Visiting Dubai: The area's history

Part one of five installments

The most amazing thing about Dubai - the bustling, modern city on the Persian Gulf in the United Arab Emirates - is that as recently as 50 years ago, almost none of what is there today even existed.

Fifty years ago, the city was a small fishing village and trading area beside Dubai Creek. Today, the old town remains home to the Gold Souk, or gold market, and retains much of the character of the mid-20 th century. Elsewhere, however, the city is completely modern.

At least are far as the buildings and architecture. More on that later.

The city-state of Dubai is one of seven emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates, or U.A.E., and has been presided over by the Al Maktoum dynasty since 1833. Within the current government structure, the emir of Dubai is also the country's Prime Minister and Vice President.

Government building with images of Dubai's leaders
Although much of the city’s rapid development can be credited to the current emir, His Highness Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, it was the emir’s father Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum who started the city on its current path.

After oil was discovered in 1966 and production began in 1969 Sheikh Rashid, who has been called "The father of Dubai," recognized that the resource was finite and initiated a plan to develop the economy of Dubai so that it would become a regional hub for trade and thus survive the eventual end of oil production, which he foresaw coming in his great-grand-childrens’ generation. To that end, Sheikh Rashid oversaw the creation of the World Trade Centre and, according to one local, he declared that no building should be taller than those structures.

Sheikh Rashid died in 1990 and was succeeded by his son Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the elder brother of the current sheikh. However, when Sheikh Mohammed ascended to power in 2006 following the death of his brother, their father’s edict with regard to building height went out the window.

Sheikh Mohammed has been called the driving force behind many of the city’s remarkable structures, including the Burj Khalifa and the iconic Burj Al Arab hotel. He is also the driver behind the city’s hosting of Expo 2020 and has the stated goal of making Dubai, which welcomed 10 million visitors a year for the first time in 2012, “The World’s Most Visited City.”

Burj Al Arab hotel
While Sheikh Mohammed, his brother Sheikh Maktoum and their father, Sheikh Rashid have been benevolent monarchs, the country’s direction is definitely decided autocratically. Thus far, that has not been a bad thing as far as the progress evident to the world.

There are also many locals and expatriates who see the value in having a single individual deciding the direction of the country. One Millennial I spoke to, an ex-pat from Nigeria, said, “I like it here; things get DONE!”

The sheikh has also initiated other changes intended to make the government more adaptable and responsive to the needs of its citizens. As recently as February, Sheikh Mohammed announced major structural changes to the makeup of the federal government “[T]o enhance the readiness of the leadership to the challenges of the future," according to the official U.A.E. webpage on the Government of the Future.

One of the new initiatives will establish the post of Minister of State for Happiness, “[W]hose primary mission is to harmonise all government plans, programs and policies to achieve a happier society,” the webpage said.

While that forward-looking approach and goal of making Dubai the world’s most visited city must necessarily include welcoming of visitors from a broad range of cultures, that does not mean Dubai is surrendering its own culture on the altar of progress. More on that in my next installment.

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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