Showpiece City
How Architecture Made Dubai
Todd Reisz




“WE WERE HERE BEFORE any other Power in modern times.” George Curzon rehearsed his remarks prepared for the guests soon to arrive. The words would reverberate for the duration of British intervention in the Gulf region: “We found strife and we have created order.” As viceroy and governor-general of colonial India, Curzon stood aboard the naval ship Argonaut, ten kilometers off the coast of the Trucial States on November 21, 1903.

“We were here” was a figure of speech. Neither he nor any other high-ranking British officer had come close to the Trucial States in more than eighty years of British domination. “Here” also referred to the greater coastline encircling the Gulf, shores that navy ships policed to prevent any challenge to British supremacy.1 Curzon wanted to give regional leaders memorable “impressions from outward appearances” of British power—the same year that Russian and French warships entered Gulf waters, the same year that German engineers launched a railway scheme between Berlin and Baghdad.2 Traveling with a fleet of seven coal-fueled ships and wearing his ceremonial dress, Curzon practiced how he would remind the coastal rulers of “the paramount political and commercial ascendancy exercised by Great Britain” over them. His guests, though, were delayed by storms.

“No fewer than eight” truces established Curzon’s authority to be there. Framed as “unselfish” peacekeeping, the truces suggested bilateralism between Great Britain and a collection of sheikhdoms on the Gulf’s southern shore. They came about only after the British navy ransacked the coast in 1819. The offensive, “not long sustained” but “severe,” decimated the coast’s reigning maritime dynasty, the Qawassim.3 “The old régime of lawlessness and violence at once became obsolete.” Several weeks after razing forts and imprisoning regional leaders came the hastily composed “General Treaty for the Cessation of Plunder and Piracy by Land and Sea.”4 It was the first of the truces to declare British dominance.

“Perfect maritime security in the Persian Gulf” allegedly ensued, by means of military surveillance and draconian limits on trade. At least officially, exclusive agreements restricted the region’s imports to British products. The Trucial States were in effect cut off from the world. The lucrative pearl industry was allowed to continue, if only because colonial subjects in India also had a hand in the business.5 British policy, as it accrued through the buildup of truces, came to mean the preservation of the status quo: The region was dictated to remain as the British had found it, incapacitated by the 1819 attacks. British officials thereafter portrayed themselves as overseeing a people who did not need, or even want, the advancements denied to them.

The truces eventually defined and reigned over seven sheikhdoms: Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Umm Al Quwain, Fujairah, Ajman, and Ras Al Khaimah.6 “Relations,” not powers, supposedly defined how the British ruled over them, “based on the principle of economy of force to achieve her objectives.”7 “Economy of force” limited British surveillance to the sea, thereby assuring no British intervention in the sheikhdoms’ interior affairs on land. “Economy of force” also meant the sheikhdoms were not named “colonies” or “protectorates.” Use of either term would have predisposed the British to too much responsibility for a land with, at least for a while, scant profit potential.

The status of the sheikhdoms gained some clarity by 1853 when leaders signed the “perfect maritime truce,” which named the sheikhdoms by a British-authored logic. The writers of the so-called truces invented a word to convene the individual sheikhdoms into a collective: “trucial.” The Trucial States were designated by means of a neologism, one that defined them as a unit and by their forced relationship with the British empire. The new name, in any case, was an improvement on the previous one: the Pirate Coast.

The Argonaut was too large to approach the shallow shore of the Trucial States, so a smaller steam launch had been prepared to transport Curzon to land. Sparing himself from inclement weather, the viceroy ordered instead that the rulers and other dignitaries come to him. Later that afternoon, the visitors boarded the Argonaut, fatigued by the “heavy sea,” and though “descendants . . . of pirates and buccaneers, [they] had suffered severely from sea-sickness.”8 On the ship’s quarterdeck, “ablaze with rich hangings and gold-embroidered carpets,” Curzon received them “enthroned” on a dais and surrounded by his officers. There were not enough chairs left over for the visitors, many of whom sat on the deck’s floor.

