For millennia, the Dubai Creek has flowed silently through time. Yet for all that stillness, its warm, shallow waters have played a key role in the changing fortunes of the city that began to develop around it more than two centuries ago.

As the population began to grow, it was the quiet shimmering waters that run along the smooth curves of its sandy banks that helped forge the region’s links with the outside world. It drew in traders from as far away as East Africa, the Far East and India. Then, as gold, textiles, spices, wood, and many more exotic produces made their way inland, so did the city begin to prosper and flourish, entrenching Dubai’s status as the indisputable commercial hub of the region.

[In Dubai, where civilisations, faiths, cultures intersect]

Ships laden with goods made their way to the salt-water inlet and with abras and boats gliding along its historic waterways, the Creek, which bifurcates the city into Deira and Bur Dubai, soon transformed into a hub of bustling activity.

As trade developed, and goods were exported, imported or re-exported, its growing links with new ports, cities and countries carried the name and fame of Dubai to even more distant shores.

‘These international connections and the ensuing business network that developed, paved the way for the emergence of a world trade system that has been integral to the meteoric rise of Dubai, and the tranquil waters of the Creek have played a dominant role in this dramatic development and the consequent ascent of Dubai as a global economic power,’ asserts Rashed Alyoha Al Muhairi, chief cultural guide, Al Shindagha Museum, as we stand in one of the traditional coral homes overlooking the picturesque waterbody that is even today shaping the soul of Dubai.

A symbolic art installation depicting the dynamic representation of Dubai Creek’s trade and networks
Stefan Lindeque

Located at the Al Shindagha historic district, these houses that are now beautifully restored into Al Shindagha Museum’s ‘Dubai Creek: Birth of a City’ pavilion offers an inimitable glimpse into Dubai’s vibrant past through its immersive multimedia experience, and serves as the starting point for an eloquent narrative that showcases the history of the emirate.

So, how exactly did a small cluster of settlements around the Creek, engaged in simple maritime traditions and with barely a population of 1,000 a century ago, explode in growth to become a modern metropolis? ‘The answer to that lies in the interactions and connections that the community developed over the course of the years,’ says Al Muhairi, as he leads us to a symbolic art installation depicting the dynamic representation of Dubai Creek’s trade, exchanges and networks.

When two or more people place their hands on the glass case, it springs to life with lights illuminating criss-cross lines that show how the intricate web of connections expand and multiply with every movement of a product or service that enters Dubai and eventually finds its way into the global marketplace.

A series of trade maps at the museum, spanning 5,000 years, traces the history of the Dubai Creek’s cultural and commercial development, giving a clear insight into how it became the foundation of success in Dubai’s enviable trajectory of growth. We thus learn that as early as the 3rd millennium BCE, pottery, spices and jewellery had been imported from the Indus Valley civilisation and in later years, trading activities continued with Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilisations, Iran and the Levant region.

‘Portuguese presence during the 16th century CE reinforced commercial relations between the region and European nations,’ says Al Muhairi.

From Saruq Al Hadid Archaeological site in Dubai, an Iron Age settlement, and shows the existence of a flowuishing civilisation in Dubai several millennia ago
Stefan Lindeque

With the setting in of the golden age of the pearling trade from mid 1750s to the early 20th century, Dubai further cemented its trade ties with countries across the globe. ‘Germany was the most important market for Dubai pearls while Russian sovereigns, royals in France, Indian princes and the Ottoman court too kept up the demand for Gulf pearls,’ he adds. ‘By the end of the 19th century, the trade of pearls reached New York, which soon became the world’s second-biggest market for these precious gems.’

It was in 1833 that the head of the Al Maktoum family, the current ruling family of Dubai, led his people to the Shindagha peninsula at the mouth of Dubai Creek to settle there, and soon, this narrow strip of land separating the sea from the creek became the main residential district.

