From Ancient Foundations to Modern Marvels: The Evolution of UAE in Architecture and Design

From Ancient Foundations to Modern Marvels: The Evolution of UAE in Architecture and Design

07.10.2024 (updated 07.10.2024)

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  • UAE: Architectural Evolution from Ancient Foundations to Modern Marvels | AX CAPITAL

Over the past fifty years, the architectural landscape of the United Arab Emirates has undergone a dramatic transformation. From its early days of modest Bedouin structures, traditional wind towers, and small commercial hubs, UAE has evolved into a metropolis known for its towering skyscrapers, cutting-edge designs, and expansive suburban developments. This swift metamorphosis, particularly notable from the late 1980s onward, raises a compelling question: how did the UAE become one of the most distinctive technological hubs in the Arab East?

In this article, we seek to explore some of the factors behind this architectural evolution. In particular, we will examine:

Dubai’s Cultural Heritage – Ancient Structures and Barajeels

Dubai's ancient architecture was influenced by the grandiose structures from the Antiquity period, which featured elements such as arches, domes, aqueducts, and amphitheatres. They were not only aesthetically pleasing but also highly functional. Arches and domes, for instance, allowed for the creation of large, open interior spaces, while aqueducts demonstrated advanced engineering capabilities for water transport. 

Al Ahmadiya School, established in 1912, showcases traditional Emirati architecture with its use of courtyards, wind towers, and decorative arches, blending functional design with historical aesthetics.

Al Ahmadiya School, 1912: Traditional UAE's Architecture | AX CAPITAL
Al Ahmadiya School, 1912

Another example of this is the Jumeirah Mosque, built in the traditional Fatimid style with large domes and arches, reflecting the continuation of ancient architectural principles. 

Jumeirah Mosque: Traditional Fatimid architecture with domes and arches | AX CAPITAL
Jumeirah Mosque

Furthermore, Dubai's architecture was deeply influenced by traditional Islamic designs that were both functional and harmonious with the harsh desert environment.

One of the most distinctive features of this period was the use of wind towers, known locally as Barajeel. These square towers were ingeniously designed as natural cooling systems, directing the wind down into the living spaces below and providing relief from the intense heat. Constructed from locally sourced materials such as coral, mud, palm wood, and gypsum, Barajeel exemplified the resourceful use of available resources. Remnants of these traditional wind towers can still be seen in historical areas like Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, serving as a testament to Dubai’s rich architectural heritage.

Al Fahidi historical district | AX CAPITAL
Al Fahidi

Engineers today are drawing inspiration from these ancient cooling techniques as part of a broader movement towards sustainable architecture. For example, Masdar City in Abu Dhabi has incorporated modern interpretations of Barajeel to enhance energy efficiency and reduce reliance on air conditioning, showcasing a blend of traditional wisdom and contemporary innovation.

The Industrial Revolution and Its Impact on UAE

The Industrial Revolution, which began in England around 1750 and lasted until sometime between 1820 and 1840, profoundly impacted global architecture and development, including the regions that would later become the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

The influence of British authorities during the Trucial States protectorate resulted in many architectural changes from the Industrial Revolution. 

As progressive industrialization and urbanization spread worldwide, new industries emerged, producing durable consumer goods that fueled economic growth and mass production. Thanks to the newly-adopted machine production, many materials became more accessible at that time. This had also led to the adoption of concrete, metal, and glass, the integration of which marked a revolutionary phase in the UAE's architectural landscape, enabling innovative construction technologies.

Dubai: late 19th - early 20th century | AX CAPITAL
Dubai at the end of the 19th - beginning of the 20th century: architectural transformations

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Dubai began to prosper from the pearl trade, which brought increased wealth and international influence. During this era, the city saw the construction of more elaborate and durable buildings using coral stone, supported by wooden poles and adorned with intricate gypsum decorations. This way, Dubai began to absorb influences from foreign traders and visitors, evolving from purely traditional designs to a blend of local and external ones.

The discovery of oil in the 1960s brought another major transformation in Dubai, speeding up modernization and urban development. With increased wealth from oil exports, the introduction of air conditioning and modern construction materials enabled the construction of tall buildings, drastically changing the city's skyline. This period also involved significant investment in infrastructure, such as roads and ports, pushing Dubai further into the modern era.

The Birth of the UAE and the Rise of the Local Art Scene

Formation of the UAE from seven sheikhdoms | AX CAPITAL
UAE map. Source:

After nearly 150 years as the Trucial States, the seven sheikhdoms that were part of it officially formed the United Arab Emirates. Gaining independence in 1971 coincided with a sharp rise in oil and petroleum prices due to Saudi Arabia's strict energy policy. This facilitated the new state's early economic and foreign policy efforts. With oil revenues, the establishment of free economic zones, and strategic investments in industry and agriculture, the Emirates swiftly attained relative economic prosperity. The tourism and financial sectors also saw significant growth.

