Mention Dubai to anyone these days and they immediately think of 7 star hotels, the world’s tallest building and palm tree-shaped manmade islands. However there are parts of the city which get much less attention.
Although few historical buildings remain, those that have been preserved are beautiful in their simplicity and functional for the climate. Built of coral stone, covered in gypsum, they are built as a series of rooms around a central courtyard, with a tree for shade and/or fruit. Alleyways were deliberately narrow so that they would always be in shade.
These are the homes of the wealthy traders and sheikhs, but the ordinary people lived in much more humble dwellings built of palm fronds (barasti). Although no originals remain, there are a few reconstructions like this one set in a small public garden. The tower, called a wind tower, is an early form of air conditioning. It acts like a reverse chimney, catching the cool sea breezes and directing them downwards into the house. Wet cloths were hung on the poles sticking out from the sides, to further cool the air. It really works!
In total contrast, the city that developed immediately after the UAE gained independence in 1971, has little architectural merit, but is bustling and full of life and colour. At times you may wonder if you are in India or Pakistan rather than the Middle East, but this is hardly surprising as almost half the city’s population is from the Indian subcontinent.
Dubai’s economy always was, and still is, built on trade thanks to its safe harbour and strategic location. The emirate has very little oil and although the recent boom in tourism and real estate attracted a lot of international investment, it is the enterprising spirit demonstrated by these small traders which sustains the city and is its true heart.
A history of interaction with other nations together with a tradition of hospitality towards strangers has resulted in Dubai’s present day liberalism and tolerance of other cultures.