‘Fishing and pearling were the mainstay of the economy in the years that followed,’ explains Al Muhairy, ‘but in 1902 when Shaikh Maktoum Bin Hasher – the then Ruler of Dubai – abolished all custom duties on imports, it led to the creation of what we today call a ‘free trade zone’. Around this time, as taxes in Iranian ports steadily increased, countries diverted their cargoes through the Dubai Creek, and this tiny hamlet quickly grew into the Gulf’s hub for re-export to neighbouring ports and inland markets. Merchants too began to relocate here, firmly establishing Dubai’s position as a leading trading hub.’

German company Wockhaus opened an office in Dubai in 1909, while the growing need to communicate with its trading partners saw Dubai set up its first post office in 1910, he adds.

Although the Great Depression and collapse of the pearling industry following the invention of cultured pearls in Japan dramatically affected the Gulf region in the early part of the 20th century, Dubai found ways to increase its economic power thanks to its progressive trade policies that allowed it to diversify into new trades and ventures, he says.

Through a series of motion design animations, archival maps and aerial photography, we witness how human life first appeared in the Gulf region around 123,000 BCE, and how the geographical transformation of the Arabian Peninsula, including the evolving landscape of the Creek, affected progress over time.

Objects from the pre-oil era in Dubai
Stefan Lindeque

The archaeological evidence on display here, dating to thousands of years ago, attests to proof of settlement in the region and are evidence of international connections acquired through trade. Making use of natural resources such as pearls, mother of pearl, coral and fish, inhabitants of the time took advantage of the Creek’s potential to make a living. There’s arrowheads of different shapes and sharpness dating to the Neolithic period, circa 5th millennium BCE, and a human-shaped figurine featuring impressive metal work from second millennium BCE. There is a spouted bowl, an anklet, and a necklace made of various stones such as agate, soapstone and carnelian beads dating to the first millennium BCE or the Iron Age. The artefacts reveal how the inhabitants adapted to the challenging, ever-changing climate and utilised the natural resources available to them.

To better understand the impact the Al Maktoum family have had on the development of the region, and how the area surrounding the Creek successfully expanded over the years, Al Muhairi leads us to a room where light filters in on a vibrant miniature model of the Creek. Surrounding it are 12 viewers offering animated glimpses into the past, featuring stories of how prominent landmarks came into being.

‘Twelve landmarks and milestones have been identified as the main developments that have moulded the Creek into what it is today,’ explains Al Muhairi. ‘If it was Dubai’s geographical location that initially led to establishing global connections through trade, it was the bold and ambitious visions of Dubai’s leadership and the pathbreaking infrastructure projects they implemented that have contributed to Dubai’s continuing reign as a hub that connects the world.’

One of the stories that emerges is that of the dredging of the Creek, considered then to be a “risk” but which eventually positioned Dubai for future success. ‘In the 1950s, the Creek had silted rapidly, limiting the number of large vessels that could enter it. Shaikh Rashid, who observed that smaller boats were being used to unload cargo in the higher seas and goods brought into the Creek, conceived the idea of widening and deepening the waterway so that bigger vessels could safely dock at the harbour, increasing efficiency of operations.’ 

The scale of dredging, which commenced in 1959, was a marvellous feat of engineering and came at a staggering cost, financed largely by Kuwait, he explains. ‘But its significance cannot be emphasised enough. This was Dubai’s first mega-development project and resulted in soaring trade as ships of up to 500 tonnes were now able to anchor there. It laid the path for the emirate’s soaring ascent and was so successful that it took only a year to repay the loans.’

An interactive display for children to learn how different types of boats and dhows once sailed across the Creek
Stefan Lindeque

Yet another developmental milestone was the construction of the Al Maktoum Bridge, made of reinforced concrete and completed in 1962. ‘This marked the first time that Deira was connected to Bur Dubai, and people now no longer had to wade through the Creek or take an abra to cross.’

