Dubai (background of 19th century and 2000s) / Dubai, a city driven by trade and economy

Dubai has changed its role from a fishing, pearling and trade country to an oil petroleum industry and international enter pot trade country from the early 20th century to 1960s and 1970s with several important events such as the discovery of Fateh Oil Field in 1966 and the establishment of the United Arab Emirates in 1971.[1] Its urban fabric also started to be constructed and expanded along the sea shore and the bank of the Creek during its transformation from agricultural society to industrial society as is illustrated in the diagram below.

Urban Development of Dubai from 1930-2015 (estimate) /Yasser Elsheshtawy's mapping from Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle p.112 5.7(a)
Urban Development of Dubai from 1930-2015 (estimate) /Yasser Elsheshtawy’s mapping from Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle p.112 5.7(a)

Yasser Elsheshtawy’s mapping of Urban Development of Dubai from 1930-2015 (estimate) shows that the early urban development of Dubai happened from the node of the Creek and Gulf, where the water transportation was highly stressed on in the aspect of trade, mercantile and migration.[2]

During this stage, it started to be clear that with endless desert in Dubai’s territory, the natural conditions would not be the dominant restrictions of the urban development even at the early stage. Instead, the sprawl of urban fabric would be driven by the economic factors under the control of a strong government.

The situation became more evident after the oil running into depletion and the power of capitalism started to spread globally through globalization, when Dubai started to seek for a further transformation from its reliance on natural resources to the third industry, such as service, tourist and real estate.[3] Some changes therefore were made to the policies such as ‘One country two systems’ and ‘Freehold property available to foreigners’ in 2006 in order to ‘break the legal stumbling block for the ownership of the foreign expatriates which limited the investment.’[4] After that, one important kind of urban space in Dubai was highly developed under the direct influence of globalization and the local capital power through the strong, high-efficient government, the free zones.[5]

In fact, free zones in UAE has been set up since the late 20th century, even before the policy of One country two systems which speed up their development.[6] Up till now Dubai have already owned more than 20 free zones distributed within the original urban fabric, joint by the high way transportation.[7] Many of these free zones were constructed on the desert without much interruption to the existing urban context, but in return influenced much to the urban and infrastructure development of Dubai. With the completion of each projects, the free zones turned out to be the luxury urban space with all kinds of skyscrapers and recreation.[8] The city, therefore achieved further expansion through the driving force of global capital power and the desire of Dubai government to seize the opportunity of globalization and become an international center in Middle East, and infrastructure then try to catch up with the pace of urban development pushed by capital power even further, thus the city has undergone a rapid development especially in the 21st century.[9]

After reviewing Dubai’s urban growth and transformation in last century and the beginning of 21st century, one conclusion can be addressed that Dubai’s urban development was always bond with the global economic power. How globalization push the city in the context of its freehold strategy in the beginning of 21st century is what we are going to study in the following entries of the blog.



[1], Yasser Elsheshtawy, Dubai: Behind an urban spectacle (routledge, 2009), 60-70.

[2] Elsheshtawy, Dubai: Behind an urban spectacle, 60-70.

[3] Elsheshtawy, Dubai: Behind an urban spectacle, 100-130.

[4] Elsheshtawy, Dubai: Behind an urban spectacle, 125.

[5] Elsheshtawy, Dubai: Behind an urban spectacle, 125.

[6] ‘Emirates in the UAE,’ Uaefreezones, accessed December 9, 2016,

[7] ‘Emirates in the UAE.’

[8] Elsheshtawy, Dubai: Behind an urban spectacle, 125.

[9] Michael Pacione, “Dubai,” Cities 22, no. 3 (2005): 255-265.




Elsheshtawy, Yasser. Dubai: Behind an urban spectacle. routledge, 2009.

Pacione, Michael. ‘City Profile: Dubai.’ Cities, Vol. 22, No. 3 (2005): 255–265.

Uaefreezones. ‘Emirates in the UAE.’ accessed December 9, 2016.

2 Comments on “Dubai (background of 19th century and 2000s) / Dubai, a city driven by trade and economy

  1. The investigation into different types of business districts is quite fascinating. Is there any reason behind the choice of case studies (Business Bay vs DIFC vs DSO)? Are they representative of various periods/stages of development from 2002 to 2012? Or are they concurrent developmental models stemming from different goals/objectives/policies set out by the government? It would be helpful to clarify this through the introduction or in an upcoming post.

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