Dubai World Trade Centre turns 40: five things to know about the tower

The building was the tallest in the region and appears on the Dh100 banknote

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Dubai International Trade and Exhibition Centre, as it was then called, was the tallest building in the region when it opened on February 26, 1979.

Forty years on, it has been eclipsed by the city’s newer skyscrapers but its construction by Defence Roundabout on a patch of sand – then considered way out of town – was an early marker of Dubai’s soaring ambitions. Here are five things to know about the famous building:


Dubai’s World Trade Centre is the work of John Harris, a distinguished British architect who became a trusted adviser to Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed. Harris was central to Dubai’s early planning and was also responsible for Rashid Hospital and two urban master plans for the city. He also worked in Abu Dhabi and the understated British ambassador’s residence in the capital can be counted as among his work. Harris died in 2008 at the age of 88.

RE15EK Dubai, UAE - November 28, 2018: View of the city from the top of the famous Dubai Frame, located in Zabel Park.
Dubai World Trade Centre soars 149 metres into the sky and was the UAE’s tallest building when it opened.  Alamy    

Tallest building

The 39-storey office tower soars 149 metres into the sky and was the UAE’s tallest building when it opened. The high-rise was originally called Sheikh Rashid Tower and the complex included exhibition spaces, restaurants and a Hilton hotel. 

The Hilton was demolished in 2005 but, over the years, more conference halls have been added and now the site is an important exhibition centre. Today, the tower is not even in the emirate’s tallest top 100 completed towers. It sits quaintly among the newer glass high-rises but feels more rooted in the region than its neighbours because of its design.

Dubai, August 16, 2011 - A 100 dirham note in Dubai, August 16, 2011. (Jeff Topping/The National) STOCK
 A 100 dirham note shows Dubai World Trade Centre. Jeff Topping / The National


Wrapped in concrete, the tower is modernist in style, while the windows are set back to avoid exposure to the harsh sunlight. Some traditional local motifs are incorporated into the design including the use of arches on the building’s exterior. Harris travelled to the US to look at its World Trade Centre project and there are flickers of its look in the Dubai project. The design has even found fame on the UAE’s currency as it appears on the back of the Dh100 banknote.

Queen Elizabeth ll appoints Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum (1912-1990), the ruler of Dubai, a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George, as part of her tour of the Gulf States, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on 25 February 1979. Prince Philip stands to the back left of the image. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth ll inaugurates the tower in 1979 as part of her tour of the UAE. Here she is appointing Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid, a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George. The British honour is conferred on people holding positions of authority. Prince Philip stands to the back left. Tim Graham / Getty Images


The tower was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on February 26, 1979. The British monarch was on her first state visit to the UAE, where she also inaugurated Jebel Ali port and Dubai Dry Dock. The queen cut the ribbon and then went to the top to gaze out at the desert vista. Archive photographs show the Queen, accompanied by Sheikh Rashid and Harris, touring the tower. "The building, which is structurally complete, will take a little time yet to be made ready for occupation. But its majestic appearance today aptly fitted the grandeur of the public welcome accorded to the Queen," the 1979 report from the now defunct Emirates News described.

BDPBDC Dubai UAE Aerial Of The Trade Centre And Sheikh Zayed Road In 1978. Image shot 1978. Exact date unknown.
An aerial shot of the tower taken at some point in the late 1970s or early 1980s. The Hilton Hotel on the left side has since been demolished. Alamy


The tower could be considered an early example of Dubai’s "build it and they will come" philosophy. The location then was way out of town – 4 kilometres from Dubai Creek – 4and some doubted if the project would be successful. The Trade Centre was built beside the motorway to Abu Dhabi and the hope was that it would act as a catalyst for growth. Forty years on, this has been borne out as Dubai has expanded to the Abu Dhabi border. Something many thought impossible in 1979.