Dubai before the boom


It’s widely known as the Middle East’s capital of excess. An emirate state, once rich with oil, where money and opulence reign supreme.

Dubai’s unfathomably high skyscrapers, reaching into the clouds, are matched only in size by its vast, sprawling shopping malls and its residents’ bulging bank balances. It’s renowned as a playground for the rich, a place where entire communities of ex-pats enjoy the trappings a tax-free haven can offer.

However, as these pictures taken during the 1960s show, the emirate city has undergone a remarkable transformation in a very short space of time. In these images, taken from the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, Dubai is almost unrecognisable in its former life as a fishing settlement, not long after the Gulf states struck gold with the discovery of oil.

While it is known today more for its fast cars and life of luxury, it was not that long ago that the city was as familiar with camels and dhows as it is now with Ferraris and indoor ski slopes. Dubai was a small fishing settlement when it was taken over in 1830 by a segment of the Bani Yas tribe from the Liwa Oasis.

By 1892 foreign traders had begun to flock to Dubai after the emirate declared they would be exempt from tax. As a result the population doubled and the burgeoning pearl industry started to boom. This lasted until the 1930s, when the recession and subsequent depression hit Dubai’s pearl industry causing it to fall into decline, leading to feuds between the royals and social problems.

In 1959 Dubai embarked on a bid to become a major trading hub and millions of dollars were lent to the then-leader Sheik Rahid by the Emir of Kuwait to renovate the city’s creek, to enable it to accommodate large ships.

Everything changed for Dubai with the discovery of oil in 1966, bringing a soaring economy and an army of traders who flocked to the emirate to settle there. As it began to export crude oil, the petro-dollars flooded in to Dubai and by 1973 the Dirham became the official unit of currency.

However, by 1980 the Dubai’s annual oil income dropped to an all-time low, forcing the emirate to think of other ways to make money. By the mid-1980s it began its reinvention as a tourist destination and the Emirates airline was established.

The emirate’s continued status as a tax-free haven brought even more ex-pats to settle in Dubai and in 1999 one of the tallest hotels in the world opened, cementing the city’s reputation as a tourist destination.


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