Old photos of Dubai Creek show a time long forgotten

As Dubai continues its dizzying pace of change, archive photos show how far it has come

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Dubai's population is now more than 3.65 million, driven by the emirate's position as a leading global destination.

But for anyone arriving in the city in 2024 it is hard to believe only several decades ago Dubai was a small town centred around the Creek.

These photographs, taken when Dubai was part of the Trucial States, underline the transformation that has taken place since the 1960s.

Shot by British resident David Riley, they show a world lost to time.

An aerial shot of Dubai Creek, photographed by Mr Riley from a Gulf Aviation plane arriving from Abu Dhabi, is particularly striking as it shows the original historic settlement.

Under the wing tip is Deira, then the main business area.

Across the Creek is Bur Dubai and to the right is Al Shindagha, which was often cut off from the mainland at high tide.

Al Shindagha is where the Al Maktoum family settled and it is from here Dubai began its journey to the metropolis it is today.

The photographs also show the bustling trade on Dubai Creek with traditional wooden abras sweeping across the busy artery. One shows a captain using large wooden oars to row across the water with the old wind towers, once so common on the Creek, visible in the background. Many have since been demolished.

Many people lived in barasti huts made of palm fronds, still used paraffin lamps and drank water taken from wells. Wealthier people lived in coral stone houses with barjeels, or wind towers, on the sides of the Creek.

Mr Riley was a young English banker who spent about two years in Abu Dhabi from 1962 to 1964.

He had been working in the UK when he heard the British Bank of the Middle East needed staff.

"It just appealed to me,” said Mr Riley of his decision to apply. “It was the right time and I hadn't gone to university."

He took a series of remarkable photographs during his journeys across the Trucial States to capture the way of life about to be swept away forever. But the images he took on a 35 millimetre German Voigtlander show that even then Dubai was on the path to modernisation.

For example, the aerial shot of the Creek shows the new sea walls erected at the its mouth.

This project began in the late 1950s, aimed at preventing silt building up in the Creek. This had prevented boats from entering and, in turn, disrupted vital trade. It was the original Dubai mega-project.

Another shows construction on the banks of the Creek with a new water tower in the background.

Some of Mr Riley's images taken in the souq show the new goods reaching the city, as Dubai even then was focused on trade.

Several shots show traders selling everything from tinned goods, fruit and vegetables and even Kent cigarettes.

Some were grown locally but many other goods were imported as Dubai built a name for itself as a trading centre.

Today the Creek remains as busy as ever. But the abras are no longer powered by oars; Al Shindagha has been turned into a museum; and a rejuvenation project is bringing new spirit to Deira.

And instead of the vast expanses of sand and open beaches visible from the plane's window in the 1960s, today is a sea of high-rises, hotels and luxury villas.

Updated: March 28, 2024, 11:59 AM