The Heritage & Culture of Dubai

A Brief History

(Taken in part from Lonely Planet’s ‘Best of Dubai’ – our favourite Dubai guide)

Interested in history? Why not enhance your holiday in Dubai by reading our brief history of this fascinating place?

Up To 1900

Dubai was originally a flat sabkha (a salt-crusted coastal plain) broken only by clumps of desert grasses and a small area of hardy mangroves at the inland end of the Creek.

There is evidence that humans were in the area as far back as 8000 BC and for the next 5000 years they existed as nomadic herders who did a bit of fishing on the coast in the winter and then moved inland with their herds for the summer.

Agriculture developed with the cultivation of date palms around 2500 BC which helped provide food and materials for building and weaving.

From AD 224 to 636 the area was inhabited by the Sassanids who ruled Persia.

The history of Dubai is closely linked to the spread of Islam which first developed in Saudi Arabia in the 7th century and quickly spread to the Middle East through military conquests. By the 7th century the Sassanids in the Dubai area had been supplanted by the Umayyads who brought the Arabic language to the area and made the area part of the Islamic world.

During this time maritime trade in the Gulf expanded due to its location on the major trade routes between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean.

Archaeologists have found evidence of caravan trade routes from millennia ago to as recently as the last century.

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Where to Stay and the Places to Visit and Things to Do in Dubai.

In the late 16th century the Portuguese became the first European power to take advantage of the lucrative Far East trade routes passing through the Gulf. The Portuguese were well armed and monopolistic causing dispirited local tribes to move inland to land-locked oases such as Liwa and Al Ain.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the French, Dutch and British infiltrated the area, each keen to control the trade routes to India and the East. In 1766 the Dutch gave way to the British East India Company which had established Gulf trade links in 1616.

When the powerful Bani Yas tribal leaders moved from the Liwa Oasis to Abu Dhabi in 1833, about 800 tribe members split off and settled by the creek in Bur Dubai. This group was led by Maktoum bin (son of) Butti thus establishing the Al-Maktoum dynasty in Dubai.

Bastakiya Quarter

Throughout the 19th century Dubai remained an enclave of fishermen, pearl divers, Bedouin, Indian and Persian merchants.

In 1892 the British reinforced their power through 'exclusive agreements' with the sheikhs. Because of these agreements or 'truces', the area, especially to Europeans, became known as the Trucial Coast. Two years later, Dubai's ruler Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher al-Maktoum permitted tax exemption for foreign traders and the free port of Dubai came into being - and remains to this day.

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The 20th Century Onwards

By 1900 Dubai was a well-established town with about 10,000 inhabitants. Lean years followed the collapse of the vitally important pearling industry in 1929.

After a brief attempt at a consultative government in 1939, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum effectively took over from his father Sheikh Saeed and quickly bolstered the emirate's position as the key trading hub in the lower Gulf.

Sheikh Saeed al-Maktoum was never happy with a consultative council overseeing Dubai's affairs and was suspicious of the motives of some of his relatives, so he ordered Bedouin guests to attack the council during his son's wedding in March 1939.

One of the chief dissenters (a cousin) and his followers then settled in neighbouring Sharjah, a little too close for the Sheikh's comfort. A half-hearted battle broke out between Dubai and Sharjah and, with little ammunition and not much more enthusiasm, rival forces resorted to using ancient muzzle-loading cannons.

During the battle Imperial Airways continued to refuel its flying boats on Dubai Creek and sent the passengers over to the fort at Sharjah for lunch. For this operation a truce was called so the passengers could eat in peace.

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In 1951 the Trucial States Council was founded, bringing together the leaders of what would become the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Oil was discovered in Dubai as recently as 1966 and the speed of Dubai's growth was hastened when oil exports began in 1969.

As part of its departure from the region in 1968, Britain attempted to create a state that encompassed the Trucial States plus Bahrain and Qatar. Whilst Bahrain and Qatar decided to move to their own independence, the leaders of Abu Dhabi and Dubai strengthened their commitment to a single state.

The federation of the United Arab Emirates was born in 1971. It consisted of the emirates of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah and Um Al Quwain. Finally, Ras Al Kaimah (RAK) joined in 1972.

Under the agreement, the emirs approved a formula whereby Abu Dhabi and Dubai (in that order) would carry most weight in the federation but would leave each emir largely autonomous. Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi became president of the UAE and Sheikh Rashid of Dubai became vice president.

Today, although there have been many changes with exposure, through the expat community and greater globalisation, to new ideas and influences, the native Emerati people have successfully retained their social values and beliefs, and not lost their own cultural identity.

Some tribal values of the past have survived until present times, for example, the importance of strong family ties and the loyalty to members of their own tribe, hospitality and the love of poetry and story telling.

To learn a more about the way Dubai and the United Arab Emirates is run have a look at our Power & Politics page.

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