Dubai Creek: the making of Sheikh Rashid’s first mega project

Large ships could not enter Dubai Creek by the 1950s - so something had to be done

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It is a slim blue report that has lain forgotten for decades. On its yellowing pages are a number of neatly typed recommendations about a project that would utterly transform Dubai.

The 1955 study with a wonderfully understated title - ‘Dubai harbour: report on proposed improvements’ - is forgotten now, a mere footnote in history. But the project to dredge Dubai Creek laid the path for the emirate’s dizzying ascent.

The job was complex, the scale unprecedented and the cost staggering. This was a Dubai mega-project before the term even existed. And remarkable details of the work can now be read online for the first time as part of the Arabian Gulf Digital Archive.

“No records exist of any recent civil engineering works of any magnitude in Dubai and this, coupled with the isolated position of the country, make accurate estimation of costs difficult,” the report notes dryly.

The 1955 Dubai Creek report can be read online for the first time. Courtesy Arabian Gulf Digital Archive
The 1955 Dubai Creek report can be read online for the first time. Courtesy Arabian Gulf Digital Archive

Dubai was then a town of about 20,000 people in three districts: Bur Dubai, Deira and Shindagha. Life centred around the Creek. It was where the great pearling fleets returned from the summer diving season. It was where huge booms - traditional two-masted sailing vessels - coasted back from East Africa and India with wood and spices. And it was where abra water taxis scuttled across the water between Bur Dubai and Deira.

But by the mid-50s, the maritime trade that sustained the town stood at a precipice. A build-up of silt prevented larger ships from entering Dubai Creek, threatening the emirate’s future prosperity.

Dubai’s rulers knew the answer lay in dredging and commissioned a feasibility study from British firm, William Halcrow and Partners.

“The town, which would appear to have been established over 100 years ago, has gradually risen to its present pre-eminence because of its fine natural harbour,” the Halcrow report notes.

“In recent years … the depths in the entrance channel have deteriorated seriously … there is not sufficient water over the [sand] bar to allow the largest craft, which apparently used to use to the harbour, to enter.”

Many captains were forced to anchor offshore and smaller craft - known as lighters - then ferried loads to and from the quayside. This cost time and money. Frequent storms compounded the issue. “The risk of damage to lighters and cargoes is reflected in … high insurance rates,” it said.

Halcrow advised a huge 60-metre wide, 914m long channel to be cut from the bend in the Creek to the sea. Engineers also recommended the construction of a groyne – a stone structure to prevent build-up of sediment - and several walls to protect against flooding and erosion. But this work would not come cheap.

“Costs are likely to exceed those in the United Kingdom because of several factors [such as] lack of raw materials. Only sand and stone are available locally. Cement, timber, oil, fuel and fresh water in any quantity would have to be imported,” the report reads. “[There is] a lack of skilled labour.”

A map from 1955 showing some of the proposed improvement works. Courtesy Arabian Gulf Digital Archive
A map from 1955 showing some of the proposed improvement works. Courtesy Arabian Gulf Digital Archive

Halcrow put the cost at about £388,000 - a figure close to £10 million (Dh45m) in today’s values. But Dubai then was not awash with riches. The collapse of its pearl-diving industry in the 1950s had brought economic pain, while no firm had struck oil. But the Ruler, Sheikh Saeed, and his son Sheikh Rashid, even then were inculcating a pro-business mentality that Dubai is famous for today.

"Business concerning millions was done with a wink and a nod," wrote Edward Henderson, a British oil company representative, in his book Arabian Destiny.

“Things got done in double quick time and those who were not quite up to it would disappear. And the result? Oil boom conditions and an expanding town 15 years before any oil was discovered. ‘Goodness, what will he be like,’ asked someone ‘if he does find oil’.”

The town has risen to its pre-eminence because of its fine natural habour

Sheikh Rashid became Ruler in 1958 and swiftly set about securing the funds to finance the job. He cajoled businessman into donating, levied taxes and secured loans from other Arabian Gulf states. “The merchants of Dubai have already subscribed to a loan repayable over ten years. The money for repayment will be from the Dubai Customs Revenues,” a note from the British administration in the Gulf reads.

The Overseas AST construction company started work in 1959 and a collection of photographs in the files shows the immense scale of the job. One shot from 1960 shows a huge wall to protect against erosion being built on the Bur Dubai side of the Creek, while another details dredgers in action on the Creek.

More poignantly, the photographs capture a Dubai frozen in time. Many of the images show the rows and rows of traditional merchant houses with their famous barjeels - wind towers - that once lined the Creek but have since been demolished.

Most of the work was finished by the early 1960s, and its significance cannot be understated. Dubai’s population surged, more ships arrived and new neighbourhoods spread out from the Creek. And by 1972, Mina Rashid - Dubai’s new port - opened just a short distance from the Creek, setting the emirate on course as a global centre of trade and commerce.