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What was Dubai Like Before? A Step Back in Time

What was Dubai Like Before

Dubai is now a city of luxury and opportunity. There are more millionaires per square mile here than any other place on the planet! However, Dubai hasn’t always been like this. So here we travel back in time to take a look at What Dubai Was Like Before.

You wouldn’t think that the photo above was as recent as 2007! This just goes to show how rapidly Dubai has grown over the past decade.

Stick with us below as we take you through a history of Dubai to show you what Dubai was like before.

Spoiler Alert – The Dubai Tax Exemption for Expatriates Scheme Started as Early as 1894!

The History of Dubai and Its Fishing Heritage

History of Dubai and Fishing | The Vacation Builder

Dubai’s evolution from a secluded fishing village to an ultra-modern metropolis is fascinating. If you look back in time, the history of this plush city is going to take you on an enchanting journey of Dubai and its people.

Early Minoan Period

When we tried to trace Dubai’s roots, we were astonished to find it back to the early Minoan Period. This is the time when Dubai was nothing more than a massive swamp full of mangroves. It is believed by the Bronze Age, the area was inhabited by nomadic cattle herders. Around 2500 BC, they successfully started to grow date palm plantations.

For a couple of millennia, this region settled peacefully with farming. Gradually it flourished as a caravan station along the trade route that connected Oman (now Iraq).

The area now known as Jumeirah was the very spot where this ancient caravan station used to be!

Then Came the Bani Yas Tribe..

The Book of Geography written by Andalusian-Arab geographer Abu Abdullah Al Bakri records the earliest mention of Dubai. A few other journals, including the records from Venetian pearl merchant Gaspero Balbi, described the city as a renowned pearl trade centre in the Middle East and it was not before the 15th century.

The livelihood of Dubai primarily relied upon pearl diving, fishing, boat building and arranging accommodation for traders passing through.

Trading used to be limited to textiles, spices, pearl and gold. It is hard to believe a swanky city like Dubai was a prominent fishing village till the 18th century where pearl divers had to risk their lives to earn a few extra bucks. In the early days of the 1900s, pearl diving took a back seat when the Japanese invented a much easier way to produce artificial pearls.

A new era dawned upon Dubai with the entry of Bani Yas tribe. They came to Dubai around the late 1900s with 800 members led by Maktoum Bin Butti. They were more interested in the strategic location of a natural harbour in Dubai. The Bani Yas tribe ensured political power in Abu Dhabi and Dubai became a dependency.

The Walled City

What Was Dubai Like Before | The Vacation Builder

Records prove the fact that the cosmopolitan neighbourhood of Dubai was a “walled city” as late as the early 18th century. This is the same time period when Al Fahidi Fort came into existence. The purpose to built this fort was to stretch the wall on the Bur Dubai side to the ending of the Old Souk through the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood.

But in 1820, Britain agreed on a maritime truce with local rulers so that British traders can access and survive at Dubai’s trading harbour. With this truce, Dubai began to receive continuous interaction from around the globe and emerged as a prominent trading hub from the Middle East.  

The Era When Al Maktoum Ruled

If we mark the era when Al Maktoum Dynasty took the destiny of Dubai in their hands, then it has to be from the 1830s to 1890s. Maktoum Bin Butti from the Bani Yas tribe settled with his people at Dubai Creek and declared Dubai’s independency from Abu Dhabi.

Massive changes took place majorly during Al Maktoum dynasty. Even with all these remarkable changes, Al Maktoum dynasty still continues to rule Dubai.

Tax Exemption Laws and Rush of Expatriates

What Was Dubai Like Before - The Expatriate Tax Free Scheme Started in 1894 in Dubai

In 1894, trading in and around Dubai recorded a massive boost which in turn triggered the huge influx of foreign workers into the region. The business scene of the city was pretty successful at that period. Dubai was quickly getting ready to shed off its reputation as a fishing village and pearl diving centre.

With the advent of oil refineries, Dubai underwent a massive transformation and became the hub to generate various working opportunities. In 1894, the trading scene of the region was given a strong boost when new laws granted tax exemption for expatriates.

This new law inevitably lured thousands of foreign workers to flock to the city. It was particularly the Indian and Pakistani traders in Dubai who made most of this outstanding business opportunity.

