Today, Dubai is the fastest growing city in the world. The UAE’s president has a net worth of over US $18 billion dollars, although the distribution of money throughout the country is extremely skewed. Almost everyone lives off just a tiny amount of money, while only a tiny percentage of the people own a lot of money. The income inequality of the United States is not too different from the UAE now. The rich shows.

Dubai has more construction cranes than any other city in the world, and I wonder how they afford over one hundred thousand cranes in one city. there are also numerous buildings that are drowed in scaffholding, which must also cost a lot of money. But the money spent on thousands of cranes and huge amounts of scaffholding is only a pinpick of their total wealth.

I was bewildered by how the money in one country could be so skewed, with only a very small number of people having almost all the money. At the Dubai museum we learned about what Dubai did to become such a big city in such a short period of time.

Just 500 years ago, Dubai was a desert. It grew very fast in the last 500 years, especially in these last 50 years. Dubai was very smart with how they manged their resources and boosted their growth. They invested in the right things, including aluminium companies so they could produce their own aluminium, and ports and an airport to become a trading hub. Dubai actually did something very smart. They even got many airlines to pass through and have layovers in Dubai (like what we did), which promotes tourism.

A lot of the wealth in the UAE is in oil wealth, though the riches of Dubai are more from trading. 300 years ago, when slavery was happening, Dubai wasn’t even big enough to participate yet, even though many slaves came from places like Africa (and Zanzibar) to the Persian Gulf. But more recently, they got rich over the huge oil and gold trade that passed through there.

Most of Dubai’s growth has been in the last one hundred or fifty years, although when it was a much smaller city, there were other big industries besides gold and oil. When you think of a desert, like what dubai was 500 years ago, you would probably imagine no water for miles around. It is the opposite with Dubai. The desert (covered in concrete, glass, machines, plastic, and other artificial things) actually uses the water for many things. Pearling (pearl diving) and the making of jewelry were very old practices in the area, and with fishing, are very big industries here, but they aren’t as widespread today. In the early 1900’s, the Japanese discovered how to make artificial pearls, so pearling and pearl jewelry rapidly went into decline.

There was a whole room in the museum dedicated to pearling in the UAE. It turns out that the divers would only have a leather nose clip, a bag to hold the shells, a heavy rock tied to a rope tied to their foot, and a rope so they could be lifted up to the surface. The divers would jump into the water, dive very deep, with their stone pulling them down, and start scrambling to grab as many shells (that might have pearls in them) as they can in the two to three minutes that they are underwater. The video at the museum did a very nice job showing the emotion in the part that came next. After the pearl divers had been down there long enough, the other people at the top would madly pull up the divers. It would have been heavy, with the stone and all, but there was also the panic of somebody needs to breath!. It must have been scary, putting your life in some other person’s ability to pull you up to the surface quickly.

The history of Dubai is really only interesing in the last couple centuries (that might sound like a long time but it is recent compared to the time of the Romans or Greeks or even Egyptians). There was practically nothing here 500 hundred years, ago, and Dubai is still growing.

Below: The fast-growing city of Dubai