Atlantis The Palm, Dubai

Heritage in Dubai

For all its wealth and extravagance, Dubai is a young and new city – its foundation dating back to as recently as the 19th century. The emirate's origins in modern times goes back to 1833, when the predecessors of the Al Maktoum family (Dubai’s ruling family) broke away from neighbouring Abu Dhabi, where they had settled not 40 years earlier.

Sensing huge potential in this fishing and pearling village, Maktoum Bin Butti, who had led the breakaway Al Bu Falasa tribe to these new shores, cast it in an entirely new light. It was he who set the tone for the modern city it has now become. He realised that its geographical location had given the ‘fishing village’ an edge as an important port of call for traders and merchants in the region, especially from Iran, and he decided to build on that. To achieve this objective, the new emir lowered taxes and successfully lured merchants and their families to settle into Dubai, turning it into an important, regional trading hub. The emir’s policies, driven by brilliant foresight, were the precursors to the emirate’s zero-taxation laws and keen business acumen that drive the new Dubai today.

The next stage in the development of this spectacular city kicked off when the emir’s son, Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum took over the reins of power in 1948. The young ruler realised that if his city was to flourish, he would have to rapidly expand infrastructure to support its growing population and burgeoning business interests. Thus, with the revenue earned from early trade, he built essential infrastructure such as electricity, roads and telecommunications, as well as residential townships, office complexes, hotels and, most importantly, an airport.

Then, in 1966, Dubai struck gold – black gold or oil – in its territorial waters. This signalled a new wave of expansion, with the mammoth Jebel Ali port setting the tone for every mammoth project that Dubai is so noted for. But the emirate was not blessed with oil reserves as was its larger neighbour, Saudi Arabia, and they began to dry up in the 1990s. Undeterred, Dubai did what it has always done best – it reinvented itself, a process carried forward by Sheikh Mohammed, Sheikh Rashid’s son.

The emir used oil revenues to turn the city into a world-class business and financial destination. He rolled out massive business-friendly initiatives for trade, business and finance, and attracted the first wave of First World colonisers, who flocked to the city in droves. These early Western settlers were professionals – bankers, architects, financial consultants and the like – who were tempted by tax-free salaries. The bait was further sweetened by the fact that many countries around the world do not tax their expatriate nationals’ earnings, making Dubai even more attractive as a permanent address. Excitedly following in these expats’ footsteps were major global companies and consortia that relocated their regional operations to Dubai, eventually attracting expats from as many as 200 countries to this tiny emirate.

But the emir was not satisfied with ‘world-class’ status for his city. He wanted to send out the message, loud and clear, that Dubai was THE business and financial destination – a power centre in the Persian Gulf. And he did it with a flourish – by building outrageous and amazing residential, office and resort towers and other manmade wonders that define the new Dubai. Then he did something else. To buttress the economy against global economic shock waves, he developed the city into a premier tourist, lifestyle and entertainment destination so that revenue would flow in from multiple sources, rivalled only by the imagination that had invented this amazingly resilient city.

The diehard dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit that is in Dubai’s DNA, and its ability to create opportunities where there are none, have turned this handkerchief-size emirate into a glittering fantasy that sprang up literally in the middle of the desert. The vision that drove the evolution of Dubai and its promise as the new El Dorado have also given it a vibrant, multicultural flavor and a magnet of tourism and business alike.

But let us return to the Dubai Creek, where it all began.

Dubai Creek, Bur Dubai and Deira: It was here that some of the first barasti (mud and palm-frond) settlements were set up when Dubai was transforming from a fishing village into a fledgling trading hub. When the small trading centre began to grow, the early merchants and their families settled in what is now the historic heart of Dubai – Bur Dubai – on the western bank of the creek.

Translated as ‘mainland Dubai’ to differentiate it from Deira on the eastern shore of the creek, Bur Dubai houses some of the city’s most historic buildings including the Grand Mosque, the Iranian Mosque, the Bastakia quarter where the early Iranian traders settled and the Al Fahidi Fort, now the Dubai Museum. Many of the historic buildings here have been renovated and turned into attractive tourist stops. There are also many traditional markets here although the more flavourful and famous souks are located across the creek, in Deira.

Deira, on the eastern bank of the Dubai Creek, is the old, commercial heart of Dubai. The enclave began to lose its sheen when modern towers began to spring up at a fast clip along Sheikh Zayed Road and other areas south of this glamourous address. But a fresh wave of development has since resuscitated Deira, which now has its own share of residential and commercial skyscrapers, overhead and underground metro tracks, and shopping malls.

Cruises : There’s one delightful part of Deira we want to introduce you to first – Port Saeed, a small port along the creek. Here, you can take a short but charming ride in a wooden dhow or abra that will cost you next to nothing. Your second option is to charter a dhow for a longer tour up and down the creek, for, say, about an hour. The third and most appealing option is to take a dinner cruise that lasts two hours. The package comes with soft drinks, dinner and magnificent night-time views of the shimmering banks of the creek. You can book these longer cruises with a tour operator or through your hotel.

Heritage House : Heritage House in Bur Dubai is the restored home of a wealthy pearl merchant. The structure has been realistically restored and offers a peek into the daily life of an upscale Dubai family in the late 19th century. There’s a central courtyard with a diorama or miniature recreation of children playing and rooms with life-like displays. Entrance is free and if it’s your lucky day, you will be offered free refreshments!

Al Ahmadiya School : Al Ahmadiya School in Deira gives visitors an interesting insight into Dubai’s first semi-formal school established in 1912. When the regular education system was introduced in the 1950s, this was also one of Dubai’s first regular schools.

Dubai Museum : Located in Bur Dubai, the museum is housed in the Al Fahidi Fort built in the late 18th century. A visit to the museum is highly recommended and is a refreshing antidote to the glitz and glam of the new city. The exhibits are excellent and very informative, and provide a glimpse into the evolution of the old city, both historically and culturally. These include traditional pearling boats and barasti, or mud and palm-frond houses used by the earliest settlers. The multimedia presentation on the development of Dubai is absorbing and a must-see.

Bastakia's Wind-Tower Homes : Take a walking tour through the winding lanes in this engaging quarter and you step straight into the mid-19th century, when pearl and textile merchants from Bastak in Iran settled here. They continued to use their traditional architectural style – wind tower homes – and strolling through the alleys and lanes here is a delight. Used as natural air conditioning, these wind towers funnelled air through their homes and is an iconic feature of Bastakia. This quarter also has some interesting art galleries, which makes Bastakia even more atmospheric. These galleries are housed in traditional structures and by stopping for refreshments, you can experience the traditional Bastakia cooling system, first-hand.