Curzon delivered “an epitome of British history in the Arab waters of the Gulf” and reminded his guests of the truces signed by their forefathers: “It was our commerce as well as your security that was threatened and called for protection.”9 The viceroy spoke in English. Upon the conclusion of his remarks, a man in civilian clothes read the visitors an Arabic translation, not from the stage but from among them. Still perched on his throne, Curzon looked down, bored. There is no record that any of the leaders spoke while aboard the Argonaut. They received “handsome gifts” of golden watches, swords, and rifles. And then they boarded the small craft again to suffer the heavy sea and to wait out a foreigner’s lengthy, though not permanent, stay.10


In 1953, fifty years after George Curzon did not deign to come ashore, Christopher Pirie-Gordon landed in the sheikhdom of Sharjah. He was the Foreign Office’s first political agent for the Trucial States, and he instigated a project more meddlesome than any British directive since the naval attacks in 1819.

Prior to Pirie-Gordon’s arrival, a military force—the Trucial Oman Levies—had been established near a British airbase in Sharjah. The force protected the terrestrial boundaries of the Trucial States from foreign encroachment, namely by Saudi Arabia. Pirie-Gordon arrived in sync with the mounting British-led explorations for oil on land the levies protected. In 1935, Bahrain-based British officials had secured the region’s first oil concessions for the British-controlled Petroleum Development (Trucial Coast), or PDTC.11 With increasing prospects in the 1950s, PDTC’s exploration teams, along with six other “European employers,” needed a dependable port for replenishing supplies. Whichever port provided the necessary services, the Foreign Office surmised, faced the probability of growing and profiting from that business.12 Even though the British had maintained an agency office in Sharjah for more than a hundred years and an airport there since 1932, and even though Abu Dhabi’s port was closest to the most promising searches, the British government determined by 1950 that there was “more hope” in Dubai’s port. Dubai, once unworthy of even protectorate-state status, now had a role in the British pursuit of oil profits.13

FIGURE 1.1 Two stevedores amid landed cargo on Dubai Creek, circa 1955. Courtesy Tripp Family Archives, PDTC.

Although the Sharjah airbase and the levies’ encampment were extensions of British military interference, Pirie-Gordon’s mandate was about instilling “administration” and “some social services” at the promising port.14 He brought with him a more expansive meaning of the order Curzon had professed. The word now had financial and societal dimensions. Pirie-Gordon was issued a ceremonial uniform reminiscent of Curzon’s, but instead of representing a looming military at sea, he prefigured a campaign to build, and control, a bureaucracy in Dubai. In a city British officials perceived as having “no administration at all” save for a “poorly trained clerk,” the installation of “an inexpensive administration” under British counsel would give the British government “a much better chance of getting control of the royalties from oil the moment these begin to accrue.”15 Pirie-Gordon’s arrival signaled a new approach to Dubai: With as little investment as possible and with a gathering portfolio of work for British experts, Dubai was going to grow as a city of profit along a coast that the British navy ships had worked so long to stifle.

At first based in a rented house in Sharjah, Pirie-Gordon awaited completion of a new political agency compound in Dubai. The fenced-in area of future British governance was provided by Sheikh Rashid, then Dubai’s de facto ruler. Its creekside location might seem a gracious gesture, but the site was also “remote, isolated from the town by a graveyard.” Many suspected that Rashid had chosen the distant location so that the political agent could not “impinge too closely on the affairs of Dubai’s population.” In March 1954, the political agent moved into the “not very imposing” compound made up of “long, low sheds that blended in the surrounding sand” and enclosed by a “mesh fence which seemed designed to prevent egress rather than entry.” Pirie-Gordon called it “the Leper Colony.”16 From the premises, even if at a distance from the active port, Pirie-Gordon could make more specific and sustained observations about a city no longer controlled from afar.


1. John Gordon Lorimer and Richard Lockington Birdwood, Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman, and Central Arabia (Shannon: Irish University Press, 1970, republished), vol. I, pt. 2, 2638. The Persian Gulf is sometimes referred to as the Arabian Gulf. In this book, it will be referred to as the Gulf.

