Culture History Monuments and Sites

Past and Present: Toyota Building, Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE).


The earliest nomadic herders once called Dubai and its surrounds home during ancient times. It was here that these Bronze Age herders established the first date palm plantations as a serious push into agriculture. By the fifth century CE, records reveal that the area had become a caravan station along the important trade route that linked Oman and Iraq. Interestingly, a thriving pearl trade in Dubai is mentioned in records courtesy of a Venetian pearl merchant named Gaspero Balbi. He visited the area in the late sixteenth century. Skip a few hundred years and Dubai, now a dependency of the political powers in Abu Dhabi, has become a walled city in the early 1800s. In 1833, Dubai next came under the control of the Bani Was tribe. Under Al Matkoum’s leadership Dubai would regain its independence from Abu Dhabi and become an important fishing village and pearl diving centre. Unfortunately by the early 20th century factors such as the Great Depression and the creation of artificial pearls all but relegated Dubai into a trading backwater. In 1966, Dubai fortunes changed remarkably with the discovery of oil. While Dubai’s resurgence can be notably linked to its oil reserves, other factors like commerce and trade eventually took over in transforming Dubai from a fishing settlement to a significant economic, political and cultural centre by the 21st century. 

But long before Dubai’s remarkable metropolis transformation, in the mid 1960s for instance, Dubai was still somewhat a desert city where its old quarter was its hub and the occasional building punctured the landscape. Besides the old port of the Al Fahidi Fort (the oldest building in Dubai), there is another landmark that has captured our imagination for almost five decades. In the image above, circa 1985, standing out like a sore thumb is the affectionately nicknamed fifteen storey ‘Toyota Building’. Interestingly, when it was finally built in 1974, three years after Dubai joined the federation known as the United Arab Emirates, the colossal apartment block was apparently only one of three buildings in the area then known as Defence Roundabout. The building’s official name is the Nasser Rashid Lootah Building, but in time it was affectionately known as the Toyota Building.


It’s fair to say over the past 50 years since the emirate of Dubai joined the federation known as the United Arab Emirates, its capital city has grown into one of the wealthiest cities in the Middle East. Today, Dubai boasts one of the highest skylines on the planet. It is by all accounts ranked third in the world behind both Hong Kong and New York in terms of high-rise structures that stand over 150 metres high.

In the image above, where a humble traffic circle once stood at Defence Roundabout now stands an impressive network of roads and arteries that connect the city, which now has a population of almost three million people. To the left in the foreground, besides the gigantic intersection of Al Safa St and the Sheikh Zayed Rd (Toll road) still stands the Toyota Building. It is dwarfed in scale when compared to the scenic picture of skyscrapers that run up Sheikh Zayed toll road. It’s incredible to think that it has survived decades of modern development. Only recently the iconic Toyota billboard was removed after its decade-long sponsorship had expired. Apparently there are also no plans to demolish the Toyota Building despite Dubai’s forward-thinking and innovative efforts in technology, architecture and city planning. According to renowned scholar and professor of architecture, Yasser Elsheshtawy, the Toyota Building is an important part of Dubai’s history. While one day it may eventually be knocked down, let’s hope it continues to survive into the future at least as a nostalgic reminder of Dubai’s modern past.

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