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Building Dubai: The City in the Desert

Few places on this planet have seen such a dramatic transformation as the 35 sq kilometres (14 sq miles) slice of land tucked away on the northwestern coast of the United Arab Emirates. What was until the 1960s not much more than a small city specializing in fishing, pearl diving and trading, Dubai has since exploded onto the scene to become one of the most extravagantly wondrous places anywhere on Earth.  

This is a place where seemingly everything is possible, where the limits of the imagination are lost within the vast dunes nearby. From the tallest skyscraper in the world, artificial islands, ski slopes in the desert and a police force that comes with Lamborghinis, Dubai is a dizzying array of contradictions and true wonders. 

In terms of its rapid rise, we’ve perhaps never seen anything quite like it in human history. But Dubai is now much more than just an oil-laden Emirate and has diversified considerably more than many people expected. If the black gold is set to run out within the next 50 to 100 years, Dubai will remain a glittering palace, with sturdy foundations built across multiple industries. There are many places in the world where gargantuan oil reserves have been discovered, but few, if any, have built anything remotely like Dubai.    

The Emirates

The President of UAE,
Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahayan
at the Ceremonial Reception,
at Mushrif Palace, in Abu Dhabi
on November 22, 2010.

Before going on further, it might be worth explaining the socio-political situation in and around Dubai. Today Dubai is part of the United Arab Emirates, which is a country in its own right but is also made up of seven Emirates, each governed by its own monarch – or Sheikh if we want to be specific. These seven Sheikhs form the Federal Supreme Council, with the President of the United Arab Emirates elected from the council every five years – though the current President, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, of Abu Dhabi, has held the top job for nearly 17 years now. In fact, since the Emirates formally united in 1971, the UAE has only seen three Presidents, one of whom was an acting President who was in charge for a grand total of one day back in 2004. 

Broadly speaking, today the seven Emirates appear to have a perfectly cordial relationship – as far as we know anyway – but of course, things haven’t always been like that, which we’ll come to shortly. 

If you look at a map, the UAE is dominated by the Abu Dhabi Emirate, which covers the vast majority of land – most of which is desert, it must be said. The remaining six Emirates are sandwiched into the northeastern section of the country, but even then, most of them are composed of different pieces not interconnected with one another. It is easily one of the most confusing border areas on the planet.           

Dubai is both the name of the Emirate and the capital city within it. The Emirate of Dubai has a population of just over 5 million, with around 4 million of those residing within the metro area of the city. The Emirate is formed of one large area and one tiny enclave 134 km (83 mi) east of Dubai, known as Hatta. This has been a part of Dubai since the early 20th Century and today is a popular tourist spot and home to an important dam.  

Ancient History

To be honest, we don’t know a whole lot about the area of Dubai back further than 1,000 years. This area, like many in the world, has seen significant environmental changes over the past 10,000 years or so. The remains of a mangrove swamp were found when the Sheikh Zayed Road was extended in 1998, dating to 7500 BC, which showed us that fairly recently Dubai was much more tropical than its current dry desert climate. 

Nomadic cattle herders possibly roamed the area at this point and date palm was first established around 2500 BC, the first form of agriculture in the area. Then we have a relative black hole of time, lasting around 2,000 years, where we know practically nothing. But considering Dubai’s climate today, we can assume pretty intense desertification took place during these two millennia and the population probably dropped off fairly dramatically.  

Introduction of Islam 

In the 7th Century, the Umayyad Caliphate, which then stretched from Spain to Iran, arrived on the shores of what is the modern United Arab Emirates. Islam was introduced to the area and was followed by a mini-boom as the region began trading further afield, eventually reaching as far as China. As the caliphate inched east more land fell under its control, and with it more trading opportunities. 

Fishing and pearls were the principal industries and Dubai – or Dibai as it was sometimes called – began to make a name for itself for providing some of the finest pearls anywhere to be found. But still, not a whole lot went on in this area until the final two centuries of the last millennium. 

19th Century

The settlement that led to modern Dubai has its roots in the early 19th Century when a group of 700–800 members of the Bani Yas tribe called the small fishing village home. Over the next couple of centuries, the settlement gradually grew as did its regional importance, but it was also an area that suffered its fair share of bad luck. 

In 1841 a smallpox epidemic swept the area, forcing many to relocate to the Deira area to the east. Just over 50 years later, a fire ravaged Dubai where many of the houses were built with palm fronds. Half of the houses within the small town were destroyed and ironically the area of Deira was utterly decimated. The following year a slave woman was caught setting a fire and was executed as a result. To be fair, I think most of us would genuinely consider burning down a town if we were slaves too. 

The city was established as a free port in the early 20th Century and trade began to expand exponentially, but another blood nose was on the horizon as the great storm of 1908 smashed the pearl industry to pieces and claimed 100 lives in the process.

Then we come to the Hyacinth incident. Now, as we know, rarely is anything good attached to an event known as an ‘incident’ and what happened on Christmas Eve 1910, was no different. Gunrunning was a lucrative business by this point, with weapons passing along camel trains in the desert before being loaded into boats and often travelling across the Gulf, ending up in Persia, Afghanistan – and just about wherever people were willing to pay. 

