Dusk, 21 March 1968, Dubai

1968 aerial detail

Fifty-two years ago this evening, starting at 6:00 p. m., and then every evening for subsequent weeks, Dubai residents were asked to stay at home. At that hour, 340 multilingual “enumerators” fanned out across Dubai, armed with flashlights, ballpoint pens, and thick books of questionnaires. They conducted the city’s first census. Before this date in 1968, any population count was little better than a wild guess.

In the weeks prior, the 1960 town plan had been used to divide up the city into color-coded districts and give each household a unique number. Every house, boat, hovel, hotel, and the hospital were numbered for the enumerators’ recordings. Never before had the city been brought to such spatial legibility.

Enumerators identified a household’s family head or heads and asked him questions, including about the families’ citizenship and employment, but they were instructed not to ask for identification papers. Residents defined for themselves how they should be identified: as visitor, immigrant, or national. Some with Dubai passports said they were foreigners; some without Dubai passports claimed citizenship. Residency was something the individual or the family head determined. That’s because life in Dubai was as fluid as the tide that both sustained Dubai Creek and threatened its productivity. Ebbs and flows characterized every aspect of Dubai.

Records show that the census was thorough and granular, run mostly by Bahrainis who processed the punch cards flown out of Sharjah. In agreeing

to the census, the regional leaders had stipulated that the results would not be published. But some results did get out, including Dubai’s population being set under 60,000 and therefore under word-of-mouth estimates of the day. Also, it became known that Dubai was clearly a city of migrants: nearly 60% claimed to be from somewhere else. If Dubai was an Arab city, it wasn’t because of its demographics, but it was a city of Muslims: 94% claimed Islam as their religion.

In days like these, when we are asked to stay at home, I imagine what it was like being told to stay inside in Dubai this evening 52 years ago—looking out at a city still pretty dark because street lights didn’t reach everywhere. I wonder what it was like, waiting for the beam of the enumerator’s flashlight to brush across one’s door and windows in search of the color-coded number and waiting for the deeply personal questions that, the enumerator would assure, were only being asked for the sake of knowledge.

Hopes to curtail immigration certainly were at least one motivation behind the census. More generally, there was a test going on: The gauging of just how much a city needed to know about its residents without disturbing the fragile port-based economy that depended on many foreign residents feeling they belonged.

Aerial photo of Dubai’s Deira District, 1968.