Old Dubai clings to life as new city rises

DUBAI (Reuters) - Khadija Ahmad and her family are the only residents left in Dubai’s old Bastakiya quarter, her house little changed since she arrived as a new bride more than 70 years ago.

A traditional wind tower is seen on top of a building, in the old quarter of Dubai's Bastakiya, May 15, 2008. REUTERS/Jumana El Heloueh

Nestled among mushrooming skyscrapers and multi-lane highways, the rabbit warren of streets dating from the 1890s is one of the few reminders left of Dubai’s past as a sleepy village where people earned money by diving for pearls.

In the 1990s, the government bought out most homeowners in Bastakiya to protect the run-down district from developers. Today, the area beside Dubai creek is home to galleries, cafes and restaurants, and to Ahmad and her family who declined the state’s offer to buy them out.

“Fifteen years ago, they moved everyone out. Thank God, we were able to stay,” said Ahmad, standing just inside her front door, out of sight of male passers-by.

In less than 60 years, the United Arab Emirates’ hub has become a byword for ostentatious wealth, speckled with one jaw-dropping development after another, like a set of islands shaped like palm trees and the sail-shaped Burj al-Arab hotel.

But Emirates officials have begun to wake up to the value of Dubai’s historic sites, partly reflecting a popular demand for tangible links to a fast disappearing past, and partly because of the realization that history can boost tourism.

“We have to have our culture and traditions to show to others,” said Waleed Nabil, 22, an Emirati who works at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Bastakiya.

“We have to be able to show schoolchildren how their grandparents lived or we will lose our culture.”

Rashad Bukhash, director of the architectural heritage department at Dubai municipality, understands that need.

“We do have pressure to have the land developed ... But we have vowed to keep (Bastakiya) as it is and the government supports this,” he said.

His department is trying to register old Dubai -- which includes Bastakiya, the grand market and al-Shindagha, a complex centered on the home of Sheikh Saeed al-Maktoum, grandfather of Dubai’s current ruler -- as a UNESCO world heritage site.

“It is to protect them from demolition and also for future generations,” Bukhash said. “But (the status) is hard to get.”

A group from UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural organization, visited Dubai in May to help the city compile an application. This is just the first step in a process that Bukhash says could take a year or two, at least.


Bastakiya, which measures about 300 meters by 200 meters (980 ft by 650 ft), is named after Bastak, an Iranian town that was home to the earliest traders with Dubai.

“In 1950, this area was the whole town of Dubai,” Bukhash said. “Now it is less than one percent of the total area of urban Dubai, so we will protect this one percent.”

Bastakiya’s houses -- once made of coral, gypsum and sand but now restored in materials such as sand-colored cement -- are topped with wind towers, built to capture the cool breezes and force them into the houses while allowing warm air to rise.

Intricate wood and stone decorations on top of the houses denoted a family’s wealth.

When Ahmad arrived in Bastakiya, she sailed over from her father’s house on the other side of the creek.

“When I got married, I came through that door,” she said, pointing down the sloped hallway to a wooden door which opened on to sand, once the water’s edge but now facing a parking lot.

Other historic sites near Bastakiya include the Bait al-Wakeel -- the first office building in Dubai -- and the al-Fahidi Fort, built in the late 1780s and considered the oldest building in the city.

These have been dwarfed by a construction boom, fuelled by soaring oil prices. Virtually all the construction is done by Indian and Pakistani workers, many of whom live in “labor camps” in the desert and are taken by bus to building sites.

Government-owned developer Nakheel is spending billions on projects around the city, such as the palm islands, as well as five new shopping malls it says will cost at least $3 billion.

In comparison, the annual budget for the architectural heritage department is about $5.45 million, says Bukhash.


Developers are not solely to blame for the disappearance of heritage sites.

Many of the building materials used in the past, such as sand, coral and palm fronds, have disintegrated. As the city established itself, there was little emphasis on history.

That has left Dubai, one of seven members of the UAE, grappling with the question of how to preserve what’s left.

“Sadly for the Emirates, that question wasn’t asked soon enough so by the time we’re asking it now, we have few specimens left to preserve,” Jane Bristol-Rhys, an anthropology professor at the Emirates’ Zayed University said, speaking from Abu Dhabi.

A debate on national identity -- spurred by the fact that UAE nationals make up only about 10 percent of the population -- has revived interest in Dubai’s architecture and history.

“People are looking now for reminders of the past that will remind them of how their ancestors lived,” said Bristol-Rhys.

“It may be a reaction to all the new development ... a lot of the buildings look very similar to one another,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s hard to tell whether you’re in Abu Dhabi or Dubai or Singapore, for that matter.”

The heritage department is trying to change that. Government rules now compel buildings in the centre to use local styles and traditional colors, and to minimize modern materials such as glass.

There is a government project to restore about 260 buildings in old Dubai by 2015.

The hope is that the city that built a ski slope in the desert may one day draw visitors for its cultural wonders.

“They come right now not for the historic,” said Bukhash. “In the future, they might.”