The British, who governed the area, didn’t like this one bit and ordered house searches in the months leading up to the end of 1910. Things escalated quickly on 23rd December when British troops attempted to force their way into a trader’s home, only for a well-armed local group to push them back. A furious firefight erupted as the British began firing indiscriminately, enraging the crowd who kept the soldiers pinned down for several hours.  

With one detachment trapped under heavy fire, British commanders took the rather extreme decision to have HMS Hyacinth, a Highflyer-class protected cruiser currently sitting in the Gulf, begin shelling the town. As forty-five kilo (99 lbs) lyddite-packed high-explosive shells began smashing into the town, it didn’t take long for a ceasefire to be reached and the British troops to hightail it back to the ship. The fighting had killed 37 Dubaians, to just four on the British side.      


It’s fair to say that oil completely transformed Dubai, but before and after the discovery in 1966, the Emirate showed itself as a place willing to diversify its income and invest in itself. Dubaians had been heavily reliant on the pearl trade, but in 1916 when a Japanese entrepreneur, Mikimoto Kōkichi, developed a process of producing cultured pearls, it signalled the beginning of the end for people diving for pearls in the Gulf. Dubai had already seen how fortunes can change in an instant.  

After World War II, with tentative oil exploration taking place in neighbouring Abu Dhabi, Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum chose to invest in infrastructure throughout the region. New roads, bridges, telephone lines, port improvements, a small airport and hotels began opening across Dubai. A British architect, John Harris was commissioned to design the city’s first urban plan in the early 1960s. And remember, this was in the days before oil and the plan set out was far from the mega-metropolis that we see today. Instead, Harris’ design aimed to slowly develop the old town of Dubai and gradually expand from there. This was a grand design plan being created on a budget because at that point money was still tight and Dubai still very much a developing region. 

However, that changed with a seismic boom in 1966 when oil was first discovered off the coast of Dubai. But before we get carried away, this discovery was far from the blank cheque that would completely transform Dubai. The early find was fairly small, at least in comparison to some of the biggest oil fields around, but as more and more were discovered, it suddenly became clear that this scratch of land sitting on the edge of the Arabian Gulf, was about to become fabulously wealthy. But still, Dubai’s ruler favoured slowly building his Emirate’s infrastructure with new schools, hospitals and commercial buildings, the first to be added to Harris’ evolving Master Plan.           

The Emirates Unite

As I mentioned earlier in the video, the United Arab Emirates officially came into being in 1971, after the British had withdrawn their support for the Sheikhdoms, essentially relinquishing any kind of control. And let’s be clear, that was done out of economic necessity, rather than the kind nature of the British government. 

This united the Emirates states for the first time – or at least most of them. Bahrain and Qatar chose to travel their own path and both became fully independent nations in 1971, while the UAE was initially formed of six Emirates – Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain, with Khaimah joining the following year. These were groups that had fought sporadically over the years, with some regions under the control of others for large swaths of time. But as the early 1970s dawned, and with black gold beginning to ooze out of the cracks, the choice of entering into an Arab coalition seemed to make perfect sense. They were, after all, about to become outrageously wealthy.  

Dubai’s Golden Age

And here is where things just went nuts. There are plenty of photos available of Dubai in the early 1970s and frankly, it’s unbelievable what has occurred in just 50 years. While today many stare in awe at the towering skyline that easily competes with Manhattan, the skyscrapers were only a part of the massive amount of construction work that has taken place. So much so, over the last decade, the level of construction taking place in Dubai has been so so high, it was said to be home to a quarter of the world’s large-scale cranes. 

But even as the money was cascading in, a huge amount was still set aside for infrastructure projects. Dubai’s ruler was no fool and knew well that his oil wouldn’t last forever. With that in mind, the decision was taken to begin diversifying the nations’ economy early, while also maximising the spending potential while it was available. 

Dubai’s Megaprojects

One of the first major projects was the construction and subsequent rapid expansion of Port Rashid. This was somewhat of a masterstroke because the new port, which grew to 35 berths in 1978 and could accommodate the largest shipping vessels in operation at the time, was an immediate success and today covers 3.10 km2 (1.20 sq mi).

Dubai - Creek – Port Rashid
Dubai – Creek – Port Rashid.By giggel, is licensed under CC-BY

This was followed by the Port of Jebel Ali, located 35 km (21.7 miles) southwest of Dubai, and opened in 1979 to supplement the already overflowing Port Rashid. This is the largest man-made harbour on the planet and comes with roughly one million sq meters (10.7 million sq ft) of containing yard – that’s one and half times the size of Disneyland. Over 5,000 companies, from more than 120 countries, have offices at the Port of Jebel Ali and it is today the 9th busiest port in the world. 

