Dubai waterway links new with old.

RONAN O’CONNELL looks at Dubai Creek’s role in the city

Taking care as they step down from a dock, a dozen people climb into a basic wooden boat one by one. Each of them hands a single Dirham (40¢) to the boat’s captain, an Indian man wearing slacks, a short sleeve shirt and thongs. Then they cruise across Dubai Creek in this abra, an Emirati style of boat that was once used for fishing and pearl hunting but is now employed mostly as a water taxi, the cheapest mode of transport in this expensive city.

This abra passes by several larger boats which are laden with fish and spices, destined to be unloaded at the small docks along Dubai Creek, which flows from the Arabian Gulf into the largest city of the United Arab Emirates. Those products then find their way to the cluster of traditional Emirati markets in Deira, perhaps the most old-fashioned neighbourhood of this cutting-edge city. In these open-air bazaars, known as souks, commerce unfolds just as it has done for many generations, with lively bartering over fresh food, herbs, spices, teas and gold.

This is a side of Dubai that few foreigners would recognise. It certainly was not the Dubai I had expected to encounter. Skyscrapers, hulking shopping malls and five-star hotels are icons of the UAE’s biggest city, which has become synonymous with modernity and excess. Most of what we see in ads for Dubai was only built in the past 30 years. Its skyline has sprung up that quickly, built on the back of an oil boom which began in the 1980s.

Before that Dubai was not a giant, global city but a quiet port settlement that relied heavily on the pearl and fishing industries. Back then, Dubai Creek was the lifeblood of the city. This natural inlet, which is 14km long and between 100m and 500m wide, has long acted as Dubai’s main port. The creek is believed to have been a key asset to the local economy since as least the 1500s, which is when the first recorded reference to it has been found. A merchant from Venice named Gaspero Balbu noted that Dubai Creek had a small pearl industry.

This is an edited version of the original, full-length story, which you can read here.

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