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Dubai History: Tracing the transformation from fishing village to a global metropolis

Centuries before the Dubai became an international destination that we all know today, it was inhabited by nomadic tribes that left little trace of their existence. Then, in the 18th century, members of the Bani Yas tribe settled on the banks of the Dubai Creek – a site that UNESCO is currently assessing for inclusion on its list of World Heritage Sites.

Their natural commercial instincts, allied with liberal attitudes, attracted the attention of neighboring traders from India and other Gulf countries. By the late 1870s, Dubai had become the main port of the southern coast, developing major souks to enable visitors to barter their wares.

It was in these clamorous Arabian souks that spices were traded, potters and weavers worked, butchers hung carcasses, carpenters carved and the waters of the Creek were congested with wooden abras and dhows ferrying passengers and unloading their cargo. It was a chaotic home to Iranians, Omanis and tribal Bedouins.

Pearls, collected from offshore beds, and gold were key to the emirate’s prosperity. Yet with the collapse of the pearling industry in the 1930s, Dubai fell into a deep depression, and many resident starved or migrated to other parts of the Arabian Gulf.

Yet, thanks to the implementation of favourable tax incentives, Dubai blossomed into a burgeoning trading hub. By the early 1950s, the Creek was at bursting point and it was down to the sheer determination and survival instinct of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum– the Ruler of Dubai from 1958 to 1990 – that he raised the money to dredge the Creek, building up its banks with bulkheads and sheet piling.

And imagine, all of this was done without the basic aid of mainstream electricity. While the Soviets were sending satellites into space and some 50 years after New York’s Times Square was ablaze with multi-colored illuminations, Dubai still remained in darkness. It was not until 1961 that Dubai flickered to light.

Fortunes changed in 1966. Long after oil had been discovered in neighbouring Abu Dhabi and after years of drilling one dry hole after another, the ‘black gold’ was eventually found in Dubai.

This led the emirate to grant concessions to international oil companies, thus igniting a massive influx of foreign workers. Between 1968 and 1975 the city’s population grew by over 300 per cent. In 1960, Dubai’s 60,000 residents lived in an area of just two square miles, the size of a few city blocks. By 1970, the city held 100,000 people in a seven-square mile area. Five years later Dubai doubled again reaching 18 square miles with 183,000 people.

On 2 December 1971, Dubai, together with Abu Dhabi Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain, formed the United Arab Emirates – Ras al-Khaimah joined one year later.

Dubai’s new-found fortunes and independence was not wasted and thanks to the foresight of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum the infrastructure to create a city of the future began to take root.

Wanting to provide access for large container ships, in 1971 Port Rashid opened. At the time the port only had two gantry cranes. In 1978, the port was expanded to include 35 berths (five of which were able to be used by the largest container ships at the time). It clearly still wasn’t enough and in 1979 to supplement the facilities at Port Rashid, Jebel Ali Port opened. Covering over 134 square kilometres, it is home to over five thousand companies from 120 countries. With 67 berths and a size of 134.68-square-kilometres, Jebel Ali is the world’s largest man-made harbour and the biggest port in the Middle East.

In the meantime, Sheikh Rashid had ordered the building of what is today, the World Trade Centre. In 1978 the Sheikh Rashid Tower opened and at 39 stories it was the tallest building in the city and the first high-rise along the Sheikh Zayed Road. At the time there was so much skepticism that some residents thought ‘the white building would bring the evil eye upon Dubai’. Today, this tower has grown into the renowned Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre (DICEC) at Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC), the region’s largest purpose-built complex welcoming 2.2 million trade delegates a year.

What many thought was a mad idea was witnessed in 1985 – the launch of Emirates airline. Back then its fleet consisted of two airplanes leased from Pakistan International Airlines. Today it is has a fleet of 218 aircraft flying to 142 destinations in 80 countries and it is often lauded as The World’s Best Airline.

In the same year that Emirates launched, Dubai opened the first of what was to become a string of Free Zones – once again echoing the open and forward-thinking awareness that first put Dubai on the global commercial map all those centuries ago beside the Creek. Jebel Ali Free Zone was inaugurated in 1985 attracting considerable overseas investment. Today Dubai has Free Zones throughout the city, including Dubai Internet City, which combined with Dubai Media City, opened in 2002 as one such enclave, whose members include IT firms such as Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and IBM, and media organisations such as MBC, CNN, BBC, Reuters and Sky News.

But it was in 1999 that Dubai really grabbed the world’s attention with the opening of the Burj Al Arab on an artificial island off Jumeirah Beach. What many bill as the ‘world’s only seven-star hotel’, this sail-shaped building is now a world-renowned icon.

The headlines didn’t stop there. In 2006 (the year that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum became the Ruler of Dubai and the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE),  the first residents moved onto the artificial archipelago of Palm Jumeirah – a project that increased Dubai’s shoreline by a total of 520 kilometres. Today this palm-shaped island with 17 fronds is home to luxury beachside residences, apartment buildings and luxury resort hotels which, of course includes the colossal Atlantis The Palm resort that sits on the tip of the Palm’s crescent and opened to a fanfare of fireworks in 2008.

The infrastructure of the city continued to take shape and in 2009 Dubai International airport expanded with the opening of Terminal Three, dedicated to Emirates. But with over 66 millionpeople passing through the airport in 2013, it was clear that something needed to be done to cope with this capacity. Plans had already been put in place and in October 2013 Dubai’s second airport at Al Maktoum International Airport at World Trade Central opened its doors to its first passengers. Several airlines operate from here (Wizz Air, Gulf Air, Jazeera Airlines, Qatar Airways, Eastern Horizon Airlines and Eastern SkyJets). When all phases are complete, this airport will have capacity to handle 160 million passengers a year.

Travel within the city has also undergone a revolution, most markedly with the launch of  Dubai Metro, the driverless, fully automatedmetro rail network declared by Guinness World Records as the world’s longest fully-automated metro network spanning 75 kilometres. Since its launch on 9 September 2009 at 9pm, the Dubai Metro completely changed the way the city ticked with thousands of commuters using its Red and Green lines each day.

Just a few months later on 4 January 2010, Dubai could officially say that it was home to the world’s tallest tower – the Burj Khalifa. As if symbolising that this city really is a capable of making the impossible possible, this tower reaches into Dubai’s cloudless skies at some 828m. This urban masterpiece is a symbol of strength, determination and a demonstration of Dubai’s capabilities.

But a true test awaits Dubai in 2020, when it hosts the World Expo. It’s a test that the city is sure to pass with flying colours and, as vowed by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Expo is an opportunity for Dubai to “astonish the world”.

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