The first skyscrapers to begin dotting Dubai’s landscape came with a name you’ll no doubt recognize. Dubai’s World Trade Center, designed by our British architect friend John Harris, opened in 1979, six years after its namesake was completed in New York. At just 184 metres (603ft) in height, it barely scratches the skyscraper limit, but as it symbolically rose out of the desert, it provided a hell of a statement – Dubai was about to soar. The World Trade Center is one site that can often be made out in some of those old photographs, usually seen standing alone, seemingly far away from the evolving city to the north. Of course, back then it was very much isolated and probably looked well out of place, but today it forms part of the entrance into downtown Dubai. The vision to build such a building so far away from the existing city in the hope that they would one day meet was a gamble that paid off spectacularly.     

But if we’re talking about skyscrapers, we have to mention the Burj Khalifa. Opened in 2010, the world’s tallest building has kept its crown longer than many had anticipated, not least because the Saudi’s have stalled on their own record-breaking tower in Jeddah. The Burj Khalifa stands at 829.8 metres (2,722 ft) was constructed using 330,000 cubic meters (11.6 million cubic ft) of concrete – which is 100,000 elephants if that number doesn’t mean much to you – and has 26,000 individual glass panels on the outside, apparently all cut by hand – well, this is Dubai isn’t it.   

First named the Burj Dubai, it was renamed in honour of the Abu Dhabi ruler, and President of the UAE, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, essentially as a thank you for bailing out the project when the $1.5 billion extravaganza ran into serious financial problems.

And finally, we come to the mind-boggling artificial islands built off the coast of Dubai – a megaproject of such scale you might wonder why we haven’t already dedicated a whole Megaprojects video to it. Well, actually we have, so if you’re interested in more information on them, why not check it out after this.

Mind-Boggling is a good way to describe the artificial islands because quite simply, nothing has ever been built quite like this. The Palm Jumeirah was the first to be created, a palm tree-shaped island with a land area of 5.72 km² (2.2 sq miles). Rock and sand were dredged from the bottom of the Gulf to create the island, with enough used to build a two-meter wide wall around the Earth three times. The $12 billion project involved countless missed deadlines and a hefty overspend, but after just six years, the first homeowners were allowed to move in. 

This was supposed to be the first of three Palm Islands, but while the Deira Islands have opened, albeit, after a complete redesign, the lavish Palm Jebel Ali project was placed on hold during the 2008 recession. Lastly, we come to perhaps the most outrageously decadent project in Dubai. The World is a man-made archipelago in the shape of – you’ve guessed it, the world – covering an area of 6 by 9 kilometres (3.7 by 5.6 mi) off the coast of Dubai. The project used 321,000,000 cubic metres (11.3 billion cubic ft) of sand and 380 million tons of rock to build the 300 separate islands. The idea was that they would all be individually sold to private investors, but once again, the recession of 2008 battered the project and it has, as yet, failed to live up to its extraordinary hype. 

As I mentioned, we have done an entire video on these artificial islands, so if that piqued your interest, why not check it out after for a much more in-depth look.  

Dubai Today   

This is a city of some quite astonishing contractions but over time it has proven itself as much more than just an oil playground. From the very early years after the discovery of oil, the focus has been on developing Dubai into a tourist location, major shipping hub and financial powerhouse – and it’s achieved all of that with staggering success. 

In 1990, 24% of Dubai’s GDP came from the oil industry, but that has fallen to around 1% today, while nearly 8.5 million tourists visited the Emirate in 2019. From astonishing shopping centres, indoor ski slopes, a Legoland, some of the finest restaurants in the world, beautiful beaches and the foreboding, yet mesmerizing desert, this is a city that provides plenty of options for its visitors. It’s not the kind of place for everyone, but for those who are into that sort of thing, it doesn’t get much better than Dubai. The city now boasts 18 buildings that reach over 300 metres (984 ft), more than anywhere on Earth.             

Dubai has spent its oil money wisely and is one of the few large-scale oil producers that have put themselves into a position to succeed after the oil runs out. Dubai has become its own monster and has long broken free from the shackles and pains that come with oil production – see Russia in the 1980s or Venezuela right now.  

But we do also need to be honest about some things. This is not a glorious fairy tale city. Building vast megaprojects in the desert aren’t easy and the scale of death involving migrant workers is staggering – as it has been across the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar. Workers are often housed in pitiful conditions and the ongoing yo-yo over whether or not unions should be allowed (at the moment it’s a firm no) often leaves the people who quite literally built this megacity, in truly shitty situations. This is also a place where you certainly don’t speak your mind, especially if it involves; the royal family, the government, homosexuality, workers rights and women’s rights. Yes, it’s a far cry from Saudi Arabia, but make no mistake about it, the playground of the rich and famous, comes with some very stringent rules. 

Dubai is a story quite like any other. It’s not perfect, in fact, it’s incredibly repressive in certain ways, but there is still a huge amount to admire about this glittering Emirate and its golden city. And it’s not just about the construction projects and soaring skyscrapers. This is a place that has been built around a vision that began 50 years ago and continues today. Oil money is great, but how often do you see it wasted on luxury without really being put to proper use. Some might argue that an indoor ski slope in the desert is a wasted luxury and it’s difficult to argue with that, but this is part of the larger Dubai brand that has taken over the world over the last 50 years, and for better or worse, it’s certainly working. Dubai may have been built upon oil riches, but it looks set to keep shining long after that final drop has left the wells.    

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