From the city’s first set of traffic lights to the days before Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa… 

Since its formation in 1971 – yes, the UAE is only 53 years old – the country has transformed from a desert oasis and fishing village to a sprawling metropolitan hub.

Of course, none of this would have been made possible if it wasn’t for the strong and inspiring vision of the UAE’s leaders. As HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai once said, “Impossible is a word used by some people who fear to dream big.”

We reflect on the city’s dramatic transformation with 15 incredible throwback photos…

Dubai Airport (1965)


Dubai’s first airport opened in Al Ghusais in 1959. Before that, Dubai didn’t have an airport and travellers would have to fly into Bahrain and then take a local flight to Sharjah Airport. Dubai Airport’s original runway was made of sand which was upgraded in 1963 as powerful aircraft would frequently ‘blow away’ the runway.

Courtyard Al Quoz (1997)

Image: Courtyard

Almost unrecognisable, but back in 1997, this was the view of The Courtyard in Al Quoz from Sheikh Zayed Road. For the past 25 years, it has been a bustling hub of art and culture in the city.

Jumeirah Beach Road (1968)


Jumeirah’s open-air cinema was built in the 1960s and showed a mix of Western and Indian films, with a cafe and supermarket. It was demolished in the 1970s to make way for shopping malls.

Burj al Arab (1994-1999)


When construction began in 1994, the Burj al Arab was actually named the Chicago Beach Hotel. The world’s first ‘seven-star’ hotel rose out of the sea in 1999 when Sheikh Mohammed named the icon the Burj al Arab. When it first opened, the resort hotel offered special weekend rates of just Dhs293 per night, now a one-night stay would set you back Dhs5,155.

Dubai’s first traffic lights (1971)


Located on Al Fahidi Street, Dubai’s first set of traffic lights were installed in 1971. The lights would be turned off between the hours of 12am and 6am.

Toyota building, Sheikh Zayed Road

Images: NRL Group and Getty

Dubai’s iconic Nasser Rashid Lootah Building (also known as the Toyota Building) has witnessed some dramatic changes over the years but has managed to stand the test of time. Built in 1974, the 15-storey tower was one of only three buildings on Sheikh Zayed Road, then known as Defence Roundabout. It is considered one of the city’s first residential towers.

Deira Clock Tower

Images: Ⓒ Glen Novinger (left) and Dubai Municipality and Dubai Media Office (right)

The Deira Clocktower was built in 1963 and was the first land passage between Deira and Bur Dubai. The iconic landmark was recently renovated with a new modern design that preserves its historical significance and heritage.

Dubai World Trade Centre


A distinct symbol of Dubai, the World Trade Centre tower, at 39 floors high plus the height of the radio mast, was once the tallest building in the UAE. The building was formally opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1979.

Jumeirah Mosque (1979)


The Grand Jumeirah Mosque first opened back in 1979 and was a gift from the Late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the former Ruler of Dubai and father of the current Ruler of Dubai HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.  This architectural treasure has grown to be one of the emirates’ most loved landmarks for its interactive Open Doors. Open Minds program.

Camel race (1984)


Prior to 1980, camel racing took place in the desert before a purpose-built track was introduced. Traditionally, the camels would be ridden by young boys but due to the dangerous nature of the sport, were replaced with robot jockeys.

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Deira Fish Market (1965)


Before supermarkets came to Dubai, residents bought their fruit, vegetables, and fish at local markets. Back then, refrigeration was also limited so daily trips to these markets was the norm for many.

Dubai Creek raft race (1971)


One of the oldest events in Dubai was the annual raft race. The community could enter teams of two or more and would build their rafts from scratch using empty oil drums, timber, and rope. Dubai Police, construction companies, sports teams, and Dubai’s expat community all entered teams. Dubai police were the team to beat. In 1979, the raft race moved to Mina Seyahi.

Burj Khalifa (2006)

Image: Getty

It’s hard to believe that just 17 years ago, the Dubai Mall, Burj Khalifa, and even Business Bay didn’t yet exist. Taking six years to build, the Burj Khalifa was formally opened in 2010. 163 floors and 828 metres high, it is the tallest building in the world.