Dubai’s emphasis on trade, and its eventual conversion to a globetrotter’s paradise, was born of necessity: Unlike its neighboring emirate Abu Dhabi, indeed unlike most states in the Persian Gulf, Dubai has almost no oil to exploit. What it did have was a natural harbor and a prime location just inside the Strait of Hormuz, the entry to the gulf, where trading ships coming from India and East Asia could stop after a long voyage.
The Futtaim family, inspired by the waves of Arab nationalism sweeping across the Middle East in the 1940s and ’50s, were early advocates of independence from Britain, which held nominal control over Dubai and eight other gulf sheikhdoms, known as the Trucial States. After Britain withdrew, in 1971, six (eventually seven) of those states formed a federation, the United Arab Emirates, with Abu Dhabi as its capital.
Dubai’s ruling family, under Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum, made a bargain with its merchant elite. In exchange for their support, the government would grant them monopolies over imported goods and the right to exclusive deals with foreign businesses — the Futtaim family, for example, won a lucrative deal with Toyota, a deal that even today gives it control over approximately 30 percent of the emirate’s auto market.
Unlike some families, which did little more than act as gatekeepers for foreign businesses, the Futtaims took an active role in tailoring retail to the local market. Under their control, Ace stores, which strictly sell hardware in the United States, are more like department stores in the Middle East, offering not just hammers and nails but also tents and workout gear.
“He’s one of the last of the old-guard merchants who built Dubai,” Jim Krane, a fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy and the author of “City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism” (2009), said in an interview.
For decades, the Futtaim family ruled as a unified entity, the Al Futtaim Group, but it began to fragment in the 1990s, thanks to a falling-out between Majid and his cousin Abdullah. At one point the dispute was so heated, and so bad for the family business, that the royal family had to intervene.
Mr. Futtaim founded his own company in 1992, and opened his first mall, the City Center Deira, three years later. It was a landmark: Not only did it introduce increasingly wealthy Dubaians to Western-style shopping, but it also blended the experience with family-friendly dining, leisure and entertainment opportunities.