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Dubai: A short history

Dubai: A short history

Dubai, a world business hub, is one of the seven emirates that constitute the United Arab Emirates on the Persian Gulf

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a union of seven Sovereign Sheikhdoms (emirates) - six of which, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Fujairah, Umm Al Quwain and Ajman - formed the present federation in 1971 when the British withdrew from the Gulf as part of the 'East of Suez' policy. Ras Al Khaimah joined a year later.

Although little is known about the ancient history of this area, archaeological finds suggest that humans have been living here since at least 3000 BC. Other evidence links the peoples of what are now the UAE and Oman to the mysterious Bronze Age Magan civilization. Magan ships sailed to Babylonia, Mesopotamia and beyond, trading copper from Oman and pearls from the mouth of Dubai Creek with the heavyweights of the Bronze Age economy. The Magan civilization waned around 2000 BC, but Dubai's instinct for trade remained.

Excavations at Jumeira, about 10km south of Dubai, recently unearthed a 6th-century AD caravan station, proving that the area's population was still keeping the trade routes well oiled. Around this same time, the Sassanids, a Persian dynasty who had inhabited the mouth of Dubai Creek since 224 AD, were driven out by the Umayyads, who came to stay and brought Islam with them.

Exploiting their prime location between the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean, the new inhabitants, working with the old, began reestablishing old trade routes and spreading the word of Allah, all the while making folks fantastic deals for the lowest everyday prices in the Gulf. As trade began to match pearl diving's importance to the local economy, merchant dhows (ships) sailed as far as China, returning with silk and porcelain for Middle Eastern and European markets. This maritime madness reached its peak between 750 and 1258 AD.

Soon everyone wanted a piece of the Gulf's action. By the late 16th century the Portuguese were attempting to control local trade. Their success was limited, and they retreated when faced with French, Dutch and British attempts to take over the ancient trade routes. The British finally gained control of the region's waterways in 1766. Dubai was caught between local power struggles and the Europe's imperial dreams, but somehow turned this bad situation to its advantage, expanding its pearl trade through every channel.

Dubai had grown gradually from a fishing village inhabited in the 18th century by members of the Bani Yas tribe. Its origins, however, go back into the far more distant past. Dubai Museum, situated at Al-Fahidi Fort, thought to be Dubai's oldest building, displays a rich collection of objects found in graves of the first millennium BC at nearby Al-Qusais, while a caravan station of the sixth century AD was excavated in the expatriate suburb of Jumairah.

By the turn of the 20th century Dubai was a sufficiently prosperous port to attract settlers from Iran, India and Baluchistan, while the souk on Deira side was thought to be the largest on the coast, with some 350 shops. The facilities for trade and free enterprise were enough to make Dubai a natural haven for merchants who left Lingah, on the Persian coast, after the introduction of high customs dues there in 1902. These people were mostly of distant Arab origin and Sunni, unlike most Persians, and naturally looked across to the Arab shore of the Gulf finally making their homes in Dubai. They continued to trade with Lingah, however, as do many of the dhows in Dubai Creek today, and they named their district Bastakiya, after the Bastak region in southern Persia.

Meanwhile a flourishing Indian population had also settled in Dubai and was particularly active in the shops and alleys of the souk. The cosmopolitan atmosphere and air of tolerance began to attract other foreigners too: by the 1930s, nearly a quarter of the 20,000 population was foreign, including 2,000 Persians, 1,000 Baluchis, many Indians and substantial communities from Bahrain, Kuwait and the Hasa province in eastern South Arabia. Some years later the British also made it their center on the coast, establishing a political agency in 1954.

The international trade which flowed from Dubai’s cosmopolitan contracts was the basis of rapidly increasing prosperity. This gave the city an early start in development before the beginning of oil production in the late 1960s. Like the other towns along the coast, Dubai had been severely affected by the decline of the pearling industry, due to competition in the 1930s from Japanese cultured pearls, and by the drop in trade in the Second World War. But Dubai contacts and mercantile skills increased resilience and the ability to profit from favorable conditions for entrepot trade with Persia and India after the 1939-45 war.

The successful early development was due in large part to the foresight of Dubai’s rulers. During the 20th century, the city has benefited from the stabilizing influence of two exceptionally long rules: that of H H Sheikh Saeed Bin Maktoum from 1912 to 1958, followed by that of his son, H H Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed al-Maktoum. For many years prior to his father’s death in 1958, Sheikh Rashid has played a leading role in directing the state. Since then he has guided Dubai in its expansion from a small, old-world town to a modern state with excellent communication, and industrial infrastructure, and all the comforts of contemporary life. Since 1980 Sheikh Rashid has played a background role due to ill health but his four sons have continued his policies in exactly the same mould.

The above-mentioned sheikhs and their late brother Sheikh Maktoum have honored their father’s memory by creating one of the world’s most impressive cities. They have done this by following the Al Maktoum tradition of encouraging businesses to invest in and operate from Dubai by offering incentives and establishing free trade zones, and by making Dubai one of the world’s premier tourist destinations.

Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who presided over the transformation of the small Middle East kingdom into a thriving modern state, died in Australia in 2006 at the age of 62.

The present ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is committed to his father's dream of making Dubai one of the foremost cities in the world, as are his brothers, Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Deputy Ruler of Dubai; and Deputy Chairman of Dubai Police & Public Security Major General Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

While this development has been greatly facilitated by the discovery of oil and its production from the 1960s, oil revenues in Dubai have always been a fraction of those in Abu Dhabi, so Dubai’s growth has always depended partly on the inhabitant’s own entrepreneurial abilities.

Dubai and its twin across the Dubai creek, Deira, became important ports of call for Western manufacturers. Most of the new city's banking and financial centers were headquartered in the port area. Dubai maintained its importance as a trade route through the 1970s and 1980s.

Today, Dubai is an important tourist destination and port (Jebel Ali, constructed in the 1970s, has the largest man-made harbor in the world), but also increasingly developing as a hub for service industries such as IT and finance, with the new Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC). Transport links are bolstered by its rapidly-expanding Emirates Airline, founded by the government in 1985 and still state-owned; based at Dubai International Airport, it carried over 24 million passengers in fiscal year 2005.

The government has set up industry-specific free zones throughout the city. Dubai Internet City, now combined with Dubai Media City as part of TECOM (Dubai Technology, Electronic Commerce and Media Free Zone Authority) is one such enclave whose members include IT firms and media. Dubai Knowledge Village (KV),an education and training hub, is also set up to complement the Free Zone's other two clusters, Dubai Internet City and Dubai Media City, by providing the facilities to train the clusters' future knowledge workers. Dubai has also launched Dubiotech. This is a new park to be targeted at Biotech companies working in pharma, medical fields, genetic research and even biodefense. The aim of this park is to foster the growth of this sector in Dubai and to utilize the region's talent in addressing this rapidly growing sector.

The government's decision to diversify from a trade-based but oil-reliant economy to one that is service- and tourism-oriented has made real estate more valuable, resulting in the property boom from 2004. Construction on a large scale has turned Dubai into one of the fastest growing cities in the world.

Today, world-class tennis tournaments, boat and horse races, desert rallies and one of the largest air shows in the world attract millions of visitors to the city. Other high-profile events, such as the Dubai Shopping Festival and Dubai Summer Surprises, bring hordes of tourists into town. Tourism matches trade and oil in importance to the emirate's economy.

The story of Dubai reads like a rags-to-riches tale, and indeed, it is hard to imagine anywhere else in the world a city that has developed at such a pace, in such a short time, for so many different people.

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