UAE Then & Now

Only sparsely developed when it was founded in 1971, the United Arab Emirates is now world famous for modern architecture and impressive skyscrapers.

The rapid pace of development in the United Arab Emirates over the past few decades is sometimes difficult to comprehend. In the 1960s, not only did the UAE not exist yet as a country, there wasn't even a marked highway system to connect the small number of people who lived here. In fact, back then in the Trucial States as it was called by the British, they didn't need paved roads because few people had cars.

Matthew Maclean, NYU Abu Dhabi associate lecturer, studies what it was like in the UAE before there were freeways, record-breaking skyscrapers, and sprawling neighborhoods. Paved highways, in particular, were a pivotal milestone for the region, he said, because roads would drive unity in the Emirates both physically and politically.

Paved highway didn't exist until the late 1960s.

The first paved road built with the intent of people using it — other than city streets in Dubai itself — was between Dubai and Ras al-Khaimah. Construction started in 1966-67.

The UAE didn't pay for its first major highway. Saudi Arabia did.

This road between Dubai and Ras al-Khaimah was a political project to create greater unity among the Trucial States. The British had to show they supported development projects but it was Saudi Arabia that had the money and built the road.

People used to drive on the beach to get places.

The easiest way to drive from Dubai to Ras al-Khaimah was on the beach because that's where the sand was most firm. I've read and heard conflicting reports of whether people had to wait for the tide to go out in some places on that route. One place you definitely had to wait for the low tide was where Maqta Bridge stands now, connecting Abu Dhabi to the mainland.


Aerial view of a small settlement along the UAE coast in the 1960s. UAE National Archives

Neighborhoods weren't always this spread out.

Older neighborhoods — the likes of which can still be found in parts of Bur Dubai and Deira, the old city of Ras al-Khaimah, the abandoned town of al-Jazeera al-Hamra, and some parts of Dibba — were built to be walkable. Many but not all people worked not far from where they lived. Many families migrated seasonally, usually on foot, between different sources of livelihood.

And houses were a lot smaller.

In the 60s, homes were small and close to each other. A street or alley was called a sikka — probably the best-known example of this today is Sikkat al-Khail, near the Gold Souq in Dubai. These were narrow and helped maintain privacy.

Emiratis haven't always called themselves Emiratis.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the word "Emirati" became common but anecdotally, the terminology started to surface in the late 1980s or 1990s. The spread of the word Emirati is significant because it connotes a national cultural heritage and identity in a way that "citizen" does not (a common term used in the 1970s used to distinguish UAE Nationals from foreigners).

The currency wasn't always dirhams.

Until 1966, the UAE (known then as the Trucial States) used the Gulf Rupee, which was issued by the Government of India and the Reserve Bank of India. It was equivalent to the Indian Rupee. After that, the northern Emirates used the Qatar-Dubai Riyal, and Abu Dhabi used the Bahraini Dinar. The UAE dirham was issued in 1973.

Abu Dhabi Corniche in 1954. UAE National Archives

National Day was celebrated differently back then.

The first National Day in 1972 was celebrated with a military parade on the Abu Dhabi Corniche and included a speech by Sheikh Zayed, who said that the country’s goal was "a wider union." At the time, the idea that the UAE would be forever composed of seven emirates was not yet set in stone. The military parade was a fixture of National Day for several years in the 1970s, By the 1980s, buildings were lit in national colors, and at some point well after that, spontaneous car-centered parades started throughout the UAE. I think that shows how a national identity has moved from a state-centered construct to a genuinely popular identity celebrated by the Emirati people.

December 2 is not the only day UAE citizens have celebrated their nation.

For a long time, August 6 was a major holiday in Abu Dhabi emirate because it was the anniversary of Sheikh Zayed’s accession to power in 1966. November 3, the day Sheikh Khalifa became President in 2004, is now celebrated as Flag Day. And November 30 will be observed as Martyrs Day for the first time in 2015. It's an important date because it is the anniversary of the Iranian invasion and occupation of three islands in the Gulf belonging to Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah.