Dubai: The Record-Breaking City Built on Sand

Rebecca Holland
5 min read
Rebecca Holland
June 2, 2023
5 min read
Table of Contents
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A mirage in the desert

Dubai skyline.

Though Dubai has been inhabited since around 2500 BC, the city didn’t exist as we know it today until the early 2000s. Thousands of years ago the UAE was all mangrove swamps and rolling desert, populated with nomadic tribes. Eventually, its proximity to Asia, the Middle East, and Africa made it a popular trade hub, but it wasn’t until the discovery of oil in the 1960s that things really began to pick up. 

Today, it’s a sprawling, modern city with a skyline that includes some of the most recognized buildings in the world, as well as the tallest: the Burj Khalifa. Most of this development happened within the last couple of decades, and it happened fast. 

People who lived in Dubai in the 90s say it was like watching something come from nothing; they even tell stories or getting lost on their way to work because things changed so quickly from one day to the next! 

Watch this timelapse to see how rapidly the city rose, literally from the desert, where it shimmers in the hazy heat like a mirage of epic proportions. 

Bigger, taller, longer, faster 

If you’re in Dubai and wondering if something is the biggest, tallest, or longest, it probably is. 

Dubai seems to love setting records. It’s home to the world’s tallest building, biggest mall by land area, biggest picture frame (which is also the world’s largest gold-plated picture frame), highest tennis court, fastest police car, longest driverless metro network, and tallest hotel. And it takes the title of world’s largest parking garage, indoor ski resort, sweets shop, and Ferris wheel (to be completed this year). 

And it doesn’t stop at attractions. In June, the UAE conducted three million coronavirus tests, ranking it first globally in COVID-19 screening per capita. It was also the first country to have a hotel certified with a Safeguard label, meant to reassure travelers.

Where the antelope play

Arabian Oryx in the UAE.

While many people associate the UAE with beautiful black dromedary camels and Peregrine falcon—two prized animals used for racing and show—the Arabian Oryx is actually the national animal. 

The UAE is home to the largest herd of Arabian Oryx in the world. This (one of the country’s most recent records) is thanks to a conservation program that brought the oryx from “endangered” to “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. 

The oryx is a white antelope with distinctive straight horns, and some people believe the mythical unicorn is based on an oryx that lost one horn. The oryx live in the desert, along with gazelles and Arabian foxes.  

Hot is an understatement

Dubai is hot year-round, but in the summer temperatures reach around 105° Fahrenheit most days. The UV index is typically 11–as high as it goes–and humidity hovers between 60-90%. That brings the “feels like” temperature to the 120°s almost every day, which is...hard to handle. 

Residents spend a lot of money on A/C and resign themselves to life inside for a few months. While a few brave souls venture out for early morning or late night exercise, for the most part people stay indoors in summer months. Winter is when Dubai residents dine al fresco, go to the beach, run along the marina—and tell their friends and family to visit. 

So. Much. Sand. 

desert near Dubai.

The Empty Quarter––spread across the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Oman––is the largest sand mass in the world at about 404,000 square miles. A drive out to the desert feels a world away from Dubai, with sloping red sand dunes as far as you can see. The vastness is both incredibly beautiful and a little eerie. 

To catch a small glimpse of this immense desert on screen, look for its appearance as a setting in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” as the site of Machine City in the “Matrix” series, and as a test-site for alien weapons in “Men in Black: International.”   

Let’s go to the mall 

The Dubai Mall is a massive, sometimes overwhelming building. At 12 million square feet it’s about the size of 208 football fields and has more than 1,200 stores, 200 dining options, and a 244-room hotel. And it’s just one of nearly 70 luxury malls across the city. 

Here, malls are more than shopping centers. They’re where you go to visit the aquarium or amusement park, have a nice dinner or meet friends for coffee, see a movie, ski, take an evening stroll with your family, visit the eye doctor or bank, and so much more. 

This is mainly because it’s too hot to be outside for half the year, and malls provide a climate-controlled respite where you can spend hours without having to drive between locations or bear the heat. Malls draw tourists for shopping, but residents come for social life. 

It’s a date

date smoothie.

Dates from the Gulf are famous worldwide for their soft texture and sweet flavor. Dates were one of the first plants grown here, mainly because they’re one of the few things that can thrive in the desert. Bedouins ate the fruit, which is high in fiber and potassium and can last for months once dried, and used the palm stalks to build shelters. Today, date palms still take up most of the UAE’s cultivated land; there are more than 44 million date palms growing 199 different types of dates. 

A few varieties stand out. Kholas, Barhi, Dabbas, Lulu, Fard, Khenaizi, and Sheesh are the most popular varieties in the UAE, but internationally, buyers prefer Ajwa and Medjool. Order online through Bateel, the UAE’s most well-known gourmet date supplier. They sell several varieties, including Kholas and Medjool, which both have delicate smooth skin and a velvety texture, and taste like a rich piece of caramel. 

Pro tip: on a hot day, put a few plump dates in the freezer for an hour or so before eating. The chilled fruit is a real treat. 

Eating around the world

Travelers looking for “authentic” Emirati food may find it a bit of a challenge. That’s because most of Dubai’s population is from India. Millions of Indian people migrated to Dubai starting in the 1960s, to work in oil and manufacturing. There are tons of hyper-regional Indian restaurants as well as great Nepalese, Pakistani, and other South Asian spots and fantastic Syrian and Lebanese food. When it comes to high-end dining, some of Dubai’s most famous restaurants are second locations of Michelin-starred British, American, and Italian chefs. 

While Middle Eastern food from the UAE may be harder to find, it’s worth seeking out. One of the most famous dishes is Machbous, a rice dish with meat such as lamb and sweet spices like cinnamon and cardamom. Try it yourself with this recipe.

From fishing village to gold emporium 

Al Fahidi, Dubai.

Dubai was originally established as a fishing village, and was a trade link between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. Back then, what is now Dubai was known for copper and pearls. 

This historic part of the city, called Al Fahidi, sits miles north of Dubai’s glitzy downtown. Here, you’ll find the Al Fahidi Fort, the city’s oldest building built in 1781, and restored gypsum and coral buildings that recreate old homes and the market, called the Al Seef Market. There’s also a small Spice Souk. 

Today, this part of the city is known for gold, which is very inexpensive because there are no import duties on raw materials and gold bars. And–surprise!–Dubai’s Gold Souk is the largest gold market in the world.

The traditional dress that tells a story  

kandura in Dubai.

It’s rare to see an Emirati man in western clothes in the UAE; most still wear traditional dress, which is a source of pride, especially in work or formal settings. Each country in the Gulf has a similar but slightly different style of dress, so you can tell where people are from by what they wear. 

Emirati men wear a kandura, a white ankle-length garment. The Emirati kandura is collarless, (which is how you can tell it apart from the Saudi Arabian version, called a thawb, for example). They also often wear a white ghutra headdress, a white square scarf folded to protect from the heat and kept in place with a black rope, or the shemagh, which is a red-and-white-checked version. 

Women, like many in the Islamic world, wear the abaya, a top-to-bottom black garment. Some feature beautiful silks and colorful embroidered designs; there are even abayas made by Chanel and Dior. Not all women wear the abaya though. Some wear the hijab, which covers the neck and hair, and some wear western clothing. 

The expectations for visitors are different, though it’s best to veer on the modest side, especially outside of touristy areas. 

Islamic laws apply 

Dubai is one of the safest cities in the world for tourists. Violent crime is basically nonexistent and people never worry about theft. 

On the other hand, it’s a very unwelcoming place for LGBTQ+ travelers (“homosexual acts” are against the law) and it’s easy to get in a lot of trouble if you don’t know the rules. There are horror stories of tourists arrested for offenses they often weren’t aware they were committing and the punishments can be extreme. 

For example, tourists need a liquor license to purchase alcohol at stores—and public intoxication is strictly illegal. It’s also against the law to post negatively about the government on social media. 

On the surface, you can get away with more in Dubai than in some other Middle Eastern countries, but this is still an Islamic country, and certain laws and customs should be respected to ensure a worry-free trip. 

Want more beachfront? Just build it 

Palm Islands, UAE.

There are three man-made Palm Islands in the UAE, but Palm Jumeirah in Dubai is the most famous and built up. From above (as in, from any skyscraper in Dubai), it looks like a palm tree inside a circle. It’s packed with luxury hotels and apartments, malls, and beach clubs, which are extremely popular with residents. 

Construction on the World Islands, 300 artificial islands in the shape of a world map, stopped in 2008 due to the global financial crisis. The exception is Lebanon, which has a small beach club. People like to say they’re “going to Lebanon” for the day when they visit. 

While the creation of the islands added more coastline, it’s not all positive; the construction of the islands had a significant negative environmental impact on marine wildlife and vegetation. 

The world’s most multicultural city? 

Dubai at night.

Major economic growth over the last few decades brought an influx of foreign workers, and now Emiratis actually only make up about 11% of the population. The rest are expats, mostly from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and other South Asian countries, followed by expats from other Middle Eastern countries. Then there are the Westerners–mostly British and European, with a tiny percentage of Americans. So, while the official language is Arabic, English is more widely spoken, along with Hindi, Urdu, Tagalog, and Bengali. 

Tourism is also big business, and visitors come from all over, especially the UK, China, Russia, and neighboring Gulf countries. The result: Dubai is truly an international city packed with multiple languages, customs, and cuisines.

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Last Updated 
August 7, 2023
Rebecca Holland
Freelance Writer

Rebecca is a freelance travel and food writer who has lived around the Middle East for the past decade, in Jordan, Iraq, and now Dubai. She wants everyone to visit this part of the world for the history, hospitality, and especially the food! She writes for AFAR, Food & Wine, The Guardian, and more, and is the founder of Curiosity Magazine.

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