Lessons learned from Sheikh Rashid of Dubai


“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
—Theodore Roosevelt

How do you build a city from scratch ? It took an unwavering vision, strategic thinking, plausible grand ideas,five decades of careful planning, and a wily, resourceful leader who understood his sheikhdom’s limitations and potentials to turn a small fishing and pearling village into one of the most globally competitive, innovative, and creative cities in the world–and I was lucky enough to have been part of its early urban development. Let’s examine how Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, former Ruler and Father of Dubai, helped shape the Dubai today.

The Father of Dubai
In the book Rashid’s Legacy: The Genesis Of The Maktoum Family And The History Of Dubai by Graeme Wilson, Sheikh Rashid is likened to a modern-day King Arthur and his Majlis (council) the Knights of the Round Table. He would invite individuals to his Majlis and listen to their opinions, plans, and even complaints about Dubai. It was in the many conversations that the future plans for Dubai were realized.

After the pearling industry waned inte late 1930s, Sheikh Rashid was forced to think of other ways Dubai could sustain its economy. Dubai was a coastal town, and in order to open up his town to commerce, he needed to widen the Dubai Creek to let larger commercial ships enter. After borrowing money from the Emir of Kuwait, he had the Creek dredged, and he jump started the economic boom as more ships called at Dubai to unload their cargo. Dubai opened its doors to foreign investments and talents, and there were ten jobs available for every Dubai citizen.

Then, in the late sixties, the oil boom started. However, Sheikh Rashid knew the city could not rely on its limited oil reserves, since it was far smaller than those of some of its neighbors. He urged and encouraged private enterprise to develop non-oil related commerce like tourism, sports, and shopping centers. Sheikh Rashid also relaxed commerical and financial regulations, as well as maintain its income-tax-free environment, some of Dubai’s enduring traits to this day.

Without cohesive administration of development at large, the town was set to become a messy collage of residential, commercial, and industrial buildings. In a bottom up approach, the Dubai Municipality integrated structural change with administrative improvement. The local government became the engine room on which all private sector and government development functioned.

Planning Dubai
So in 1977, I arrived in Dubai as a Senior planner for the Town Planning Department of the Dubai Municipality after being name-hired by Sultan Khalifa Al Habtoor, one of Sheikh Rashid’s important Council members. I was one of the first Filipinos and Southeast Asian Architect-Urban Planners in Dubai, and worked with 19 other nationalities. There were professional, cultural and personal differences and challenges to overcome. I was expected not only to deliver, but to excel.

Sheikh Rashid shared with us his expectations and visions of a future Dubai. He was a decisive, compassionate, practical, progressive, and pragmatic individual and deeply cared for his people, including expatriates like me and my family. Sheikh Rashid gave us four important tasks: transform Dubai from a third world city into a first world one in ten years, create a Garden City out of the desert, plan and design Dubai as if there were no oil, and bring Dubai well into the 21st century using the best practices learned from travels around the world.

Sheikh Rashid was well-known to have a hearty distate for bureaucracy and corruption, a trait that he took pains to pass on to his sons. Thus, getting a building built in Dubai is easier than in the other countries I have worked in. Permits are given in one day, and businessmen applying for permits are held accountable for their permits. If there are objections to it, they are only given two weeks to file and resolve the objections.

Dubai was one of the few cities in the world that had the vision and the aplomb to fearlessly invest in technologies and structures that were still new ideas back then, like the concept of the aerotropolis, freeports, freezones, and e-cities. Dubai allowed the imagination and skill of architects, planners, engineers, and designers free rein.Today, Dubai enjoys the global limelight of being home to the tallest skyscraper in the world, a seven-star hotel, four man-made islands, the largest indoor ski slope, a dynamic economic and business center, the best and busiest seaports and airports, the largest man-made harbor and shopping malls in the world, all contributing to Dubai’s ever increasing influx of tourists.

Despite its many challenges, Sheikh Rashid’s visionary leadership, strong political will, good governance, and well-thought out planning and design have made Dubai one of the best smart global gateway cities in the world today. He dared to be different, and progress was made as a result.


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  1. A typical “kiss my ass” article. Just wait for the day their fossils underground run dry and those now perceived high rising “grandeurs” will metaphorically drop idle on the desert sands. Who would like to visit a country with 45-50 degree C heat. Besides, when I was there we have a share of the rudeness of the Dubaian people. You might have been very generous in words to the royalty for probably you have been in housed in a 8- star hotel and received wads of dirham but if you have ever been more inquisitive as I was and learned majority of foreign workers are exploited including Filipino families and have no choice but to cram their families with 2-3 families in a small room in an oppressive heat just to to make both ends meet, then by then all your words above are oxymoron..

    • hameed salam al abdullah on

      arch. palafox are talking about the “development” from nothing of the city. not the “experiences” of the Filipinos working in that country. you are barking at the wrong tree my friend. just my observation.