There have been settlements where Dubai now stands for hundreds of years. As long ago as the fifth century AD, settlers from the Bedouin tribes chose to make Dubai their home. Over time the settlements grew into a small fishing village. However, a town did not develop here until the middle of the sixteenth century. Then it was the flourishing pearl industry which attracted people to the area and put Dubai on the map. It quickly became a popular stop on the trading route between east and west. In the nineteenth century, the ruling Al Maktoum family were able to capitalize on this. They recognized Dubai’s strategic position, wedged between Europe on one hand and Asia on the other, and introduced attractive policies and low taxes to encourage foreign traders and merchants to use Dubai as a trading post.
Despite becoming a trading center, Dubai did not develop a modern infrastructure. There was no running water and no real roads. It was not until the discovery of oil in 1966 that things began to change. This makes the city’s growth all the more remarkable. Today it has become a sprawling metropolis and the second largest of the seven Emirates. Somewhat surprisingly, Dubai is less reliant on oil revenue than many of the other Emirates. Its wealth still comes from commerce, industry, investment and tourism. Low taxes and attractive policies continue to draw foreign trade and investment to the city. Added to these are state-of-the-art telecommunications, the busiest airport in the region and favorable conditions for trade and investment. Although Abu Dhabi is the official capital city and enjoys the vast majority of the oil revenue, Dubai is the undisputed capital of commerce, trade, investment and tourism.
This long history of foreign trade has meant that this Emirate has a tolerance for foreigners which is perhaps less common in other parts of the region. For many years, it has been at a cultural crossroads and from its early days as an international town it has grown to become one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world with a rich diversity of cultures and nationalities. There are no real tensions between the different ethnic and cultural groups but neither has Dubai become a melting pot of cultures. The different expat communities tend to keep to themselves. Tolerance has led to acceptance of the customs of others but not the adoption of their traditions.
The fact that this is an Islamic country means that there are certain restrictions on what you can and cannot do. These are considerably less than in other Middle Eastern countries. Foreigners can drink alcohol, women can drive and within reason wear what they want. However, there are rules that it is important to be aware of. For example, swearing and public displays of affection can lead to imprisonment and deportation.
Despite a recent slowdown resulting from the international credit crunch, Dubai continues to grow. It seems that anything is possible with the only limits being those of the human imagination. Lush green championship golf courses, indoor ski slopes, the world’s tallest building, the worlds’ largest shopping mall, man-made islands off the coast, all of these are a reality and many more grandiose projects are being planned. It is often surprising to visitors that little thought seems to be given to the environmental impact of these projects as the city refuses to be limited by, and indeed goes out of its way to defy, its desert climate.
The constant sunshine in Dubai attracts tourists during the winter months when the average temperature is a very pleasant 25°C. However, in the summer the heat becomes unbearable, seldom falling between 40°C and often rising much higher. Many families leave during this hottest time of the year, which fortunately coincides with school holidays. For those remaining, life consists of quick dashes from one air-conditioned environment to the next. Fortunately the large number of air-conditioned malls and entertainment facilities makes this possible. Sitting in air-conditioned comfort, it is even possible to forget the heat. This is especially true when one looks out of the window as, despite the intense heat, an efficient irrigation system means that the parks, golf courses and gardens around the city manage to stay green.
Family is very important to Emiratis and the city itself is very child-friendly or, at the very least, child-tolerant. Children are welcome wherever they go, whatever their age and however many tantrums they throw. There are many activities to keep them busy and the international schools, although expensive, offer a very high standard of education. Finding things to keep children entertained is seldom an issue. In a city which is always on the go, the problem is finding time for them just to hang out and enjoy a lazy day at home.