2. Muhammad Morsy Abdullah, The United Arab Emirates: A Modern History (Abu Dhabi: Makarem, 2007), 27.

3. Lorimer and Birdwood, Gazetteer, vol. I, pt. 2, 2638. Even before the Maktoum family’s predecessors arrived in Dubai in 1833 from Abu Dhabi, Dubai was represented in these treaty signings. In 1820, the sheikhdom’s nine-year-old ruler was represented by his uncle at a signing in Sharjah.

4. Lorimer and Birdwood, Gazetteer, vol. I, pt. 1, 198; J. B. Kelly, Britain and the Persian Gulf: 1795–1880 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 139–160, 211.

5. One example of proscribed imports was German diving equipment that could have lessened the toil of pearl divers enduring brutal seasons of harvesting pearls from the seabed. A British official argued for the ban’s benevolent impact: If the technology had been made available to the coast’s pearl divers, fewer people would have been needed to work in the pearl industry, thus making more men available for pursuing less favorable pursuits, like “gun-running, slaving and piracy.” However, the technology could have also brought about a more diverse economy. With fewer people dedicated to the pearl industry, a more varied and resilient economy might have evolved to withstand Japan’s artificial cultivation of pearls in the 1930s. See Abdullah, United Arab Emirates, 103–104.

6. Aqil Kazim, The United Arab Emirates A.D. 600 to the Present: A Socio-Discursive Transformation in the Arabian Gulf (Dubai: Gulf Book Centre, 2000), 152.

7. Donald Hawley, The Trucial States (London: Allen & Unwin, 1970), 164.

8. Lorimer and Birdwood, Gazetteer, vol. I, pt. 2, 2637. Curzon’s visit to the region was described as such: “The memorable cruise made by Lord Curzon in the Persian Gulf at the end of 1903 was undertaken for the purpose of inspecting the Indian establishments maintained there, of visiting the Arab Shaikhs in treaty relations with the British Government, and of testifying to the paramount political and commercial ascendance exercised by Great Britain in Persian Gulf waters.”

9. Ibid., vol. I, pt. 2, 2632, 2638; John Hayhurst, “Curzon’s Durbars and the Alqabnamah: The Persian Gulf as Part of the Indian Empire,” in British Library Asian and African Studies Blog (30 Dec. 2014).

10. By 1949, Dubai and the other sheikhdoms had been given the appellation British Protected States, which did little to clarify the political relationship. In Bagpipes in Babylon: A Lifetime in the Arab World and Beyond (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006), Glencairn Balfour-Paul, once the political agent in Dubai, described the British as “keep[ing] the precise status of the sheikhdoms undefined” (p. 190).

11. Abdullah, United Arab Emirates, 66. The holding company of PDTC was Petroleum Concessions Limited.

12. Marshall to Hird (16 May 1957), National Archives, United Kingdom (NA), FO 371:127013; Abdullah, United Arab Emirates, 67; Frauke Heard-Bey, From Trucial States to United Arab Emirates: A Society in Transition (London: Motivate, 2005), 258.

13. Pelly to Secretary of State (26 June 1950), National Archives, United Kingdom (NA), FO 371:82047.

14. “A Note on the Wealth of Dubai” (24 June 1950), National Archives, United Kingdom (NA), FO 371:82047. Upon India’s independence in 1947, British administration of the Trucial States transferred from the colonial government of India to the Foreign Office in London.

15. Ibid.

16. Julian Walker, Tyro on the Trucial Coast (Durham, UK: Memoir Club, 1999), 58. The site is roughly where the British consulate is today. British scouts actually selected, and preferred, the site. In preparing the grounds for the political agent, an official contemplated on what life would be like for the future agents: “I hope you will agree with me that any British officer or a clerk, who is posted to such a dreary place, and such a climate, without any amenities, or even his fellow Europeans . . . to meet for recreation, will need the very best of accommodations for himself and his wife if he is to maintain his health, or even his mental balance, throughout the summer” (Jackson to Walters [4 Nov. 1947], National Archives, United Kingdom [NA], WORK 10:124).