The Remarkable Rise of Dubai From Desert to Burj Khalifa

Dubai’s transformation from a quiet port town to a global metropolis seems almost unbelievable. In just 50 years, it has emerged from the sands of the Arabian desert to become one of the most futuristic and cosmopolitan cities on Earth.

The Spark of Change

Up until the mid-20th century, Dubai was an unremarkable settlement centered around pearl diving and fishing. But the invention of cultivated pearls devastated the local economy. Then, in the late 1960s, vast oil deposits were discovered offshore. This provided the catalyst and resources for Dubai to pursue rapid modern development.


As the oil started to flow, the visionary leadership set about creating a new type of Middle Eastern society focused heavily on trade, tourism, and providing an ultra-luxurious lifestyle. Declining to rest on the laurels of oil wealth alone, they diversified the economy into new directions that transformed the region.

Location and Layout

Geographically, Dubai occupies a prime position on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula along the Persian Gulf. It shares borders with Abu Dhabi in the south, the Northern Emirates in the north, and the Sultanate of Oman in the southeast.


The main part of central Dubai extends about 15 miles along the coast, although outliers like the Palm Jumeirah now stretch the urban area much further. Various ring roads circle out from the historic center near Dubai Creek towards newer developments. Coastal highways run along the Persian Gulf beaches, while in-between lies a tangled complex of streets and neighborhoods.

Burj Khalifa and Downtown Dubai anchor the center of the city. This thousand-foot-tall tower is surrounded by a forest of skyscrapers and the massive Dubai Mall. Further south sits the financial and historic districts along Dubai Creek, while to the north liemile after mile of oceanfront luxury homes and hotels.


In the surrounding desert, a string of oasis resorts cluster around the main highways leading out towards Abu Dhabi or into the desert interior. Hundreds of artificially created green spaces and water features dot the urban landscape as unlikely escapes from the arid environment.

Key Statistics and Demographics

Today, Dubai has exploded to become the most populous city in the UAE, with 3.3 million residents as of 2020. However, only about 10-15% are Emirati citizens. The remainder are expatriates and foreign workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and western countries, all seeking opportunity in the booming local economy.


This melting pot of cultures and ethnicities lends Dubai a diverse, energetic atmosphere. Over 200 nationalities coexist within the city. English serves as the lingua franca, although Arabic is the official language.

The population skews heavily male, with over 65% men. Roughly 73% of residents are aged 20-40. Indicative of the transient expatriate population, only around 30% were born in the UAE.


Dubai has achieved stellar economic growth in recent decades. GDP per capita sits at $30,000 annually, with 5% average growth since 2010. Major industries include trade, finance, tourism, aviation, real estate, and services. Government measures actively encourage foreign investment and business activity with investor-friendly regulations, although major enterprises must still include Emirati partners.

Signature Tourism Destinations

A huge part of Dubai’s appeal stems from concerted efforts to create a city with the biggest and best of everything. Many architectural developments seem to spring from fantasy rather than practical need, but they succeed in captivating worldwide attention.

The Burj Khalifa exemplifies this to the maximum. At 2,722 feet, it holds the titles for world’s tallest building, tallest freestanding structure, building with the most floors, and elevator with the longest travel distance. The 360-degree views from the observation decks draw millions of visitors per year.

Just as iconic is the Burj Al Arab Hotel. Designed to resemble a ship’s sail, it shimmers out in the ocean on its own artificial island. The lavish interior and suite amenities support its self-proclaimed (yet unofficial) 7-star rating. A night’s stay starts around $2,500 but can reach $50,000 for the two-story Royal Suite.


On a more fantastical level, Ski Dubai allows snow sports enthusiasts to hit the slopes right in the desert. The indoor mountain contains five ski runs covered with real snow where visitors can ski, snowboard, sled, and play with penguins. The contrast provided by the glass walls that open directly to hot sand dunes makes it an only-in-Dubai experience.

For architecture buffs, the innovative Museum of the Future that curves dramatically beside Sheikh Zayed Road is still under construction but promises to be another iconic attraction upon its opening during Expo 2020. The striking blue glass facade resembles a gigantic eye emerging from the ground.

Shopping and Lifestyle

Even more than elaborate buildings, Dubai obsesses over providing endless high-end shopping opportunities targeted towards free-spending tourists. Enormous luxury malls like the Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates house every designer boutique imaginable alongside indoor amusement parks and entertainment centers to keep visitors lingering for hours.


In fact, Dubaἱ contains over 65 megamalls in total, each trying to outdo the rest by providing unique attractions like an indoor ski hill or towering waterfall park as diversions between stores. Even many metro stations and neighborhood hubs integrate shopping into their designs. combined with large Western-style supermarkets catering to expatriates, finding products from any country poses no difficulty.

Excellent dining options run the gamut from street food to award-winning restaurants headed by celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Nobu Matsuhisa with menus spanning all world cuisines. Nightlife focuses around the five-star hotels which host vibrant bars and nightclubs popular with visitors and resident Western expats alike.

For recreational activities, beautiful public beaches allow sunbathing and water sports along the coast. Large urban parks offer green spaces to escape the bustle of the city. Yoga studios and ladies-only fitness centers cater to the health-conscious.

The flip side lies in the plight of the huge population of migrant construction workers who support these lavish lifestyles enjoyed by locals and elites. Their salaries average under $750 per month, making enjoying any of these luxuries impossible. Instead, laborers crowd into shared accommodation blocks far from the glitzy downtown.

Future Aspirations

Dubaἱ currently pin high hopes on the upcoming World Expo in October 2020 to boost the economy and tourism. They have already spent $7 billion to build extensive facilities across a 438-hectare site flanking the southern border of the city. Anticipated to attract over 20 million visits, the Dubai Exhibition Center will host technological and cultural exhibits from almost every country worldwide. The event will also promote Dubai’s capabilities in transportation, sustainability, opportunity, and innovation on a global stage.

Ambitions do not end there either. Ongoing megaprojects plan to augment Dubai’s collection of superlatives even further in coming years. These include the world’s largest solar park providing 75% of Dubai’s energy, a new tower exceeding the Burj Khalifa’s height, the Dubailand complex surpassing Disney World in size, and completion of the extensive canal infrastructure lining the Dubai Water Canal.

A Vision Achieved…So Far

Dubaἱ has already exceeded nearly all expectations and development goals set since the inaugural ruler, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, first began channeling oil profits into plans laid out in 1959. His successors carried forward his vision, continually pumping profits into ever-grander projects.

Only time will tell whether they can sustain momentum and overcome hurdles like bursting real estate bubbles, expiring oil fields, and environmental considerations. However, given Dubai’s 50-year track record for defying expectations thus far, both residents and world observers feel confident that sufficiently imaginative solutions will support further innovation and expansion for decades to come.


Where is Dubai located?

Dubai occupies a strategic location at the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula along the Persian Gulf coast of the UAE.

What is the population of Dubai?

Current estimates place Dubai’s population around 3.3 million as of 2020.

What is the tallest building in Dubai?

At 2,722 feet (828 meters), the Burj Khalifa stands as Dubai’s tallest building and the tallest freestanding structure in the world.

What industries drive Dubai’s economy?

Key sectors include tourism, aviation, real estate, financial services, and trade. Recent expansions into technology and green energy account for growing segments as well.

What major event happens in Dubai in 2020?

Expo 2020 Dubai takes place from October 2020 through April 2021, providing a showcase of culture, technology, creativity, art, architecture, and more from almost every country worldwide.

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