The Dubai Creek
The neighbourhood where 200 years ago Dubai was born is redefined in the context of a globalized world while remaining true to its trade roots.
The cries of gulls punctuate the sound of waves breaking against the worn bows of passing wooden dhows. Billowing plumes of frankincense waft into the early evening from the nearby spice market, mixing with the fruit-scented smoke coming from the shishas of the waterfront cafés. Ticket sellers balancing on bobbing abras loudly announce the water taxi departures in a variety of languages, their exclamations momentarily bursting through the ceaseless chatter of the harbor crowds. The sights and sounds on the shores of the Dubai Creek have not changed much in over a century. Historically a bustling commercial hub around which the urban metropolis of Dubai sprang into existence, today the Dubai Creek is both a quaint trade center and the historic and cultural heart of the city.
In the mid 19th century, members of the Abu Dhabi–based Bani Yas tribe settled on the shores of the creek in an area known today as Bur Dubai, establishing the ruling Al Maktoum in the emirate. A 14-km-long natural inlet from the Arabian Gulf, the creek provided access to fishing and pearl-diving vessels and accommodated commercial ships from as far away as India and East Africa. The predictability of the annual monsoon winds across the Arabian Sea allowed for easy dhow passage from the gulf to the southwest Malabar Coast, connecting the two regions commercially long before the invention of the steamship. Along the shores of the creek, the diversity that the trade opportunities facilitated could be seen in the dhow building and repair operations, the pearl-trading outposts, the fishing markets, and the variety and increasing amount of shops. The creek is where the contemporary culture that defines Dubai today can be found, one in which trade, independent from oil, and diversity coexist in a symbiotic relationship.
In 1954, Dubai’s ruler, H.E. Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, a champion of modernization and development, ordered an economic and strategic study of the area. A 30-year period followed, marked by a multitude of infrastructure projects that expanded the commercial facilities of the creek. Dredging projects rendered the waterway deeper, wider, and able to accommodate larger vessels. But as the size of freighters increased, the physical capacities of the inlet eventually reached their limit. In 1972, Port Rashid opened, and 1985 saw the opening of the immense Jebel Ali Port, transforming the role of the Dubai Creek forever.
Today the waterway continues to serve as a commercial port, albeit not in the lead role it once played. Tires, microwaves, electronics, and colorful polyester blankets purchased wholesale from the many trading companies that operate in Deira and Bur Dubai are stacked in towers on the decks of dhows, unchanged in design and aesthetic for centuries. These ships operate along a slowly shrinking circuit of regional ports too small to accommodate freighters but just big enough to support the needs of emerging market communities not yet completely synched with the distribution matrix of a globalized world. In cities such as New York or Sydney, the old harbors have made the transformation from historic bustling commercial hubs to defunct cultural relics maintained primarily as tourist attractions. The Dubai Creek is the historic house of the city’s soul, where a series of new heritage and museum projects currently in development will strengthen its historic importance in the future, but the neighborhood remains firmly tethered to a commercial trade identity on account of its geographic location.