now protected as the Al Fahidi Historic District.
From Protectorate to Federation
By the beginning of the 20th century, Dubai was well-established, with a population approaching 10,000. But it was hit hard by the collapse of the pearling trade, the mainstay of the Gulf economy for decades. The trade had fallen victim to the Japanese discovery in 1930 of a method of artificial pearl cultivation as well as to the Great Depression of 1929–34.
Dubai's Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum (r 1912–58) realised that alternative sources of revenue were necessary and began embracing the concept of re-export. This involved the importing of goods (particularly gold), which entered and exited Dubai legally but which were sold on to other ports abroad tax free – a dubious practice akin to smuggling according to some, but highly lucrative for Dubai.
When Britain announced its departure from the region in 1968, the ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, took the lead in forming alliances among the seven emirates that made up the Trucial States as well as Bahrain and Qatar. The latter two went on to their own independence, but on 2 December 1971, the United Arab Emirates was created. It consisted of the emirates of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain; Ras Al Khaimah joined in 1972. Impressively, given the volatility in the region, the UAE remains to this day the only federation of Arab states in the Middle East.
Establishing a Stable State
Oil-rich Abu Dhabi, the largest of the emirates, and Dubai carried the most weight in the new federation, but each emir remained largely autonomous. Sheikh Zayed became the supreme ruler (president) of the UAE, and Sheikh Rashid of Dubai assumed the role of vice president as a symbol of his commitment to the federation, a balance of power that remains to this day.
The fledgling nation had its share of teething problems, with border disputes between the emirates continuing throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, together with negotiations about the levels of influence and independence enjoyed by each emirate. The relationship between the two leading emirates has not been without its troubles either. Achieving an equitable balance of power, as well as refining a unified vision for the country, was much debated until 1979 when Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid finally compromised to reach an agreement.
The result was a much stronger federation in which Dubai remained a bastion of free trade while Abu Dhabi imposed a tighter federal structure on the other emirates.
The Modern Era
Overseeing Dubai’s transformation into a 21st-century metropolis is the third son of the dynasty, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who was the face of modern Dubai even before he succeeded his older brother as ruler in 2006. Having ruled Dubai as a de facto leader since the mid-1990s, Sheikh Mohammed has brought consistency and continuity to Dubai in a period of tremendous social, cultural and economic change.
In 2008 he named the third of his children, his son Hamdan Bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, also known as 'Fazza', as crown prince. As his likely successor, Sheikh Hamdan has increasingly taken on leadership roles in various fields and initiatives. Handsome, athletic, outgoing and a serious poet and photographer, Fazza has a huge presence on social media with more than 6.6 million followers on Instagram alone.