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Dubai: Country and Foreign Investment

Population, Language and Culture

This page was last updated on 9 March 2021.

The emirate of Dubai has a population estimated in October 2016 to be 2,860,000.  Of these, about 70% are from South Asia, with around 43% from India. Only 23% of the population are native Emiratis; of the rest, about 4% are Filipinos. Westerners form a very small minority.

Arabic is the official language, chiefly the local Gulf Arabic (Khaliji), with other varieties spoken in small numbers. In addition, Tagalog (from the Philippines) and many South Asian languages are spoken. English is widely used as a lingua franca and is especially important in business.

Dubai city grew gradually from a fishing village inhabited in the 18th century by members of the Bani Yas tribe. Its origins, however, go back into the far more distant past. The town’s museum displays a rich collection of objects found in graves of the first millenium BC at nearby Al-Qusais, while a caravan station of the sixth century AD was excavated in what is now the expatriate suburb of Jumairah.

Beginning in 1820, Great Britain entered into treaties with various leaders in the area out of a desire to protect its ships in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean. In addition, Britain was allowed to handle foreign relations for the area, known as "Trucial Oman" or "the Trucial States" due to the Perpetual Maritime Truce which the Arab rulers signed with the British in 1853. The United Arab Emirates became fully independent on 2nd December 1971, though Ras al-Khaimah emirate did not join until early 1972.

By the turn of the 20th century Dubai was a sufficiently prosperous port to attract settlers from Iran, India and Baluchistan, while the souk on Deira side was thought to be the largest on the coast, with some 350 shops. The facilities for trade and free enterprise were enough to make Dubai a natural haven for merchants who left Lingah, on the Persian coast, after the introduction of high customs dues there in 1902. These people were mostly of distant Arab origin and Sunni, unlike most Persians, and naturally looked across to the Arab shore of the Gulf finally making their homes in Dubai.

Meanwhile a flourishing Indian population had also settled in Dubai and was particularly active in the shops and alleys of the souk. The cosmopolitan atmosphere and air of tolerance began to attract other foreigners too: by the 1930s, nearly a quarter of the 20,000 population was foreign, including 2,000 Persians, 1,000 Baluchis, many Indians and substantial communities from Bahrain, Kuwait and the Hasa province in eastern South Arabia. Some years later the British also made it their centre on the coast, establishing a political agency in 1954.

Modern Dubai is the product of more than 30 years of intensive development. Before that, Dubai was a small trading port, clustered around the mouth of the Dubai Creek. The population has increased more than tenfold since the 1960s to just over 2 million, and now hundreds of hotels accommodate the expat workers and tourists who help run the economy. Indeed, only around 23% of the emirate’s population, at the last count, were actually ethnically Emirati in a population mixture that has to be one of the world’s most cosmopolitan.

This diversity discourages any real ethnic tensions and there is less tension in Dubai than many might imagine. There are large groups of Indians, Pakistanis, Iranians and Southeast Asians. The population is about 76% Muslim, with Christian, Hindu and other minorities.

Human rights in Dubai are a cause for concern. The emirate is more liberal than some of the other emirates (e.g. neighbouring Sharjah), though it is far from progressive. A highly conservative interpretation of Islamic law is imposed, and though Muslims expected to observe it most closely, it applies to everyone.

Homosexuality is illegal and even straight people kissing in public may be arrested. ’Modest’ dress is enforced, alcohol may only be drunk in prescribed places and adultery and apostasy (leaving Islam) can be severely punished. Marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims are restricted and journalists often feel the need to censor themselves.



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