Dubai as the world knows it only really took shape over the last decade. But settlements dating from the early fifth and sixth centuries have been found in what is now the suburb of Jumeirah.
By 1580 it was the lure of pearl trading that put Dubai, and neighbouring Abu Dhabi, on the international map; Venetian jeweller Gasparo Balbi made the first written reference to ‘Dibei’ during a search of the East to uncover the precious gems.
Set on a 10km creek, Dubai started its remarkable evolution when the Al Maktoum dynasty arrived in 1833, having left the settlement of Abu Dhabi. The Maktoums saw the creek as vital to trade, and offered low taxes and liberal policies to passing foreigners.
In the late 19th century, the rulers of Dubai and nearby regions signed a treaty with the British government, forming the ‘Trucial States’, where the British Empire offered protection and non-interference in local politics, providing the emirates didn’t deal with other global powers.
The discovery of oil, believed to be the sole reason for Dubai’s expansion, did not occur until the 20th century. It was found in 1958 in Abu Dhabi and 1966 in Dubai. In 1971, the British government decided to end the treaty. The seven Trucial leaders met and created a federal document. Six of them (Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain) signed a provisional constitution, and the United Arab Emirates was born. Ras Al Khaimah joined in 1972. Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi was appointed the country’s first president.
The presidency and prime ministership of the UAE are hereditary to the Al Nahyan clan of Abu Dhabi and the Al Maktoum family of Dubai respectively. Dubai’s current ruler, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is also the Prime Minister and Vice President of the UAE.
With the British gone, oil revenues began to flow more freely into the region. These went a long way towards helping Dubai create the infrastructure it needed to develop. Realising its reserves were somewhat limited, Dubai chose to develop the city as a tourist and business destination. When free zones like Dubai Media City and Dubai Internet City sprang up, where non-GCC nationals can have 100 per cent ownership, expat-run operations clamoured for office space. It was the first venture of its kind in the Gulf, which meant Dubai had carved a new niche for itself. International companies such as CNN and Microsoft chose to base their Middle East headquarters here and the city quickly became the commercial hub of the Gulf.