How Dubai Was Built

How Was Dubai Built? Dubai’s Explosive Growth Explained

In just over 50 years, Dubai has developed from a small fishing village in the 1950s to the modern metropolis it is today. Names like the Burj Khalifa and The Palm Islands are immediately associated with one of the world’s most sought-after travel destinations, Dubai.

Dubai was once renowned as a major supplier of the world pearl trade until the great depression in 1929 and the subsequent development of cultured pearls. Since the 1950’s Dubai’s leaders have worked on a visionary plan, ensuring a diversified economy which resulted in today’s megacity. 

Despite the windfall oil has been for Dubai, its leaders have deliberately been developing industries outside of petrochemicals. The result is a thriving, international meg city that boasts some of the most impressive structures and global attractions.

The History Of Dubai

Dubai’s history offers a fascinating glimpse of how parts of the middle east have formed to become the countries they are today.

What Does The Name Dubai Mean?

Meaning of Name Dubai

The name “Dubai” is thought to have originated from the word Daba (Arabic: دبا) (a past tense derivative of yadub (Arabic: يدب), which means “to creep”). Scholars believe that this refers to the slow-flowing Dubai Creek inland.

A second theory currently being investigated by the UAE Architectural Heritage Society suggests that Dubai’s name is derived from small migratory Desert Locusts found in the area, though this has not yet been confirmed.

There are a number of other unconfirmed theories that speculate the origin of the name Dubai, too. However, as the Arab history is oral in nature and handed down as mythology and cultural storytelling, the origins of the name Dubai remain shrouded in history.

Early History Of Dubai

Dubai Early History

Dubai can trace its history back to 1095 AD when it was first mentioned in the “Book Of Geography” by the geographer Abu Abdullah Al Bakri.

Dubai (Dibei) was also indicated by Muhammad al-Idrisi when he mapped the coast of what is now known as the UAE in the tenth century AD.

In 1580 the Venetian pearl merchant, Gasparo Balbi, provided a record of Dubai’s pearling industry.

In 1820 Dubai signed the General Maritime Treaty with Britain. This treaty was signed by all tribal confederations (The Trucial States) in south-eastern Arabia. It guaranteed the protection of the signatories.

In 1822, Dubai was a fishing village populated by the Bani Yas tribe consisting of 800 members ruled by Sheikh Tahnun bin Shakhbut of Abu Dhabi.

In 1833, the Al Bu Falasah tribe members broke away into the Dubai area, where they established themselves. The leaders of the breakaway movement were Obeid bin Saeed and Maktoum bin Butt. These two men shared the leadership until Obeid bin Saeed died in 1836, leaving Maktoum bin Butt as the sole leader.

The period after this is referred to as the Maktoum Dynasty.

The first General Maritime Treaty lasted until 1892 when Britain and the Trucial States signed a newer agreement securing even closer relationships.

The History Of The United Arab Emirates

History of UAE

The signatory states remained a British protectorate until the treaties ended on 1 December 1971.

While the treaty ended, it was not the will of the Trucial states who tried to persuade Britain to continue in its role. However, Britain’s colonial empire was collapsing, and with the economy of the time, Britain felt it could no longer provide the protection the states sought.

In response to this, on 2 December 1971, six of the sheikhdoms formed the United Arab Emirates. This grouping of states included.

  1. Dubai
  2. Abu Dhabi
  3. Sharjah
  4. Ajman
  5. Umm Al Quwain
  6. Fujairah

A seventh sheikdom, Ras Al Khaimah, joined on 10 February 1972.

Establishment Of Modern Day Dubai

Modern Day Dubai

Before oil was discovered, Dubai benefited from two of its natural resources.

  1. A thriving pearl diving industry.
  2. The country’s strategic location, particularly as a Port to which Iranian seafarers visited.

The Pearl Industry

Early Pearl Industry Dubai

Dubai was a substantial miner and exporter of pearls up until the 1930s.

During the 1930s depression, the global pearl industry suffered irredeemable damage. The innovation of cultured pearls exacerbated this.

With the national pearling industry destroyed, the whole area suffered depression, and poverty became rife. Many residents migrated to other parts of the Persian Gulf.

The Country’s Strategic Location

Dubai Strategic Location

Dubai became a strategic port for foreign tradesmen, particularly those from Iran. By the time the 20th century had rolled around, the strategic position of Dubai had made it an important port.

Interestingly, Emirates Airways have made this one of its biggest selling points, and today it is possible to board an Emirates flight. With a connection in Dubai, you can travel to, arguably, anywhere else in the world.

Throughout the 1960s, the strategic location made Dubai a convenient gold exchange, particularly for Indians who took delivery offshore in the Indian ocean to bypass their country’s ban on gold imports.

The Period Before The Discovery Of Oil

Dubai Before Oil Discovery

As far back as 1958, before oil was discovered, the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, started the development of infrastructure, which created the change from a village into the thriving metropolis renowned for being today.

At that time, considerable resources were used to develop.

  1. An electrical infrastructure.
  2. Telephone services.
  3. The port facilities.
  4. An airport that included a runway built on salt flats.
  5. Various hotels, including the Airlines Hotel in 1959 and the Ambassador and Carlton Hotels in 1968.

Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum used a British architect firm to develop a master plan for the city.

It was all done believing that Dubai would eventually become a thriving city using the financial resources of the time.

The Discovery Of Oil

Dubai Discovery of Oil

While oil was first discovered in Abu Dhabi, it was also discovered in Dubai’s territorial waters in 1966.

The find resulted in a massive influx of immigrants from various Asian and Middle East countries, and between 1968 and 1977, Dubai’s population grew by 300%.

Developing the infrastructure needed to produce the oil, store and sell it required a massive effort

Dubai opted for a revolutionary storage solution that allowed super tankers to upload oil offshore irrespective of the weather conditions.

The Shift From Oil to Tourism

Real Estate Hub Dubai Creek

In the late 1990s, oil accounted for 24% of the county’s GDP. However, the forward-thinking rulers always understood that this was a finite resource, and they have been building a diversified economy across various industries to reduce the reliance on oil.

Large oil price increases after the Gulf War encouraged Dubai to focus on free trade and tourism.

By 2004, oil revenue only accounted for 7% of GDP.

In 1979, Dubai embarked on a massive capital expenditure and infrastructure program.

  1. A deep-water harbor – The Jebel Ali port.
  2. The JAFZA (Jebel Ali Free Zone) was established around the port.
  3. Dubai airport and Emirates airlines.
  4. Palm Deira is located north of Deira in the Persian Gulf.
  5. Dubai Creek became the center of a real estate boom.
  6. The Palm Jumeirah.
  7. Theme-based free-zone clusters such as Business Bay.
  8. The Palm Islands
  9. The World archipelago.
  10. The Burj Khalifa is presently the tallest building on Earth.
  11. More than 70 shopping centers, including the world’s largest shopping center, the Dubai Mall.
  12. Dubai is named the city of gold, where it houses the Gold Souk with almost 250 gold retail shops.


Due to the visionary motivation of its rulers, Dubai has grown from a small, sleepy fishing village in the 1950s to one of the world’s most modern, well-designed cities.

Emirates airlines rank in the top ten scores of all international airlines, and Dubai international airport, with more than 57 million passengers, is the busiest international airport globally. While the country’s oil is expected to run out in the next decade, the country will not suffer in the way other members of the UAE will.


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