Once Upon a Time in Dubai

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Today, Dubai is known as a gleaming, glittering cosmopolitan oasis, crowned by the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. But it was not long ago that the city was as familiar with camels and dhows as it is now with Ferraris and indoor ski slopes. The regional oil boom changed everything: As the Gulf states found themselves flush with trillions in petrodollars, the tiny emirate positioned itself as a financial entrepot and regional hub for construction and tourism. While the global recession hit it hard, leading many to speculate about a "Dubai bubble," the emirate has rebounded nicely -- its economy is projected to grow by more than 4 percent this year after reinventing itself as a financial safe haven amid the Arab Spring, earning a spot on what the International Herald Tribune calls the New Silk Road.

The following pictures, taken in the late 1960s and early 1970s, show a society just on the cusp of the ambitious development that would soon be its hallmark. Above, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and the consitutional monarch of Dubai, leads a camel riding party in his youth.


Above, the Clocktower roundabout in the neighborhood of Deira stands surrounded by sandy, undeveloped lots. Today, the clocktower is ringed by towering hotels -- but, for a time after it was built in 1964, the area was considered remote from the city center. 


Searching for an "oasis in Dubai" today brings up a laundry list of glamorous hotels and luxury apartments. But until 1961, the term had a more literal meaning in the city-state. There was no running fresh water in Dubai before that year, meaning that supplies had to be transported in barrels or containers like the one above, often on rudimentary carts. 

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Dhows at rest in Dubai Creek. The saltwater creek, which divides the city into its two traditional sections, Deira and Bur Dubai, was once the center of the Dubai pearl trade that formed the basis of the city's economy before the oil boom. Boats making the global pearl trade circuit would stop in the small harbor, where most of the pearls were harvested. While the pearl trade dropped off dramatically after the invention of the cultured pearl in the 1930s, the harbor helped cement Dubai's position as a regional commercial hub.


A Bedouin man poses with his falcon. Falcons have been used as a hunting tool for centuries among the Bedouin communities in the Gulf. Falcons "played an important role in helping families to survive in the desert," Margit Mueller, the director of the Falcon Hospital in Abu Dhabi, said. "For that reason, they were integrated into the family. They were not merely a tool, they became regarded as a family member, even as a child."


A group of Bedouin play music outside of a house in Dubai.

Bur Dubai -- the historical heart of the city, which translates as "mainland Dubai" -- is shown in the early stages of its development boom. It was evidently a very early stage: Paved parking lots were still only an idea on the drawing board. Today, what's left of the old city contains several renovated traditional homes, boutique hotels, and cafes.


An open market in downtown Dubai. It's a long way from the glitzy malls that now make the city a hub for global luxury shoppers.


Men recite prayers for the Muslim festival of Eid in Dubai. 


Small fishing boats bob on Dubai Creek. Today, the creek is used by Iranian smugglers and tourist cruise boats.


The male section of a wedding party celebrates the nuptials.  


The women of the wedding party, seen wearing traditional veils.


Livestock are transported by dhow from Deira to Bur Dubai.


A camel caravan ambles through Dubai. 


An open market in Deira.


A man selling dried herbs and lemon pauses to smoke a pipe.


Men gather in al-Naif souq, one of the oldest traditional markets in Dubai. It was partially damaged by a fire in 2008 -- but the fabulously wealthy emirate decided that this was one of the cultural landmarks that it wanted to keep around. The souq was rebuilt in 2010. 

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