Dubai’s maritime history

Local maritime group DP World document Dubai’s seafaring past and present

Area Guides
Area Guides
Area Guides

From pearl diving to dhow building, imports to exports, Dubai has a rich and varied maritime industry, dating back about 7,000 years – a figure backed up by historical records, according to archaeologist Peter Hellyer, advisor at the Abu Dhabi Media Council. ‘The long tradition of maritime trade for the region is well proven by archaeological and historical records. The importance of trading by sea is fundamental to the economy of the emirates and Dubai today, and it has been a fundamental part of the economy of the UAE for 7,000 years.’

Today, the maritime industry is just as important for the city. In an age when residents are focusing on preserving the heritage of the region more than ever, it was only a matter of time before someone decided the industry deserved an archive all of its own. It’s fitting, then, that the company behind the city’s new archiving project, entitled ‘Dreams of the Sea: The Dubai Maritime History Project’, is DP World, a Dubai firm that has grown to operate marine terminals worldwide.

‘A lot of our people have worked in the industry for years, and we feel it’s important to preserve this aspect of Dubai’s history through their recollections,’ explains Mohammed Sharaf, group CEO at DP World. ‘We also believe companies have a responsibility to engage with their communities. This project does that: it’s educational and informative.’

Following the exhibition of photographs relating to the industry’s history, which was held at the beginning of the year, a book will be published in April featuring more photos from the past and present, and first-hand stories from people whose lives have been influenced by the city’s waters. The sources span all manner of nationalities and jobs. ‘If you go back to old Dubai, there were pearl fishermen and traders… it’s gone
from small stuff being traded from the creek or beach to a mega port. Tens of thousands of containers a day are coming in – it’s fascinating,’ says Commander Mark Stuttard, the Royal Navy liaison officer at the British Embassy, in an extract from the book. Another view is shared by a local boat captain born in the UAE in 1944. ‘The sea played a key role in people’s lives,’ he explains. ‘It was the source of their livelihood – 90 percent of natives worked at the sea as fishermen, dhow captains and sailors or divers.’

But the book isn’t the final plan – the idea is to create a living archive that is constantly being added to. ‘We hope it will gain momentum over time and become a rich repository of stories and images that will be useful for future generations,’ says Sharaf.

To date, the team running the project has seen ‘great variety’ in the submissions, from retired pearl divers, dhow builders, an engineer involved with building Jebel Ali Port, and even school children. Everyone is encouraged to share their experiences and images, which can be uploaded to the project’s website, through which the team are assembling the archive.

Another quote from the book, from architect-engineer Shatha Al Mulla of Dubai Municipality, sums up the need for such a project. ‘Heritage is not something that should belong to the past and stay there, but rather stay alive within the current generation,’ she says. ‘It’s like a continuous chain, where each generation adds rings to it for it to become a beautiful necklace.’
To submit your experiences and images of Dubai’s maritime industry, visit

Dubai’s maritime history

7th century
The Umayyads arrive and open up trade routes, supported by fishing and pearl diving, to eastern regions such as modern-day Iran, Pakistan and India, with reports of ships travelling as far as China to trade.

Venetian Gaspero Balbi, a renowned pearl merchant, visits the area and remarks on the size of the pearl industry and how many Venetians are working there.

Sheikh Maktoum Bin Hasher Al Maktoum makes Dubai tax-free for trade, turning it into the principal commercial port on the coast.

Dredging of Dubai Creek enables any vessel to dock at the port, which helps to kick-start the local gold re-export market.

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