What I can say is that Dubai still has a thriving small-scale retail sector, composed largely of traders from Iran. The fellow in the above picture who looks a bit like Dustin Hoffman is one of them. He runs a spice shop in the old city. He makes weekly trips back to Iran for products, which he then brings to Dubai. Moreover, Iranians have a lock on almost all the real estate in the older part of town. Note that I did not say ownership. Not only do the Iranians not own the real estate; they don’t even own the businesses, which by law must have an Emirati partner with a 51% equity stake. (Which means less for the Iranians than for other foreigners: see below.) What they do have, however, is managerial control over who can rent. They also have contacts back in Iran, and the ability to access small-scale informal trade finance.
The result is a community that numbers in the hundreds of the thousands (although it is highly mobile between the two nations) and that dominates the old retail sector. They used to be wholesalers, from the day when Dubai was a trading center. Now, with that sector declining (although not as much as you might think, especially in spices) they are reorienting themselves around tourism. After all, once you are sick of the Atlantis and the Burj, and want something that feels more Middle Eastern, where are you going to go?
The Iranian community in Dubai predates the Revolution by a long while. In the 1880s, the Iranian government began to impose special taxes and Persian laws on the Qawasim Arab merchants who had settled on Iran’s coast. A British political agent had arrived in the town of Lingah in 1881, and in 1887 the city’s Arab ruler declared himself under Ottoman protection, but neither did much good. The upshot was an Arab-Iranian emigration to Dubai in the 1890s. (Or sort-of Arab; it isn’t really clear.) A second wave settled in the 1920s, when Reza Shah raised taxes again and required schools to teach Farsi instead of Arabic. A third group followed during the Second World War, avoiding the sanctions that the British clamped on occupied Persia.
One advantage of the long-standing migration is that (according to Christopher Davidson) there are approximately 40,000 Emirati citizens of Iranian descent … which makes things much easier for the newer waves of Iranian merchants. Simply put, they can easily find an Emirati partner whom they can trust.
There is also the more-organized presence the Alex talked about: the Iranian ships, and the like. And there are attempts to deepen the links even further: I am in contact with a group trying to build a gas pipeline across the Gulf. But the small-scale presence is what you most notice, in the merchants and jobbers and patrons in Filipino-run cigar bars. Some of whom, Randy will be interested to know, weren’t really Iranian. Nope, they Canadian by birth and upbringing and very North American in speech and bearing. They’d gone to Dubai seeking adventure on the basis of old family contacts, found jobs in the modern financial and consulting sector, met stunningly gorgeous Persian women, and married them. In the meantime, they make bad hip-hop and live large, at least as long as the banks keep paying their salaries.
I suspect that they’ll wind up back in Toronto eventually, but who knows? The Filipinos run a mean cigar bar.