Dubai: Metamorphosis in the Desert

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, March 2009 | Go to article overview
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Dubai: Metamorphosis in the Desert

Stern, Fred, The World and I

A wanderer scouting the eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula in 1990 would stand in disbelief if he were to come across the forest of skyscrapers sheathed in steel and glass enclosures that is contemporary Dubai. He likely would be overwhelmed by those towers, each climbing higher than its neighbor in a never ending effort to achieve domination over Dubai's skyline. He would no doubt be amazed to learn that 25 percent of the world's construction cranes were operating right there in Dubai, and probably would be doing so for years to come.

But skyscrapers are only a small part of the story. Dubai's transformation from a small desert town to a city with a population of a million plus--one that has a network of subway systems, canals, playgrounds, 5-star hotels, racetracks, roads and highways--has all taken place in a historical "wink of the eye." No wonder Dubai has become a magnet for the super rich from the four corners of the world, the folks who want to conduct high stakes business, go high-end shopping, or simply have a good time in an atmosphere of luxury.

Dubai is a part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a loose federation of seven semi-independent states which also include Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Umm al Quwain and Sharjah. The United Arab Emirates are bordered on the North by the Persian Gulf, in the Northeast by Oman, in the south and west by Saudi Arabia and in the northwest by Quatar. Along with its neighboring nations, they are often referred to as the "Gulf Countries" or "Gulf States." Although each of the Emirates, also known as the Trucial States, has its own local government, but there is a federal president and prime minister.

Dubai's Colorful History

Like its appearance, the region's history is unique. As far back as the 3rd millennium B.C. a culture known as Umm al Nar developed in the area now known as Abu Dhabi. There was trade with Mesopotamia and the Indus culture, primarily the export of copper. Sassanian (Persian) influence can be traced to the 4th Century A.D. The Islamic era began in the 7th Century A.D. and the religion still dominates the region today.

Despite the desert climate, the region has been of key economic importance for centuries because of its strategic location on the Persian Gulf, with shipping lanes connecting to Africa and the Far East. Persians dominated the commercial life of the Gulf region until early in the 16th Century when the Portuguese established themselves, building forts along the Gulf to protect their interests. They were overtaken in turn by the Dutch and later by the British, who wanted to safeguard their trade with India.

In the matter of government, the area was ruled by a succession of tribal sheiks until the late 19th Century. In part to restrain the Ottoman Turks with their designs on the Gulf region and its access to trade routes, Great Britain took Dubai and nearby settlements under its protection in 1892. The British left the region in the early 1970s and the various tribal enclaves in the Gulf came together to form the seven states of the United Arab Emirates in 1971 and 1972.

In the late 1950s and 1960s oil was discovered in the Emirates, including in Dubai. Both the economy and physical structure of the area were to change dramatically. With the development of their energy resources, commercial activity swung into high gear, financed--at least initially--by oil revenues. Today, however, oil represents only about 6 percent of Dubai's gross domestic product (GDP), and geologists predict that oil reserves will be depleted in another 20 years. Today, most of Dubai's income is from other commercial ventures including real estate and tourism. Although the city is not often thought of as a tourist or business destination, more than 28,000,000 passengers disembarked at Dubai's airport in 2006.

Great Architects and Their Dubai Achievements

Who is building this huge new city and its peers around the United Arab Emirates?

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