The Economic Boom with Oil

What Was Dubai Like Before - The Economic Boom Through Oil

By 1950s, the economy of the city was shocked heavily due to Japan’s mass production of artificial pearls. Fortunately, Dubai didn’t have to suffer this financial downturn for long. In 1966, it explored a new way to generate revenue and this was none other than fossil oil.

With the discovery of massive underground oil beds, Dubai soon realized that the primary source of its revenue was from these oil reserves. Late Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum decided to develop a world-class oil sector in Dubai.

Thanks to the unprecedented leadership and ambitious vision of late Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, UAE showcased an all-new face-off within next 50 years. This marks the evolution of the Dubai and creation of the United Arab Emirates in 1970s.

If you look at Dubai now, it is impossible to find that “small fishing village” nestled along the Persian Gulf that Dubai once was. Nowadays, Dubai is still working on its passion to expand and explore path-breaking innovations and technologies.

When Did Dubai Start to Develop?

When Did Dubai Start to Develop? | The Vacation Builder

The boom of New Dubai must be contributed to Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum. He was the ruler in the initial years of the 21st century, right when Dubai was emerging as a global city with remarkable growth in various sectors.

Another factor that played a crucial role in making Dubai a picture-perfect city is Dubai Government’s decision to diversify the revenue generation from oil reserves to real estate and tourism. Large scale construction projects had turned Dubai into one of the fastest-growing metropolises on the planet.

Dubai has also been heavily funded by the UAE Federation. It also enjoys huge subsidies in Abu Dhabi’s Federal Budget and its national security.

Why Did Dubai Evolve so Quickly?

If you ever get a chance to take a glimpse at the photographs taken in Dubai 30 years back, we can expect the degree of your shock. It is really unbelievable to see the stark difference between what Dubai was 50 years back and what it is now.

What was Dubai Like Before | The Vacation Builder

This one of the fastest growing cities in the world recorded a population boom of hopping 500% in recent decades. Now Dubai is the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates. The Discovery of oil beds certainly helped the city to become what it is today.

Being one of the major oil exporters to the world, Dubai earns massive revenue for sure. But it has also understood that oil can’t sustain the growth of this city (as well as the country) forever. This is the reason Dubai has invented alternative and sustainable ways of income through tourism and real estate.

Dubai has put its best foot forward to establish itself as one of the most preferred global business hubs in the world. More and more companies are showing interest in setting up their offices in Dubai due to tax breaks, non-restricted foreign ownership and custom duty benefits.

Dubai is the land of expatriates and what makes this place a wonderful platform to create an impressive financial portfolio is its tax exemption for expatriates. No wonder more than 88% of Dubai’s population are expats!

Thanks to the warm climate all through the year and fascinating tourist attractions, Dubai is a wonderful luxury holiday destination, particularly to European tourists. Tourism generates huge revenue for Dubai to grow rapidly.

Some Historical Facts About Dubai

  • Dubai, a small fishing village, was taken over by the Bani Yas tribe let by the Maktoum family in 1830. Surprisingly the Maktoum family still rules the emirate.
  • It was only 1833 when Dubai earned independence under the able leadership of Sheikh Maktoum Bin Butti from Abu Dhabi.
  • Before the discovery of fossil oil beds, Dubai’s economy relied upon fishing, pearl diving and trading. Pearls were so exclusive in the UAE that even brands like Cartier used them to design exclusive watches and jewellery.
  • Dubai’s economy experienced a sudden crash when Japan invented the technique of producing artificial pearls.
  • Tax exemption law of 1894 is one of the most important factors that helped Dubai to catch the attention of the world.
  • The Discovery of oil in 1966 from Dubai Fateh Oil Field changed the economic dynamics forever. Further, Dubai and Qatar created a new currency, the Riyal, to reach greater heights.
  • Dubai marked its journey as a luxury holiday destination with the world’s only seven-star hotel, the Burj Al Arab.
  • Dubai has a natural fascination for everything largest, longest and highest. So much so that the Guinness Book of World Records has set an office in Dubai to get first-hand information on new up-comings in the region.
  • Sheikh Mohammed launched the Dubai Internet of Things (IoT) in 2002 and announced to create a whole ‘New Dubai’.


As you can see from our article, what Dubai was like before, and what Dubai is like now are two hugely different things! However, if you’re looking for things to do in Dubai which will take you on a journey back in time then check out these attractions below:

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