Time traveller

Long before the notion of an aerotropolis was even dreamed of, Dubai’s strategic location made it an important stopover on world trade routes. Vision explores its fascinating history that stretches back millennia, yet is still relevant today

Today’s Dubai wears a very modern face. A shimmering skyline of skyscrapers including Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, rises above the Dubai Waterfront and three offshore artificial islands, collectively comprising the largest man-made development in the world. To the southwest of the city, Jebel Ali is the largest man-made harbour in the world and the biggest port in the Middle East, while Dubai International Airport – home to Emirates, the largest airline hub in the region – has now been joined by Dubai World Central-Al Maktoum International Airport, planned to be the world’s largest passenger and cargo hub, with an annual capacity of 12 million tonnes and 160 million people. What could be more up to the minute?

‘Dubai has never forgotten its merchant past. Its investments have been firmly targeted to ensure it is remains a centre for commerce’

And yet Dubai is old indeed. The first recorded use of the name ‘Dubai’ dates from as recently as 1799. While the independent Sheikhdom of Dubai was not established until 1833, the region has been settled for as long as 5,000 years, initially by nomadic cattle herders, then by date farmers, fishermen and – most famously – intrepid pearl divers.

Trading partners
From around 3000 BCE (Before Common Era, also referred to as BC), the western shores of the Arabian Gulf were influenced by the advanced – and by all accounts entrepreneurial – civilizations of Sumer and Akkad, Babylon and Assyria (all in Mesopotamia, the area that is modern-day Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and southwestern Iran). The earliest references to the region, recorded in Sumerian cuneiform on baked clay tablets, speak of a land called Dilmun lying on the maritime trade route between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. Goods sent from Mesopotamia including silver, tin, olive oil and grain, were exchanged in India for ivory, lapis lazuli, gold and precious woods, while copper ingots from Oman and pearls from the Gulf fisheries also changed hands in this early period of commerce.

Dilmun is thought to have been situated in the Bahrain region, while Majan, another ancient Gulf civilization of the time, is generally identified with copper-producing Oman. Lying midway between the two, the Dubai region would have been at the heart of the precious pearl trade.

Persians and Romans
During the first millennium BCE, trade routes and communications by land expanded greatly. By the time of the Greek historian Herodotus, the Persian Emperor Darius I (ca 521–486 BCE) had asserted his supremacy not just over Greater Iran, but over an empire that fanned out from Libya and Greece in the west, to the frontiers of India and Central Asia in the east. During this time, the entire Arab Gulf came under Persian control, including Dubai and the future United Arab Emirates.

The heart of the Persian Empire extended from the Iranian plateau across the Fertile Crescent and Anatolia to the shores of the Mediterranean. To administer this region effectively as well as to promote trade, Darius ordered the construction of the Persian Royal Road. This epic highway ran for almost 3,000 kilometres from the Persian capital at Persepolis to the port of Izmir on the eastern shores of the Aegean Sea, as well as interconnecting with trade routes west to North Africa, south to the Arab Gulf, and east to both India and Central Asia.

The rise of the Silk Road
Meanwhile, far to the east and beyond the impassable Pamir massif, Imperial China was gradually extending its influence and physical presence into Central Asia. Unlike the other centres of civilisation to the west and south – Mediterranean, Mesopotamian and South Asian, all of which had some direct early contact with each other – China, isolated by land beyond the mountains and deserts of Central Asia, and by sea beyond the distant shores of Southeast Asia – had developed in virtual isolation from the rest of the world.

But all this was to change during the reign of Emperor Wu Di of Han (141–87 BCE), whose armies extended Chinese power, for the first time, west of the Pamir Mountains to the shores of the Caspian Sea. Military conquest brought new trade opportunities, and soon silk was flowing westward to Rome in exchange for silver, gold, and fine glassware along the Silk Road. Dubai featured again in this latest world trade route: many other precious and valuable items travelled west in addition to silk, including – according to the Roman historian Florus – ‘precious stones and pearls’, a major source of the latter being the Arab Gulf fisheries around Dubai.

A Golden Age
A seminal event not just for Arabia, but for the whole world, occurred in 622 CE (Common Era, also referred to as AD) with the beginning of the Islamic Era. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was a caravan trader before receiving God’s message, and Islam, as well as uniting the Arabs for the first time, developed as the quintessential religion of trade. Under the Umayyad Dynasty (661–750 CE), the Arab Gulf experienced an expansion in maritime trade and pearl diving that continued under the Abbasid Dynasty (750–1258), with nearby Baghdad emerging as the richest and most sophisticated city in the world. During this time, the Middle East experienced long periods of peace and unprecedented prosperity, the latter fuelled largely by the Arab monopoly on overland and maritime trade in spices between Asia and Europe.

But this golden age was brought to an abrupt end by the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258 and – even more seriously from a commercial point of view – by the European discovery of a direct sea route to Asia, bypassing the Arab World. The ancient network of trade routes criss-crossing the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula went into decline, though the Arab Gulf pearl industry continued to prosper, as remarked by the Italian pearl merchant Gaspero Balbi who visited the area in 1580.

Rise and fall
Pearls and spices had sustained trade with Dubai for thousands of years, but a plague of piracy in the Arab Gulf provided the British with an excuse to intervene in the region in 1820 and again in 1853, resulting in the establishment of the ‘Trucial States’ (which would eventually give rise to the United Arab Emirates in 1971). At the end of the 19th century, Dubai was declared a free trade port and became a regular stop for shipping. However, a downturn occurred during the Depression, while the pearl trade was hit by the invention of cultured pearls from Japan. Fortunately, oil was discovered in the 1960s, and today the UAE’s oil reserves are ranked sixth in the world.

Dubai has never forgotten its merchant past. Its investments have been firmly targeted to ensure it remains a centre for commerce, and now more than ever. It has become a major communications and trade hub strategically located at the heart of the Middle East between Europe, Africa and Asia where transport by air complements that by sea and land. The developments have also sparked an interest and pride in the region’s history.

This is paralleled elsewhere – most notably across China and Central Asia – where increasing security and prosperity have prompted a resurgence of interest in the old trade routes, especially the fabled Silk Road.

Intriguingly, at the beginning of the 21st century, a new network of trade routes is emerging that reunites old commercial centres, and once again Dubai finds itself at the heart of this phenomenon.