By 1972, Mina Rashid, Dubai’s new port, partially made using local materials, helped facilitate trade and had a major impact on traffic and storage in the Creek. ‘The company commissioned to construct it recommended only four berths but Shaikh Rashid rightly predicted that this wouldn’t suffice, and when the port opened in 1972 with 16 berths, its capacity was still insufficient for Dubai’s booming trade,’ says Al Muhairi. ‘Within 10 years of its construction, it was expanded further and became the largest port in the Gulf region.’

Meanwhile, thanks to an investment made by a group of the city’s merchants, electricity began to power Dubai in 1959 and improved quality of life immensely. In 1963, the National Bank of Dubai – the first national bank of the UAE – opened its doors, providing the citizens with a trustworthy place to invest, thus enabling them to be more involved in trade.

Among the landmarks featured here are also the souqs, a characteristic element that nurtured life along the Creek. Identified by the types of goods sold, the most notable souqs on the Deira side, established in 1850, were those specialising in dates, fish, meat and herbs. On the Bur Dubai side, souqs trading in textiles, pearls, gold, and fish existed from around 1830.

‘The leadership in Dubai built projects not to meet the immediate needs of the day; they planned for the future so that generations of citizens could lead better lives,’ asserts Al Muhairi. ‘This unwavering and clear vision of the future development of Dubai had its roots in the majlis (a place of gathering), where a traditional form of consultation (shura) and decision-making process was held through which the rulers welcomed advice from residents, experts and merchants.’

The majlis provided a vibrant stage for debates and discussions, he adds. ‘It was here, in the company of those whose opinions he valued that Shaikh Rashid dissected and moulded projects that have led to Dubai’s urbanisation and are today hailed as a symbol of excellence.’

Several rooms at the museum are devoted to showcasing how the vision of its leaders and contributions of merchants transformed life around the Creek. ‘The merchants contributed enormously in development projects and have been an integral part of the Creek’s vivid tapestry,’ explains Al Muhairi. ‘They gave back to the community by building schools and mosques, financing major city projects and participating in the city’s governance.”

Al Shindagha Museum features various installations depicting Dubai Creek’s trade, exchanges and networks
Stefan Lindeque

Photographs here show the phases of early construction around the Creek, the building of the first hospital in 1951, a 1965 document announcing the opening of Dubai International Airport, an assorted collection of stamps from Dubai and the Trucial States, tools of the pearling trade, a large water container once used for carrying water and generally transported by animals, medicinal horns that were traditionally used in an ancient healing practice, and a typical 1960s radio, among others.

Al Muhairi then leads us on to what he calls the “soul of the museum” for it is here that we get an intimate peek into the lives, traditions and professions in the Shindagha area. We listen to Ali Mohammed Ali Almemeri, a former fisherman, recount the “simple life” of yore, at a time when most jobs were at sea. ‘We would head out after prayers at dawn and come back by 9am or 10am. It was a simple life; no one was greedy; and we didn’t have errands to run like going to the bank or issuing visas! We ate whatever we fished – we only cared about the food we would have that day; we didn’t worry about the following day until that day was come.’

A former policeman describes how the police force was established in 1956 and led by the British. ‘Cases were few and very basic as most people resolved issues with the eldest member of the family or tribe.’ The early uniform was a coloured kandoura but the presence of a belt made it easy for people to identify them. Women were also part of the police force, he adds.

A craftswoman describes how women would gather in the mornings to commence work, some for embroidery, others sewing clothes for men or women.

Hashim Al Haj Nasser Abdullah Hussain, a shop owner, describes how in the past, “trading was built on trust.” His father’s store opened 90 years ago, and sold a variety of goods including rice, flour, and coffee.

Early inhabitants took advantage of the Creek’s natural resources to make a living
Stefan Lindeque

‘Trust was the essence of the souqs,’ he says. ‘Any person could walk into a shop and take the goods they wanted even if they didn’t have money. Later, they would come back and pay.

‘I always asked my father how he could trust someone he didn’t know with a loan. He would say: the loan is not a weight on me; it is on the person who has taken it.’