When most people think of Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates, they think of a glitzy city with futuristic-looking high-rise buildings, high-end shopping, luxury hotels and nightlife, along pristine beaches on the Arabian Gulf. What doesn’t come to mind for the average person is that Dubai, much like Rome, hasn’t been built in a day, even if it may seem that way. The city has expanded rapidly over the last 20 years, making an interesting case study in planning. However, Old Dubai’s Bastakiya Quarter is a neighborhood dating back over 100 years, which is an impressive figure considering that the UAE is only 43 years old. There, one can see how people used to live in Dubai, as well as what people prioritized when planning a community.

The Bastakiya Quarter, located along the south bank of Dubai Creek, was once a thriving middle class neighborhood. A century ago, Dubai was one of the world’s centers of pearl diving. With the rise of machine-made pearls in the 1930s, pearl diving and the Bastakiya Quarter began to decline. The UAE oil boom did not commence until the 1960s, but the area experienced a rebirth a decade earlier when the Dubai Creek was dredged and widened to accommodate larger cargo ships from all over the Middle East and Africa. Today, the Bastakiya Quarter is a popular tourist attraction and home to numerous shops, restaurants, art galleries, and cultural institutions like the Sheikh Mohamed Center for Cultural Understanding (URL: www.cultures.ae). SMCCU offers walking tours of Bastakiya multiple times a week.

The Bastakiya Quarter got its name from the Iranian city of Bastak, a city on the southern coast from which many present-day Emirati families immigrated by boat. Emiratis, like many peoples in the Arabian Gulf region, were originally nomadic and were used to packing up their home and relocating. Today, Emiratis, even the lower classes, are not nomadic due to progressive government policies in the 1990s, but many natives have nomadic Bedouin bloodlines.

In Bastakiya, one can see two different types of housing stock originally common in Bastak, Iran. While they were the predominant housing styles for two different socioeconomic classes, they each used innovative techniques for dealing with Dubai’s brutal heat and both take advantage of reprieve in the form of cooling desert winds.

an "al kaimah" house

an “al kaimah” house

On the right in the photo above is an example of an “al kaimah” house. The home’s style is primitive, reflecting the Emiratis’ Bedouin and nomadic roots. It was the home style of choice for lower-middle class citizens. These houses are made of palm tree fibers, making them structurally durable but susceptible to fire. However, the palm tree fibers also allow air to pass through, keeping the house cool in summer.

Middle class families opted to live in the style of house shown on the left side of the previous photo. This style, known as “al arish,” is a more proper multi-family dwelling. Al arish houses consist of multiple rooms surrounding a central courtyard, offering more privacy than al kaimah houses, which are basically oversized multi-family huts. The central courtyard often has a large tree to provide shade, but the home has another key feature that offers a superior level of cooling technology.

A wind tower with an Al arish house.

A wind tower with an Al arish house.

Al arish houses are famous for their wind towers. Wind towers send cold air downward into a portion of a room directly underneath the tower, away from the doorway to the central courtyard. In summer, families would cram themselves into the room with a wind tower above; alternatively, families would offer this room to overnight guests. In essence, wind towers were one of the most primitive forms of air conditioning with a family’s wealth illustrated by the number of wind towers in their home. Today, buildings that are meant to look “traditional,” such as the Madinat Jumeirah resort, incorporate wind towers in the design, but only for decoration (thanks to modern day air conditioners).

It is worth noting that the Bastakiya neighborhood was planned to control the weather as well. There are numerous courtyards with large shade trees, and houses were built very close together so the streets/alleys would double as powerful wind tunnels.

The planning behind Bastakiya neighborhood encompassed more than just climate control. The layout and construction of the buildings, especially the al arish houses, also uphold the Islamic principle of modesty.


If you look at two buildings across the street/alley from another, you will notice doors and windows do not face each other.

Houses also utilized different sizes of doors and windows. Large windows are used for common areas, while smaller windows are used for more private rooms, such as bedrooms. The larger common area windows are also located closer to the ground than the smaller windows.


People would leave their bigger windows open if they were home, letting guests know that they were welcome inside their home.



When guests arrived at a house, they would be greeted by a door with two doors. The smaller, more modest door was used for people, while the bigger door was used for getting animals and bulkier items in and out. The smaller door meant outsiders would see less of what was inside the home when people came and went. In addition, the first thing that someone would see when entering an al arish house was an interior wall rather than the central courtyard itself. Once inside, one would have to turn 90 degrees to see the courtyard, ensuring a greater sense of privacy and modesty.

The United Arab Emirates has become an up-and-coming power in construction design and technology in recent years. There have been numerous advances in the country, including the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest building) and Masdar City (a carbon zero, solar-powered planned city located outside of Abu Dhabi). Bastakiya Quarter demonstrates Dubai had innovative planning before independence in 1971, a fact that may be mind-boggling to given the UAE’s forward-looking image.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are personal and not those of FEMA, DHS, or the US Government.