A seafarer’s view of Dubai. Dreams of the Sea: The Dubai Maritime History Project, will contain stories of those involved in Dubai and the UAE’s maritime history. Image Credit: Courtesy: DP World

Dubai: They had a dream, a city of merchants, a city built on trade, the sea connecting it to the world.

These were the dreams of the founding fathers of Dubai.

Dreams that began at the spot where the ruling families traditionally lived, believed to be the site of the original BaniYas settlement 130 years ago. A place where the seeds of modern Dubai were first sown.

Just some of these dreams and how they became reality are being recorded in a unique project initiated by global marine terminal operator, DP World. “Dreams of the Sea: The Dubai Maritime History Project” is collecting the stories of those sea dreamers and all those involved in Dubai and the UAE’s maritime history into a dedicated bilingual website www.dreamsofthesea.ae - an archive available to all.

The project is being housed at the Heritage Village in Shindagha Historic Area with the opening of an exhibition featuring some of the interviews collected so far, together with photographs with an old film of Dubai. The first-hand accounts include the unique stories of people from all walks of life whose memories of Dubai are intrinsically tied to the sea – from fishermen and pearl divers to business leaders and academics.

There is also a video booth within the exhibition where people can record their own memories and stories to be added to the archive.

The exhibition will run from 14 to 27 January.

People are also urged to get involved by uploading their own stories, photos and videos from the past onto dreamsofthesea.ae website. The more it is used, the more useful it will be to the generation of today and those of tomorrow.

Also as part of the Project, a Dreams of the Sea book in Arabic and English will be available at the beginning of April. It will include the stories, images and anecdotes of scores of people who lived through those formative years.

DP World Chairman Sultan Ahmad bin Sulayem said in a statement: “Over time, we hope that the Dreams of the Sea website will become a living archive, preserving for future generations the rich history and heritage of Dubai and the UAE through the stories of the people who have lived and worked on its shores.”

Professor Fatima Al Saleygh, History and Archaeology, UAE University Al Ain put the meaning of the sea to the people of Dubai in context.

“People here have always looked at the sea as their symbol of life. These symbols of our heritage will never change and nor will our eternal relationship with the Gulf Waters. In Arabic, when we want to say that somebody is a dreamer – we say “they want to create something in the sea” – His Highness Shaikh Mohammad, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, said “yes, I am a dreamer – I created something in the sea – the three Palms”.

“So, it turns out that the sea is our treasure, past, present and future. Whenever we need something, we go back to the sea, as if the sea will give us a solution to all our problems in life. Whenever we needed a pearl, we went to the sea. If we wanted to create land and cities, we went to the sea, for oil, we went to the sea, for water, we went to the sea.”

For bin Sulayem, the project brings back fond memories of his childhood by the Creek: “It’s here that some of Dubai’s most forward-thinking leaders of the 19th and 20th century lived and dreamed of a bright future for their people. Those were the early signs of the big things that followed both in Dubai’s life, and mine.”

To understand the evolution of Dubai as a global maritime player and the roots that anchor this bustling commercial hub, one only needs to look at the Creek.

It was here that the city’s trading potential was recognised as early as in 1894 when Shaikh Maktoum Bin Hasher Al Maktoum adopted economic policies that were far ahead of their time.

He made Dubai tax free for trade and turned it into the principal commercial port on the coast, drawing dhows and steamers, and enterprising merchants from around the Gulf. At the turn of the 20th century, traders were re-routing goods through Dubai to avoid the high customs elsewhere in the region.

The region’s largest market at Deira’s Souq had over 350 shops selling commodities from all points of the compass with Dubai’s reputation as the City of Merchants built on this free market spirit.

For Ali bin Gulaitha of the Dubai International Marine Club, the Creek was a vital route, connecting Dubai to the world. He said:” Without the Creek, Dubai wouldn’t have been like this. When you go to the market nowadays, you find whatever you need. Fruits and vegetables all year round because they come from East and West, North and South, they ship them into Dubai...in those days, we didn’t have this luxury.”

He added: “The sea was here before us, and will continue to be here after us. Whatever happens, the sea is there.”

Dubai’s historical roots go right back to the dawn of time. Archaeologist Peter Hellyer, Advisor at the Abu Dhabi Media Council notes that it stood at the crossroads of global trade for thousands of years.

“The idea that you have a long tradition of maritime trade for the region is something that is well proven by the archaeological and historical record,” he says. “It’s the importance of trading by sea that is fundamental to the economy to the emirates and Dubai today and it’s been a fundamental part of the economy of the UAE for 7,000 years.

“There is plenty of evidence here of trade between here and China really from about the 12th century onwards. For instance you find Chinese ceramics imported on coastal sites. You get evidence of the import of Chinese ceramics and also Burmese, Thai and Vietnamese from the 14th century onwards.

“We know they were using them in costume jewellery. There are references from 5,000 years ago of the export of “fish eyes” from the Gulf to Mesopotamia. The logical interpretation of is that “fish eyes” are pearls.

“The Romans used imperial purple for their togas and that comes from a particular sea shell which was exploited in this region.”

Dubai has come a long way over those millennia. The vision and spirit of the founding fathers is something that lies at the heart of this modern society.

Sultan Ahmad bin Sulayem, reflects: “That spirit continues to guide us today. Shaikh Maktoum’s successors, Shaikh Saeed and Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, continued this legacy by opening Dubai’s skies to airlines, connecting the people to the rest of the world.

“Shaikh Rashid believed that anything is possible in this land of entrepreneurs. He dredged the Creek and bridged it. A deeper, tide-proof Creek brought in the big vessels with their cargoes. Maktoum Bridge allowed the flourishing trade in Deira to spill over into Bur Dubai and beyond. The rest, as we know, is history.

“Dubai’s maritime sector turned a corner in 1972 when Port Rashid opened a few months after the UAE was formed, as the region’s first modern container facility. Just eight years later Jebel Ali emerged as the world’s largest manmade harbour. The port and the free zone that Shaikh Rashid ordered next to it proved to be the growth engines that Dubai’s economy was waiting for.”

The sea has always been in Dubai’s DNA and will continue to be in the blood of its people. Last word goes to Khalifa Al Marri, veteran boat captain born in 1944: “The sea played a key role in people’s lives. It was the source of their livelihood and 90 per cent of locals worked on the sea as fishermen, dhow captains and sailors or divers.”

Dubai’s maritime history is a story without end, a story with many more chapters and many more dreams to come.