Dubai overview

Dubai: from humble beginnings to modern marvel

Through Dubai's transition from a fishing village and trading port to a leader of innovation and architectural brilliance, this global giant is welcoming and wonderful in so many ways.

Melinda HealyJournalist and travel writer
13 October 2022

A modern Middle Eastern metropolis with Arabic flair - as indulgent as it is fascinating. An architectural dream with past and present attractions that are some of the planet’s tallest, biggest and most spectacular, Dubai is glamorous, heritage-focused, and full of fun. Packed with personality yet deeply connected to its cultural roots, this is an intriguing city with so many faces. Read on to find out just what makes Dubai tick.


Dubai is a city of skyscrapers, supercars, innovation and world-beating infrastructure. It is also passionate about its past and determined to share both sides of its story with everyone who ventures into the desert.

Tourists who travel to what is the richest of the seven emirates can expect to be wowed as well as educated, surprised and bemused, and at times this fascinating future-forward city can leave you wondering if in fact this is real life.


It’s hard to imagine this sprawling megalopolis as a once humble fishing village, but that is how it all began. Once a dried up, uninhabitable swamp, Dubai was first settled by wandering cattle farmers, who were the first to use the site for agriculture.

The history books suggest that a couple of millennia later, the area where Jumeirah is now, was a caravan site along the trading route from Oman to what is now Iraq.

It is suggested that the earliest mention of Dubai was in 1095 in a book by Abu Abdullah Al Bakri, an Andulasian-Arab geographer, while there was another notation by a Venetian pearl trader in 1580. During this time the area was reliant on fishing, pearl diving, boat building and food and accommodation for those on the trade route.

It made another leap forward in 1793 when the Sir Bani Yas tribe settled in Abu Dhabi, taking political power and Dubai as a dependency. In about 1800, Dubai was fortified, with the Al Fahidi Fort at its core. The areas of Bur Dubai and Al Ras were also walled until 1820, when Britain was able to negotiate a maritime truce and the trading routes were open once again. From then on, Dubai became what was known as ‘a center for crucial activity’.

In 1833, Dubai became independent of Abu Dhabi, and the Al Maktoum dynasty began, one that still has a presence to this day. It was at this time that the leader of the Bani Yas tribe, Maktoum Bin Butti relocated his people to the Shindagha Peninsula and a fishing village was born.

The discovery of oil kicked off the building boom and the once little old fishing village was transformed into what it is today.


More than 3 million people call Dubai home, around 80 per cent of them expatriates that span some 200 different nationalities. Many of the country’s labor workers are from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, while the skilled workers include plenty of Americans, Australians, Brits, and Canadians to name a few of the main ones.


While Arabic is the local language and spoken broadly by the Arab community, English is widely spoken across this region. Immigrants and labor workers from South Asian countries have ensured that Hindi, Gujarati, Urdu and Malayalam are also common in Dubai.


This is a Muslim nation so Islam is the main religion, but religious affiliations are generally not the focus here. Alongside the thousands of mosques across the emirate, there are also churches and Hindu temples too. It’s a peaceful nation where many different religions are accepted and respected.

Cultural considerations

As vibrant as this city is, there are some strict cultural rules that must be adhered to. Any sort of crime is heavily frowned upon by authorities and will be dealt with swiftly and accordingly – jail time is a possibility.

If you’re taking photographs, it’s always best to ask before you shoot.

Drinking alcohol is permitted in licensed premises – mostly hotels and resorts – but drunken behavior or consuming liquor in parks or any other locations across the city is illegal. Drinking and driving is against the law and, unlike other countries, it is also illegal to have any liquor in your system if there is an accident and you’re behind the wheel. Alcohol is only served to those over the age of 21.

Public displays of affection are frowned upon across Dubai as they are across the Emirates. Holding hands in and around mosques is looked down upon and, in fact, kissing/canoodling are really best undertaken behind closed doors.

Clothing is best kept conservative, more so during religious holidays and of course, the month of Ramadan. As a general rule, it’s always best to cover your shoulders and knees, refrain from showing cleavage and ditch the short dresses/skirts. It’s worth noting that women will be expected to cover their hair if visiting a mosque, and it will be expected that your shoes are removed before entering.

We know taking photographs is all part of the travel journey, but as a tourist in this city/nation, if you’re taking photographs, it’s always best to ask before you shoot, as some Emiratis are particular about having their picture taken. Most of the time you’ll be greeted with a smile and a positive answer, but it’s always courteous to ask when in any foreign country.


Dubai’s core economic driver is trade – the city operates two of the largest ports in the world and an international air cargo hub. The Jebel Ali free-trade zone was set up in the eighties as a way of attracting investment.

The local currency is the Dirham, which is pegged to the US dollar.

Other relevant information

Right across the city in various buildings, shopping malls, on public transport and even at some events there are separate men’s and women’s lines, waiting areas, carriages, taxis, etc. This is customary and shouldn’t cause any upset – it doesn’t take much getting used to but it’s just something to be aware of.

Before landing in Dubai, be sure to check what medications you are permitted to bring into the country. You may be asked to declare some, while others may be illegal here. A letter from your doctor may be required in order to be allowed to bring prescription medicines or pain killers into the country.

Social media and freedom of expression is something to be mindful of. This is not a country where you can freely slander the country or its people, and sharing photographs of car number plates or so-called road rage incidents is frowned upon too. Any act that brings the country or its locals into disrepute could get you in hot water.

About the author

Melinda HealyAlthough born in PNG, Mel is an Aussie-made journo who's always been more interested in passport stamps than possessions. A whiz with words, Mel spent a number of years living and working in the United Arab Emirates, it was here that she shared insight into Dubai and Abu Dhabi with the world. Mel believes travel is a privilege and an educator.