The formation of the UAE in 1971 was followed by a cultural renaissance in the late 1970s and early 1980s, marked by the emergence of various artistic and architectural projects across the country.

The federation's founder, Sheikh Zayed, along with his wife Sheikj Fatima, played a crucial role in the nation’s rapid growth. Sheikh Fatima established the General Women's Union in 1975, which aimed to enhance women's social and economic status. The encouragement led many sheikhas to establish their own art centres, fostering innovative ideas and cultural expression.

In 1979, Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah, launched a series of cultural initiatives for an emirate, such as the establishment of a book fair and a theatre. The period saw the construction of iconic buildings that blended traditional Islamic architecture with modern design. The Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain and the Dubai World Trade Centre, completed in 1979, are examples of significant architectural achievements from this time.

Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain and Dubai World Trade Centre, completed in 1979 | AX CAPITAL
Al Jahili Fort

In the same year, Dubai witnessed the opening of the country's first art gallery, Majlis. It was founded by British expatriate and interior designer Allison Collins.  A former family villa in the historic Bastakiya district, purchased in 1976, gradually transformed into an art space, attracting artists for exhibitions. Initially, it was an informal concept, but after a few years, it became a full-fledged commercial gallery.

Majlis Art Gallery | AX CAPITAL
Majlis Art Gallery

The Emirates Fine Arts Society (EFAS) was established in 1980 in Sharjah, offering classes and hosting annual exhibitions for members and invited artists. This sparked substantial artistic growth and vibrant collaboration among talented creators.

Emirates Fine Arts Society founded in 1980 in Sharjah | AX CAPITAL
Emirates Fine Arts Society, Sharjah. Source: Facebook

A year later, inspired by Sheikh Zayed's visionary leadership, the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi opened its doors. It quickly became a central hub for arts and culture, housing the first national library and serving as a cornerstone for cultural activities in the emirate.

These early initiatives and institutions played a pivotal role in shaping the UAE’s art and architecture scene, laying the groundwork for the dynamic and diverse cultural landscape that continues to evolve today.

Iconic Modern Architecture in Abu Dhabi and Dubai: The Burj Khalifa and Beyond

Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi's architectural landscape is a unique fusion of cultural heritage and innovative design, showcased by its renowned institutions. 

The Louvre Abu Dhabi | AX CAPITAL
The Louvre Abu Dhabi

The Louvre Abu Dhabi and the forthcoming Guggenheim Abu Dhabi symbolize the emirate's dedication to art and culture. Abu Dhabi contributed $525 million to associate itself with the Louvre brand and host a branch of the renowned French museum on Saadiyat Island.

Additionally, Abu Dhabi is constructing the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, which is designed by the British company Foster + Partners.  

Sheikh Zayed National Museum | AX CAPITAL
Sheikh Zayed National Museum

There is also the Performing Arts Center, designed by the renowned architect Zaha Hadid. The center features venues for theater, music, cinema, visual arts, and interactive exhibitions.

Performing Arts Center | AX CAPITAL
Performing Arts Center. Source:

To emphasize historical ties with maritime industry and pearl trading, Abu Dhabi built the Maritime Museum designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando.

Maritime Museum | AX CAPITAL
Maritime Museum. Source:

The Cultural Foundation, opened in 1981 on the initiative of Sheikh Zayed, predates these iconic museums and serves as a precursor to Abu Dhabi’s cultural renaissance. Conceived in the 1970s, the Cultural Foundation’s design was finalized by the Architects' Collective, founded by the renowned Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius. 


The Burj Khalifa, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill with Adrian Smith as the architect and William F. Baker as the structural engineer, stands as the epitome of Dubai's modern architectural ambition. Rising 2,717 feet (828 meters) tall with 163 floors, this iconic structure was officially named to honor Sheikh Khalifa ibn Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi.

Burj Khalifa: 828-meter skyscraper in Dubai, a symbol of modern ambitions | AX CAPITAL
Burj Khalifa, Dubai

Dubai’s commitment to design and art is further showcased in Dubai Design District (d3), announced in 2013. This planned community spans 0.08 km² and hosts businesses and organizations focused on design, art, and fashion, reinforcing Dubai’s position as a global hub for creativity and innovation.

Additionally, the Al Fahidi historical district remains a testament to Dubai’s architectural and cultural heritage. It features houses once owned by pearl merchants and wealthy traders, now overshadowed by the towering skyscrapers of Downtown Dubai. These historical buildings offer a charming contrast to modern landmarks such as the Dubai Mall, Burj Khalifa, and the Museum of the Future, reflecting the city’s dynamic blend of past and present.

Together, the architectural developments in Abu Dhabi and Dubai illustrate the UAE’s unique fusion of ancient traditions and modern innovation, creating a distinctive and evolving architectural landscape.

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