Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid turns 72: Celebrating Dubai Ruler's birthday

As Sheikh Mohammed grew, so did the emirate - and even more so under his rule

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On Friday July 15, 1949, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid was born at the Al Maktoum family home in Shindagha on the banks of Dubai Creek.

In this large courtyard house, now a historic monument, the Vice President and Prime Minister grew up with his brothers and father Sheikh Rashid. His grandfather, Sheikh Saeed bin Hasher Al Maktoum, was the Ruler of Dubai, the longest serving in the emirate’s history.

As a child, Sheikh Mohammed lived in a world of wind towers and barasti homes. The abra ferries that linked Bur Dubai and Deira were propelled by muscle and oars.

There were no bridges. Only the smaller dhows could enter the creek harbour, blocked over the years by ever deepening sandbars.

This was a Dubai almost untouched by the 20th century but, as the future Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai began his education, change would soon be coming.

In 1958, Sheikh Rashid succeeded his father, implementing the ambitious plan created by the civil engineering company Sir William Halcrow & Partners for transforming the city.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid turns 72: A look back at his life

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid turns 72: A look back at his life

As a 10-year-old, Sheikh Mohammed would have watched from the family home as vast dredgers carved a deep water channel to the Arabian Gulf to allow large ships to once again enter the Creek.

As the young sheikh grew towards adulthood, so his city expanded. The new airport opened in 1960, not long after his 11th birthday, and in 1963, now a teenager, he witnessed the completion of Al Maktoum Bridge, the first over the Creek.

By his 19th birthday, in 1968, Sheikh Mohammed had trained at a British military college and was already at his father’s side as negotiations began with Sheikh Zayed for the formation of the UAE.

That year, he became the world’s youngest defence minister and was appointed the head of Dubai Police and Public Security force.

In 1971, he turned 21, only months before the birth of the UAE on December 2. Dubai was also accelerating towards a bright future, with the opening of Port Rashid in 1972. The city’s population, less than 20,000 in the year of his birth, had now topped 100,000.

It had more than doubled again by 1979, as Sheikh Mohammed turned 30. The city’s skyline was transforming with the opening of the World Trade Centre, the tallest building in the Middle East, while the Metropolitan Hotel welcomed its first guests that year.

Jumeirah, once a quiet fishing village, became a desirable residential suburb as the city boundaries expanded, while the journey to Abu Dhabi, formerly tracks in the sand, would shortly be transformed by a tarmac motorway.

For Sheikh Mohammed, his 30th year would be memorable. His wedding was accompanied by a five-day public holiday and celebrations that included the first display by the Police Air Wing flying in formation over Zabeel Palace.

In February 1979, he joined his father to welcome Queen Elizabeth II on her first state visit to the UAE, where she formally opened the Dubai Dry Docks and the new port at Jebel Ali.

Over the next decade, Dubai’s population soared past 500,000. The city became a thriving international destination with the creation of Emirates Airline in 1985, and events like the Dubai Desert Classic tournament, held at the first grass course in the Middle East, the Emirates Golf Course, which opened in 1988.

With his health failing for the last years of the decade, Sheikh Rashid died in October 1990. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid, with Sheikh Mohammed appointed Crown Prince in 1995.

The position allowed Sheikh Mohammed a leading role in the development of Dubai. He took responsibility for the airport and oil industry and merged Port Rashid and Jebel Ali to create Dubai Ports Authority, now DP World, one of the world’s most successful companies.

Increasingly, Sheikh Mohammed looked to the future of Dubai, recognising early the potential of the internet and the digital age, ordering all government services to move online in 1999.

But it is the Burj Al Arab that is Sheikh Mohammed’s most visible legacy of those years. As Crown Prince, he took personal charge of the project, which he saw as an icon for the city to rival the Sydney Opera House or Eiffel Tower.

Sheikh Mohammed’s hand-on approach to the project even extended to the selection of the hotel’s doorknobs. By September 1999, only two months after his 50th birthday, the Burj Al Arab was open, its now familiar sail shape a confirmation that Dubai was leading holiday destination.

In January 2006, Sheikh Maktoum died unexpectedly on a visit to Australia. Sheikh Mohammed was now Ruler of Dubai and Vice President of the UAE. In February, he was nominated as Prime Minister.

The pace of Dubai’s expansion has quickened under his rule. As a rival to the Burj Al Arab, the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa was completed in 2009.

In the same year, as Sheikh Mohammed turned 60, came the opening of the Dubai Metro and Dubai Mall.

In the decade that proceeded it, the population of Dubai rose from 1.7 million to approaching three million today. Its boundaries extend ever further and not only on land.

The Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre sent the UAE’s first astronaut into space as the Ruler turned 70. Earlier this year, the space centre’s Hope probe began orbiting Mars.

As Sheikh Mohammed turns 72 on July 15, he can look forward to the opening of Dubai Expo in less than three months. There are plans to make a quarter of the city’s journeys autonomous by 2030. It is a long way from the abra rowing boats he once watched from his family home as a boy, who always dreamt bigger.

Updated: July 15, 2021, 8:50 AM