The story of Dubai’s rapid development, from humble fishing village to oil magnate and, more recently, a smart city, has entranced the rest of the world.
A pivotal moment in its history was when a large, influential group of the Bani Yas tribe, led by the Al Maktoum family, settled at the mouth of Dubai Creek in 1833. Back then, the creek was a natural harbour but the Al Maktoum family steadily transformed it into a centre for fishing, pearling and sea trade. By the turn of the 20th century, it was a successful port with a bustling souk on the Deira side of the water.
Dubai welcomed an influx of expatriates in the 1930s and, during the 1950s, much-needed dredging work was carried out to facilitate an increasing number of ships and cargo, allowing Dubai to demonstrate its prominence as a top trading hub.
When oil was discovered in 1966, the city’s fortunes changed forever with funds being poured into developing infrastructure, such as the airport, marine ports and a series of modern landmarks and attractions. Its position was strengthened in 1971 when Dubai joined forces with Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Fujairah and (in 1972) Ras Al Khaimah, to create the United Arab Emirates.
Now one of the richest countries in the world, Dubai’s inimitable blend of marvels old and new continues to fascinate. Indeed, underneath all the glitz and glamour, the emirate’s rich history and culture is well preserved and protected and visitors don’t have to search hard to discover shining examples of Old Arabia.
Once the hub of the old city where trading vessels carried in wares from India, Africa and beyond, the atmospheric creek area is now the heart of historic Dubai.
Amid the hustle and bustle, it’s easy to imagine what life was like in the emirate 100 years ago. Catch a dhow ride across to the Deira side where the aromatic Spice Souk is located. The Gold Souk, which glistens with jewellery and gems, is another popular stop-off point where visitors can put their bartering skills to the test.
For business groups, organised dhow dinner cruises are a good way to explore this colourful stretch of water.
A symbol of the cross-cultural harmony that underpins modern Dubai and the Islamic faith that shapes its past and present, Jumeirah Mosque offers a unique insight into the emirate.
Built in the medieval Fatimid tradition, the beautiful structure is one of Dubai’s most-photographed landmarks and is open to the public. As such, it’s the perfect place for visitors to learn more about the Muslim faith, with guided tours available offering a detailed exploration of the mosque and all it represents.
For groups looking for a grounding in local culture, this is the place to start. Visitors are required to remove their shoes on entry and wear conservative dress which, for women, means long sleeves and a headscarf.
Contact: +971 4 3536666 / cultures.ae
Al Fahidi Fort, where many of Dubai’s oldest relics are housed, is a treasure trove of cultural curiosities that paint a fascinating picture of a bygone era.
The structure itself is the emirate’s oldest fort, dating back to 1799. Over the years it has performed a multitude of functions, serving first as a palace, then a garrison and a prison before taking on its present role as Dubai Museum. Inside, there is an intriguing collection of artefacts, many of them more than 4,000 years old.
There’s an exhibit dedicated to the pearl diving era, when the local economy relied almost entirely on the fruits of the sea and the divers who risked their lives to swim to the depths and collect the gems. Another display features a recreation of typical elements of village life in old Dubai, with a model souk, school and household. The fort itself bears witness to centuries of occupation with battle-scarred walls that speak of attacks from enemy tribes.
Contact: +971 4 3531862 / dubaiculture.gov.ae
Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood
Wandering through the maze of narrow alleyways that comprise this historic quarter paints a vivid picture of old Arabia and the people that lived there before the discovery of oil. This charming place was once a residential community where wealthy textile and pearl merchants built their homes to enjoy easy access to Dubai Creek, which played an important role in their livelihoods.
Today, cafés, art galleries and handicraft shops have transformed the neighbourhood into a popular spot among visitors seeking a snapshot of old Dubai in close proximity to many of the other of the city’s cultural attractions, such as Dubai Museum and Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding.
Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
Housed in a traditional wind-tower dwelling, Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) is an extremely popular visitor spot and is particularly known for its cultural meals hosted by Emiratis.
The meals, which include an introduction to local culture as well as the chance to sample traditional cuisine, are ideal for smaller groups of up to about 30 and can be enjoyed as breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner.
Contact: +971 4 3536666 / cultures.ae
House Of Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum
The former residence of Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai from 1912 to 1958, this is now a national monument and museum housing a collection of historic photographs, coins and stamps. Built in the traditional Emirati style, the house has four wind towers – once a vital architectural feature for cooling homes during hot Dubai summers in the days before air conditioning.
The balconies overlook the creek, so the Sheikh could observe the shipping activity as dhows ferried goods in and out of the emirate.
Tracing back several thousand years, Dubai’s archaeological sites show just how long mankind has occupied Arabia.
There are several excavations underway, including sites at Al Qusais and Al Sufouh, where graveyards more than 2,000 years old have been discovered. One of the most significant digs is located in the heart of the city, in Jumeirah, where artefacts dating back to the sixth century have been unearthed.
The settlement, which is now one of Dubai’s most affluent neighbourhoods, was once a caravan stop on a route linking Iraq and Oman and is especially interesting in that it spans the pre-Islamic and Islamic eras.
The site is not officially open to the public, although tour operators may be able to arrange permits from Dubai Museum for special excursions.
Contact: +971 4 3531862 / dubaiculture.gov.ae
Dubai’s past is closely entwined with the sea. For a long time, residents of the emirate relied heavily on the proceeds of the lucrative pearl diving industry and, when that era ended, fishing became the only means of income for much of the population settled on the shoreline. The diving village chronicles this maritime heritage, offering an insight into the dangers confronted by the brave pearl divers, who used to plunge many metres below the surface for long periods of time with only the most rudimentary equipment to sustain them. Many perished in the process.
Examples of these tools and the techniques and traditions surrounding this old industry are part of the exhibitions on display.
Majlis Ghorfat Umm Al Sheif
Built in 1955, Majlis Ghorfat Umm Al Sheif belonged to Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum and was where he used to spend afternoons during the hot summer season.
It was named Majlis Ghorfat Umm Al Sheif after an ancient bay, which was renowned for its abundance of oysters. The location was carefully chosen for the Sheikh’s summer majlis as one that enjoyed a flow of fresh air from the sea, and had a large number of palm trees. Furthermore, at the time, it was located well outside the city, far from any noise and construction.
It is open for visitors from 7:30am to 2:30pm, Sunday to Thursday but is closed on Fridays and Saturdays.
Dubai has a thriving art scene that’s constantly refreshed by the arrival of new galleries featuring an ever-growing number of talented artists who find inspiration and opportunities in the city. Here’s our selection of the best:
Contemporary Middle Eastern art featuring works by some of the region’s most talented artists located in Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood.
Cuadro Fine Art Gallery
Located in Dubai International Financial Centre, Cuadro Fine Art Gallery offers a select group of artists studio space and regularly hosts
Set around a courtyard in a traditional Arabian home near the creek, Majlis Gallery was one of the first commercial galleries to open in Dubai and is well worth a visit.
A platform for aspiring artists and a hub for the local creative community in Nad Al Sheba, Tashkeel is home to up to six main exhibitions a year, plus a series of small-scale events.
The Third Line
This Al Quoz venue hosts regular exhibitions showcasing Middle Eastern and international artists, as well as programmes to encourage an open dialogue for art.
Green Art Gallery
Another space located in Al Quoz, Green Art Gallery represents a number of well-known artists from the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, Turkey and beyond in addition to providing a platform for upcoming talent.