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Friday, June 14, 2024

UAE Currency – A history lesson in your wallet

by Philip Weiss

© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock

You don’t need to visit a museum to learn about the history of the UAE. Simply take a look at its currency.

It passes through our hands each day, but have you ever stopped to examine the currency of the UAE?

In fact the banknotes in this part of the world offer a clear insight into the country’s past and present through the landmarks and cultural symbols that they feature.

“The history of money is fascinating, as it shows you who was in power when, and the impact of the trade routes and foreign intervention,” says Abdullah bin Jassim Al Mutairi, an Emirati currency expert, heritage sites consultant and the Acting Director of Heritage Sites at Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing. He’s been collecting UAE coins and notes for more than 40 years.

Historically speaking banknotes are relatively new to this part of the world. When they were first introduced in 1969 the local tribesmen and bedouins found it difficult to switch from using coins, something they could hold and that they trusted. What’s more, money in paper form was less hard wearing in the hot, humid climate than coins.

Excavations across the UAE have revealed the use of coins from as far back as the 4th century BC. “This area, like much of the known world at the time, first started using Greek coins,” explains Al Mutairi. “The drachma, in both silver and copper, was in widespread use in the region in the 1st century AD, and is thought to have been the origin of the word ‘dirham.’”

He points out that the Islamic coins used here changed in size at various times in history. However after World War I, with the expansion of the trade routes between the Emirates and India, they were replaced by the Indian rupee.


The first rupee note came into circulation during the reign of King George V in Britain, between 1910 to 1936. The ‘external rupee’ or the ‘Gulf rupee’ as it became known, replaced the Indian rupee in 1959. And from June to September 1966, the Trucial States adopted the Saudi Riyal as a transitional measure.

Later, based on political alliances, the currency in the region changed again. According to Al Mutairi, Abu Dhabi had its own currency which was different to that of Dubai and the Northern Emirates. “It was a different time with different politics and this was reflected in the use of the currency,” he says.

Indeed between 1966 and 1973, Abu Dhabi used the Bahraini dinar, while Dubai and the rest of the emirates used the Qatar and the Dubai riyal.


The Trucial States became known as the United Arab Emirates in 1971, with Ras al Khaimah joining in 1972. As a result, the UAE dirham was produced for the first time on May 19, 1973. It featured some of the country’s oldest and most distinguishable buildings, from mosques to forts and later the first skyscrapers in Dubai.

Initially only denominations of Dhs1, Dhs5, Dhs10, Dhs50 and Dhs100 were issued and the first official UAE notes were very different to the ones in circulation now. Elements of desert life were featured on the front of all of them, each with a different building or scene on the back.

The front had a watermark of a horse’s head and the outline of the UAE coast. Other traditional images included a dhow, four camels and a camel driver, a palm tree, an oil derrick and a string of pearls. There were only six notes circulating in the early 1970s despite the fact that there were seven emirates. Ras al Khaimah didn’t feature at all, most likely because the design for the money was approved prior to it joining the union.

The Dhs1 note at the time featured the Sharjah Fort and one of the two clock towers in Sharjah, but it was phased out in 1976 due to excessive wear.

On the back of the Dhs5 note was an illustration of Fort Bithna on the east coast, which controlled access into Fujairah. However today’s Dhs5 note shows Khorfakkan’s oldest landmark – the 200-yearold Imam Salem Al Mutawa Mosque, as well as Sharjah’s Blue Souq, officially known as the ‘Central Souq’.

The 1973 Dhs10 note had an aerial view of the Arabian Peninsula showing where Umm al-Qaiwain was positioned. The modernday version however is adorned with images of date palm plantations and a khanjar dagger. Both are recognisable symbols of the Arabian Peninsula.


The colourful banknotes circulating in 2011 still acknowledge the UAE’s history.

It’s fitting for example that Abu Dhabi’s oldest building – the Qasr Al Hosn, is depicted on the country’s highest value banknote – the Dhs1,000 bill. Built in 1760, the ancient structure has long been considered a symbol of power in the country’s capital city.

But many of the modern notes also feature more recently built landmarks – showing just how far the country has come.

For example today’s Dhs100 note shows the first skyscraper in Dubai – the 39-storey Dubai World Trade Centre which opened in 1979. The Dhs500 note, first introduced in 1982, has recently been altered and now has extra security features including a see-through window and a security stripe. The Dhs200 was released in 1989.

Both notes feature pictures of the UAE Central Bank and the Jumeirah Mosque respectively. The Dhs20 note shows the Dubai Creek Golf and the Dubai Yacht Club – both recently built structures in Dubai.

As the UAE continues to change no doubt its currency will too. It’s interesting to think that examples of the money we use now will one day most likely be displayed in a museum to show how the UAE once was. Spare a thought the next time you pay...

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