History of Dubai

The way Dubai has burst onto the scene so hastily with its superlative buildings and real estate boom has caused most people to form unapprised opinions. It is crucial to understand Dubai’s history before one begins to critique the city. Dubai did not evolve from a tabula rasa in the desert (although this point can be argued by Dubai’s future growth’s lack of consideration for context) nor did it at one point have a significant Emirati population.

Dubai, previously known as Debai, was first recorded in 1822 as being a mud hut town on the Gulf Coast with about 1,200 inhabitants. The original settlement was located in the area that is presently known as the Shindagha area of Bur Dubai. During this time the land that now makes up the UAE was part of Historic Oman.[1] Although Dubai itself was not recorded until 1822, the Gulf region had been under pressure by the Portuguese and British since the fifteenth century. One of the most significant factors for leading to the formation of the UAE was 1820 treaty signed by the Sheikhs of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, designating the British as the rulers of Historic Oman. The British’s motivation for power in the Gulf region was principally to control trade in the vital area. In 1922, another treaty was signed between the British and the Sheikhs, declaring that upon oil discovery, concessions would only be extended to British entities. [2]

While the British were taking control of Historic Oman, Dubai’s population and economy were growing. By the mid 1800s Dubai’s population had more than doubled to 3,000. The influx was due to a wave of immigrants from Abu Dhabi who were drawn to Dubai by its openness and tolerance.  In the 1870s Dubai’s importance further increased as Persian political instability opened up the opportunity for a new major trading center. By 1925, further Persian instability led to another wave of immigrants, this time Persian merchants and their families. Dubai had established a free trading port in 1904 that was extremely enticing. During this time people were migrating from all over the area, including Bahrain, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. By the 1930s Dubai’s population was very diverse; consisting of several classes and ethnic groups.[3] Although Dubai’s population was a fraction of what is it today, it was just as diverse during its beginnings as it is presently. More important to note is that what we refer to today as the Emirati population is actually a mix of middle-eastern ethnicities that migrated to Dubai.

Al Fahidi Fort 1799

As the population of Dubai grew, three distinct areas were developed that are now considered the historic district. The original city developed around the Dubai Creek and was separated in Deira (the commercial center), Bur Dubai (the government center) and Shindagha (the main residential area). As Dubai continued to prosper as a mercantile city, it was still under British control with frequent contracts being given to British companies.  When Oil was discovered in commercial quantities in 1966, all contracts went to the British, who sought cheap labor from India and Pakistan. By 1968 immigrant labor consumed 50% of Dubai’s population.[4] This is another important statistic to note; the trend for a large percentage of immigrant laborers was present in 1968 when the population was only 58,000. Although the actual number of immigrant laborers is not as astounding as it is today, the percent is still amazing.

During this flux of population and oil discovery, other significant factors were happening in Dubai, leading towards its global presence. In 1955, Toyota Cars were introduced. In 1959 Dubai opened its first airport, the Dubai Electricity Company was established, the Dubai Creek commenced its dredging and oil was discovered in Abu Dhabi. By 1964 several towns had running water. Additionally, in 1960 the original master plan for the growing city of Dubai was outlined by British architect John Harris.[5]

Dubai Creek 1950
Deira mid 1960s

The United Arab Emirates was officially formed on December 2, 1971, breaking away from Trucial Oman. The British had peacefully left the Gulf in the late 1960s due to anti-colonial movements post World War II, maintaining a tactful connection with the UAE to ensure future oil contracts. The formation of the UAE was logical, as all the Sheikhs were bound under the same treaties with the British. By the time the UAE gained independence the population had doubled in size to over 100,000 (by 1975 is would be 183,000) Much of the population increase was due to immigrant works and by early 1970s Emirati residents were already moving to the suburbs of Rash’diya to get away from the workers and to claim the large, free plots of land the government had designating them.[6]

Population over time

The short, but dynamic recorded past of Dubai highlights key issues about present day Dubai. It is assumed by many that the issues of nationalism and multi-culturalism that the city/nation-state faces is due to economic overload of the 1990s, when Dubai really arrived on the global scene. However, the historical timeline presented proves that Dubai’s history has always been one diverse race and a capitalist nature.


[1] Yasser Elsheshtawy, Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle (New York: Routledge, 2010) 60.

[2] Elsheshtawy 61.

[3] Elsheshtawy 62-65

[4] Elsheshtawy 64-65

[5] Len Chapman, Dubai as it used to be (n.p., 2008) Dubai Timeline.

[6] Elsheshtawy 66.

Works Cited

  1. Elsheshtawy, Yasser. Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle. New York: Routledge, 2010
  2. Chapman, Len. Dubai as it used to be. n.p., 2008. Web. 14 Nov 2011.  <http://www.dubaiasitusedtobe.com/index.shtm&gt;

One thought on “History of Dubai

  1. It mention in pragraph 2 that The original settlement was located in the area that is presently known as the Shindagha area of Bur Dubai . we can notice from the map of dubai (1822) the setellement was in area which it knows now as SOUK AL KABIR .

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