New exhibition at Jameel Arts Centre reveals how stamps made mark on Dubai's rich history

Collection on display until May highlights work of Emirati researcher

Urban historian Rashed Almulla has collected a history of the UAE told through stamps. The exhibition is on display at Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai. All photos: Leslie Pableo / The National
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The bustling beach at the tip of Jumeirah Beach Road in Dubai may now serve as one of the city's most popular leisure destinations, but an inconspicuous postage stamp that circulated in the 1970s tells a very different story.

The Khazzan Stamp, as it is known, depicts the area's rich heritage dating back to emirate's oil discovery era and was centred in the precise location now occupied by the Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Burj Al Arab.

Perhaps most intriguingly, the stamp reveals that the area once housed the world's first underwater storage tank, underlining Dubai's long-standing ambition to be a global pioneer and its early city branding endeavours, both of which predate the UAE’s formation.

Dubai’s milestone construction of two huge offshore oil storage tanks, or khazzan, in this location, which began after the Chicago Bridge and Iron Company was commissioned for the job in late 1960s, was commemorated through five stamps illustrating the different stages of construction. During a time devoid of TV and social media, these stamps, which were dispatched to banks, offices and loved ones globally, helped turn Dubai into a household name across the world.

“You can see that Dubai’s big feats and its ambition to make a mark on the global stage were present even in the 60s,” says Emirati urban history and planning researcher Rashed Almulla, who has been studying the role of stamps in Dubai’s branding efforts before the union.

“The Khazzan area hosted the Chicago Beach Hotel for a decade until its demolition in 1997 to make way for Burj Al Arab and Jumeirah Hotel. And if you drive down that road, you’ll see the last petrol station there is still called the Chicago Beach Petrol Station.”

The history that this stamp collection reveals is part of his new research-led exhibition featuring 21 stamp sets, official letters, postcards and banknotes dating back to the 1960s. The initiative led by the Jameel Library provides a platform for UAE practitioners to delve into alternative research methodologies and representations on a topic, while emphasising the concept of “thinking in public”. Almulla’s research will be displayed at the Jameel Arts Centre until May 13.

“My research focuses on stamps as a medium to explain Dubai’s storys,” says Almulla, who is also the founder of Mabnai, a Dubai non-governmental organisation that documents and discusses the growth of cities in the Gulf and the wider Middle East. “The narrative I’m trying to share is that the city’s built environment existed even in the 60s, and it wasn’t barren sand. Dubai’s branding efforts also did not start in the last 20 years. It is a compounding strategy that began with stamps that were distributed and sold internationally, as well.”

Between 1963 and 1973, before the UAE first began printing stamps as a country, Dubai produced 404 stamps spread over 63 issuances. Almulla began collecting these stamps during his time in the US in 2015, buying them from eBay and other UAE stamp collectors. He relied on the Arabian Gulf Digital Archives for his research into the historical significance of the stamps.

The exhibition display begins with letters sent from Dubai in the 1950s, with Queen Elizabeth II stamps overprinted with “NP”, which stands for Naya Paisa, the then-subdivision of the Indian rupee. There are also British stamps from 1959 on display. Specially issued by the Indian government for use in the Gulf, they were overprinted with rupees denoted by the letter Z and were in circulation until 1961 when the Trucial States agreed to print their own stamps from Dubai with Indian rupees.

Almulla explains that Dubai’s desire to produce its own stamps was approved by the British General Post Office, with the first set published in 1963. This set, which is also on display, depicts historic areas of Dubai, including the Fahidi Fort and Bur Dubai along with a portrait of former Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum on its corner. Another set from the 1990s marks the death of Sheikh Rashid, showcasing his legacy with scenes of old Dubai juxtaposed with the city's 1990s skyline to illustrate its transformation.

“The continuity of the landmarks shows that stamp production wasn’t an arbitrary endeavour, but a strategic image-building exercise for Dubai,” says Almulla.

In 1964, Dubai commissioned commemorative stamp sets from Baroody Stamps Company and Helio Electronic Press. Notable examples include global events such as the assassination of US president John F Kennedy and that year's Olympic Games in Tokyo. Dubai also released Sheikh Rashid and a set of Views of Dubai stamps, which depicted its ongoing urban development.

The New York World’s Fair stamp featured landmarks including the Carlton Hotel on Dubai Creek printed beside an illustration of the Lower Manhattan skyline. Also included are Educational Progress Stamps, printed to express gratitude to Arab leaders for their support in developing the city’s educational system.

“Interestingly, Dubai’s fascination with, and ambition for, space exploration is documented in several stamp sets pre-union,” says Almulla. “Dubai celebrated Nasa’s mission to space in 1964 with the themed Honouring Astronauts stamps, and then again in 1969 with the First Man on the Moon. The 1964 stamp displayed in this exhibition was tweeted by Vice President and Prime Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid in 2016, 52 years after their release.”

In 1965, no new stamp sets were produced due to the expiration of the contract with the Baroody Stamps Company. Stamp production resumed in 1966 with new British producers, celebrating global and local events missed in the previous year. This period also marked a transition from the Gulf Rupee to new currencies created through collaborations between Gulf states. Dubai and Qatar introduced the Qatar Dubai Riyal, initially overprinting the new currency on existing stamps and later replacing them with formal prints.

Almulla says that these modified stamps are now highly valued and sought after by banknote collectors.

Landmarks and the city’s evolving infrastructure took centre stage in several stamps in the 1970, including the second terminal of Dubai Airport, Port Rashid, Dubai National Bank and Dubai Hospital.

“Even after the formation of the UAE in 1971, each emirate retained its unique stamp sets until the inaugural Emirati stamps were issued in 1973,” Almulla explains. “They were made official by a letter from the Ministry of Communications for all legal and postal use. The initial set from Dubai featured the iconic and now globally recognised Deira Clocktower, priced at Dh1.”

The core of Almulla’s research centres on pre-union collections and aims to highlight Dubai’s strategic city branding initiative and its self-positioning as the city of the future.

Almulla adds: “This has been a fascinating exploration into the vision and steadfast commitment of Dubai’s leaders since the 1960s to showcase the city as a hub of opportunities, development, diplomacy and infrastructure achievements. While traditional and social media serve as today’s medium, stamps, distributed globally, played a pivotal role in shaping the image and enchantment of the Dubai.”

Library Circles: Rashed Almulla is on show at Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai, until May 13. More information is available at

Updated: December 23, 2023, 3:03 AM