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The Making of Dubai

The desert is one of the harshest environments on earth, and it's a testament to the ingenuity of man that people managed to settle in Dubai in ancient times. Archaeological digs at four sites around the city have unearthed artifacts that indicate a small population settled here as early as the third millennium BC. In addition, Dubai served as a port of call on the sea routes between the Mesopotamian region and the civilization of the Indus valley in India in the second and third millennia BC. Archaeologists also have discovered remnants of a mosque and other buildings, which suggest that a small port existed here at the end of the first millennium AD. However, Dubai didn't make much of a mark on world events through the second millennium. The only record of the port town is in Venetian ledgers showing they bought pearls from the traders here.

Even in the early years of maritime trade by the Europeans during the mid-1700s, the region around the Gulf had a reputation for piracy, and cargo ships stopping in Dubai were regular targets. Disputes between local, familial Arabic tribes resulted in numerous raids along the coast. By the 1820s the British government was fed up with the raids and negotiated a deal with the tribes that allowed it to act as arbiter in local disputes to help lessen piracy and improve regional security.

In 1833, after a family disagreement in the Bani Yas tribe in Abu Dhabi, the Al Maktoum clan packed its bags and traveled up the coast to visit the Al Abu Falasa clan (also of the Bani Yas tribe). There, they took a liking to Dubai Creek and settled on the Bur Dubai bank. It was a profitable move, as the business-savvy clan quickly assumed control of the pearl trade and other commerce in the tiny settlement. The Al Maktoums honored the accord with the British government, previously signed by the Al Abu Falasa clan, as it provided protection against piracy and the British had growing influence in the area. In 1853, the Al Maktoums and other local ruling families, known collectively as the Trucial Sheikhs, went on to sign a "perpetual truce" with the British. The relationship was further strengthened in 1892 when both parties agreed that Britain would act as protector of the Trucial States in exchange for exclusive trading rights within the territory. However, the states remained self-governing entities—not British colonies.

In 1894, Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher Al Maktoum assumed power in Dubai. He was the first clan member who hoped to expand the emirate and enforce the long-term goals of economic growth and security. He introduced tax and duty incentives that lured traders and merchants who might previously have used other ports, and also began rebuilding the family ties that had been broken in 1833—the first meeting between the sheikhs of Dubai and Abu Dhabi took place in 1905 just before his death. By the end of his short but action-packed reign in 1906, all commercial taxes had been removed on goods imported or exported through Dubai port. Furthermore, the city was growing. An influx of Iranians and Indians immigrated here and significantly increased the population. There was no question about it—Dubai was officially open for business and it was thriving!

However, two economic disasters brought the city's new prosperity to a sudden end. Although New York was far away, the Crash of '29 spilled over the world like a tsunami, and trade plummeted. Simultaneously, Japanese scientists announced a breakthrough discovery—how to control the growth of a pearl in an oyster shell. Cultured pearls became cheaper and quality control produced a more uniform result. The natural pearl industry in Dubai, an economic mainstay for generations, collapsed and the clans were forced to find more profitable ventures.

The economy saw little improvement in the 1930s through World War II. The region suffered from a lack of trade and supplies because its major trading partner, India, was a British colony and therefore was deeply involved in the war. Relationships within the Gulf were also becoming increasingly strained. The borders between the various Trucial States had never been formalized, and when a dispute between Dubai and Abu Dhabi erupted in fighting in 1947, Britain had to intervene.

But Dubai experienced a stroke of luck when Britain moved its Trucial State administrative headquarters here after the war. The emirate immediately was brought into the modern world. Electricity supplies revolutionized daily life, an airport allowed faster travel, and telephones extended communication beyond local seaways. Even so, the economy still was not healthy. The Trucial States seemed to be functioning at a minimal level, but a geological phenomenon was about to change all that. In 1958, oil was discovered in the waters off Abu Dhabi.

Dubai's Sheikh Rashid had only just succeeded his father, Sheikh Saeed, at the time of discovery and knew that his neighbor's good fortune would create opportunities for his fiefdom. Abu Dhabi had no port but would need huge amounts of infrastructure commodities, including steel and concrete, so Rashid dredged Dubai Creek to take the modern vessels that would be needed to service the oil trade and transformed Dubai into a shipping town. By 1966 when oil was discovered off the coast of Dubai, it was simply an added bonus for the vastly expanding economy. When the larger modern ships began to outgrow Dubai Creek, Rashid approved the building of Port Rashid, a man-made terminal on the coast at the creek mouth to increase its capacity.

Meanwhile, the British, dealing with domestic economic issues, withdrew from the area in 1968 and gave the Trucial Sheikhs three years to create a security plan. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi, and Sheikh Rashid of Dubai decided to create a federation of states and invited other local sheikhs to join them—hence, the United Arab Emirates was born in December 1971.

Throughout the 1970s as petro-dollars flooded into Dubai, Sheikh Rashid funded massive developments in the city's infrastructure. Port Rashid was expanded but the expansion quickly proved too small. Cargo ships were becoming bigger and containers were industry standard. Rashid decided to invest in a new port at Jebel Ali, which would become the largest man-made harbor in the world. The port would be surrounded by a tax-free, duty-free industrial zone that would attract trade from around the region.

By the time Rashid died in 1990, Dubai was on solid economic ground, but it was clear that the oil supply would not last forever. So Sheikh Maktoum, Rashid's successor, sought to diversify his small country's portfolio by encouraging tourism, which he believed was the fastest growing industry. He appointed his brother Sheikh Mohammed to manage the development of the country's tourism infrastructure, and the scene was set for Dubai's debut onto the world stage. In 1995 he was given the title Crown Prince of Dubai, which put him in line for the crown if Sheikh Maktoum were to die or renounce his throne.

Sheikh Mohammed, king of the megaproject, had already spearheaded the birth of Emirates airline. He followed that with investment in luxury accommodations, the creation of a Western-style leisure infrastructure (including bars and restaurants), and million-dollar giveaways in Dubai's shopping festival. Pioneering vacationers returned home with rave reviews about their adventures in Dubai. In 1999, the opening of the Burj Al-Arab Hotel brought even more attention to Dubai with its images of star athletes Roger Federer and Andre Agassi playing tennis on the hotel's helipad high above the coastline.

The government's goal was to bring in 15 million visitors each year by 2010—ambitious, to say the least. Developers were contracted to create several new offshore island communities, and the world's largest theme park would take shape inland, rising from the desert sands. In 2002, Sheikh Maktoum opened Dubai for property investors and kick-started a real estate boom. Dubai's leadership changed hands in 2006 after the death of Sheikh Maktoum, with a natural handoff to Sheikh Mohammed, who had long been the energy behind the throne.

Dubai's Ruling Family

In one of Hollywood's versions of aspiration versus seemingly insurmountable odds Field of Dreams (1989), Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) turns his dreams into reality and builds a baseball stadium in the middle of the corn belt. At the climax of the film a stream of headlights fills the screen as massive crowds clamor to view Kinsella's upcoming sporting spectacle.

You might wonder if the Al Maktoum family—rulers of Dubai—have this film in their DVD or Blu-ray collection, as it encapsulates the story of Dubai perfectly: an unprepossessing location with an inspirational leadership that can think its way out of the box and push past the boundaries of the world as we know it! In this case, it's not thousands of cars cruising down America's highways to see a baseball game. Instead, thousands of airplanes wing their way to Dubai International (DBX) carrying passengers who are eager to experience the 21st-century spectacle that's risen out of the desert. The Al Maktoums have transformed Dubai from an invisible locale to a super-cool tourist destination. And there's much more in the pipeline.

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