If all you see of Dubai is the airport, the shopping malls, the highways, the skyscraper hotels and the crazy and ambitious off-shore developments, it’s easy to convince yourself that the city is no older than the oil boom. If you knew nothing of the emirate’s history and someone told you it sprang out of the desert one afternoon in 1975 and has kept growing ever since, you might be inclined to believe them.
But of course it does have a long history. While it was never a major player until the discovery of oil in the 1960s, the settlement here observed a traditional way of life now largely lost in the race for progress and prosperity.
To get an idea of historic Dubai (and take a break from all that glass and steel), Dubai Museum is a must-see. Now 40 years old, the museum is housed in the oldest building in the city, the Al Fahidi Fort, near the shipping hub of Port Rashid. It’s an appropriate location: For much of its early history, Dubai’s income came not from under the sands but under the sea – fishing and pearling were the major economic activities.
A traditional dhow boat outside the fort, like the modern variations you see plying Dubai Creek, evokes those days. Traditional wind towers show how early residents beat the heat before air conditioning, while an interactive exhibit shows the astonishing rate of development in the city. Elsewhere, dioramas and other displays demonstrate how residents lived, worshipped, learnt, fought, traded and ate in the days before Dubai became the major Middle East center it is today.