Sands of time

As Dubai continues to boost its position as an international trading hub, it is worth remembering that the emirate has a centuries-long legacy of farsighted rulers who ensured that it always remained a step ahead of rivals in terms of attracting international trade and commerce to the region

In the 18th century, Dubai was a small fishing and trading village, inhabited by members of the Bani Yas tribe. Deira, separated from Al Shindagha by the creek, was Dubai’s main commercial centre, lined with narrow passages connecting shops, mostly dealing in spices and similar products, while Al Shindagha served as the main residential area. Before the dredging of the creek, it was a wide stretch of sand that would flood during high tides. It was customary for the sheikhs to hold majlis (traditional Arab gatherings) in the open, chalking up plans for the development of the area.

Considered the Father of Modern Dubai, Sheikh Rashid had a vision of a new Dubai and, during his reign, the emirate accomplished several feats that evoked astonishment throughout the region and beyond

The development of Dubai into a leading global trading hub can well be traced to such earthy beginnings. It is a tribute to the vision of Dubai’s rulers that they were prepared to adopt the most unconventional ways to promote the emirate, long before ‘thinking outside the box’ had become a management cliché.

The first major boost to Dubai’s status as a commercial port was provided towards the end of the 19th century during the rule of His Highness Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher Al Maktoum, who pursued policies considered quite liberal and enlightened for his time. A highlight of his rule was the declaration of Dubai as a free trade port and abolition of commercial taxes, which helped the local port achieve rapid progress. In due course, it became a regular stop for steamers.

The turn of the century saw traders re-routing goods through Dubai to avoid the high customs duty elsewhere in the region. As the big merchants relocated, smaller operators followed suit and Dubai soon became a major trading centre for pearls, which skilled divers would harvest in the gin-clear waters of the Gulf.

Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum Al Maktoum, who became the Dubai Ruler in 1912, presided over a thriving pearling industry. Dubai was also famous for its vibrant souks, drawing envy and admiration from all around. With over 350 shops selling commodities from around the world, it was the largest market in the region. But there was a crisis to come: though the souks remained wealthy during the Depression era of the 1930s, the trade in pearls was harder hit – and a growing preference for Japan’s cultured pearls undermined Dubai’s importance as a trading centre, forcing the authorities to seek ways to diversify income.

The most momentous period in Dubai’s history was during the reign of Sheikh Saeed’s successor, the late His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, between 1958 and 1990. Considered the Father of Modern Dubai, Sheikh Rashid had a vision of a new Dubai and, during his reign, the emirate accomplished several feats that evoked astonishment throughout the region and beyond.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Dubai’s rapidly growing population demanded significant expansion of the city’s infrastructure and services, but instead of accommodating the immediate requirements, Sheikh Rashid had his eyes on the future.

In 1959, Sheikh Rashid ordered the dredging of the creek as he saw that the rapid silting of the waterway had limited the number of seagoing vessels that could enter it. When the creek was deepened, the excavated rock and soil was deposited on low-lying land along its shores. This reclaimed land was sold to pay for the project. By the end of 1960, the creek project was completed and shipping lines began using Dubai as their main port in the Gulf. With this, Dubai had the basic infrastructure in place to pursue its ambitions and the Dubai model had been discovered.

Demand grew for new wharves, warehouses and port facilities. In 1967, construction started on a deep-water harbour and although the initial plan was for four berths, the harbour when completed had 15 berths, which eventually increased to 35. The Port Rashid harbour officially opened in 1972, built to service the largest ships – but the most futuristic decision was yet to come. Even before work on Port Rashid was completed, Sheikh Rashid had ordered the creation of a second port at Jebel Ali, south of the city, which was to become the world’s largest man-made port with 67 berths.

Another milestone followed in 1985, when the visionary leader set up the Jebel Ali Free Zone, which redefined Dubai’s role as the region’s favourite trading hub. Jebel Ali was initially seen as the ideal base for multinationals to warehouse and distribute their products all over the Gulf. Over the years, the range of industries has grown from distribution to include the whole spectrum of manufacturing, trading and services, and the market has grown to cover all the Middle East, the Asian Sub-continent, Africa, CIS states, Eastern Europe and, for many, the entire world.

As Jebel Ali celebrated 25 years in 2010, the free zone, spread over an area of 48 sq km and one of the world’s largest such facilities, was home to over 6,400 companies. Today it is a leading driver of not only Dubai’s economy, but also that of the entire UAE.