Before setting up, you need to understand where on earth (literally!) you’ve landed. Indeed, it seems the world's media is a little obsessed with our fair emirate: one minute the headlines scream about its opportunity and high-living, the next it's all financial doom and superficiality.
The truth? The city is certainly ambitious and confident – world-famous landmarks such as the Burj Khalifa and Burj Al Arab warrant this – but it also has the strong cultural origins necessary to see it through the downturn that recently rocked the world so badly.
So, what was Dubai before it became the place where Andre Agassi and Roger Federer played tennis on a helipad? Settlements dating as far back as the early fifth and sixth centuries have been found in what is now the (rather exclusive) suburb of Jumeirah. Pearl trading in 1580 was then what oil became in the 1960s – the industry that really put the UAE on the global stage. Venetian jeweller Gasparo Balbi made the first written reference to ‘Dibei’ during a search to uncover the precious gems.
But it wasn’t until 1833, when the Al Maktoum dynasty moved to the emirate from Abu Dhabi, that Dubai really came into its own. The revered family saw the potential in the city’s 10km creek as a hub for international trade when complemented by low taxes and liberal policies. They were right.
Evidently knowing a good thing when they saw it, the British government signed a treaty with the rulers of Dubai and nearby regions in the late 19th century, forming the ‘Trucial States’, in which the British Empire offered protection and non-interference in local politics, providing the emirates didn’t deal with other global powers.
So when did the oil, so synonymous with the region, finally spurt? In 1958 in Abu Dhabi and 1966 in Dubai. In 1971, the British government decided to end the treaty when it expired. The seven Trucial leaders then met and created a federal document. Six of them – Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain – signed a constitution, and the United Arab Emirates was born. Ras Al Khaimah joined in 1972, with Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi (whose picture is seen across the emirates to this day) appointed as the country’s first president.
With the British gone, oil revenues began to flow more freely into the region. These helped Dubai create the infrastructure it needed to develop. Realising its reserves were limited, however, the emirate’s first ruler, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, chose to develop it as a tourist and business destination. When free zones such as Dubai Media 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 nice new niche for itself. International companies chose to base their Middle East headquarters here, and continue to arrive, showing that a hub of commerce and tourism can rise out of sand in a generation.
In the future…
Anyone who claims Dubai is ‘over’ couldn’t be further from the truth. For starters, there are reportedly 45,785 hotel rooms either in the pipeline or under construction in the city, to add to the existing 45,398. Next year will see the opening of six more über-luxurious hotels on The Palm, as well as the start of customer operations at Al Maktoum International Airport. Other 2011 highlights include At.mosphere, a restaurant on the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa and Palazzo Versace on the Creek (reportedly with air-conditioned sand). While Dubai may not be developing as fast as it was in the boom years, it’s still one of the most exciting places to be in the world.
The tallest building in the world opened in early 2010 amid fireworks, pride and a little confusion – the tower was known as the Burj Dubai all through its construction, which began in 2004 at the height of the economic boom, but was then announced as Burj Khalifa, after the leader of Dubai's neighbour, Abu Dhabi, in recognition of his help during the financial crisis. It stands at over 828m (2,716.5ft) and more than 160 storeys. It holds the record for, not only the tallest building in the world, but also the highest occupied floor and the elevator with the longest travel distance. Naturally.
Hailed as the answer to the city’s traffic chaos, the Dubai Metro has changed the way we go about our lives (and saved us lots of money). It’s the first railway system of its kind in the Gulf, with the initial few stations being ceremonially inaugurated at 9:09:09pm on 09/09/09. All red-line stops are now open.