William Duff, The Man Who Built Dubai

After offshore oil was discovered in 1966, the Sheikh conceived a vision of a modern city-state and entrepot whose prosperity would outlast the flow of oil revenues: without far-sighted investment, he feared, the desert would one day reclaim its territory and his descendants would ride camels as his forebears had done. Mr William Duff became a key figure in transforming the little emirate into what it is today, a financial power, a glitzy, high-rise, architecturally-state-of-the-art hub of business and travel and a horse-racing venue that threatens Royal Ascot as the place to be seen placing a bet.
It was Duff who helped manage the massive spending on transport infrastructure and public amenities that followed’ and who played a key part in the planning and realisation of the Jebel Ali free trade zone that would eventually become one of the world’s busiest commercial ports, a Middle Eastern base for many international companies, and a haven for the US Navy in Gulf waters.

Early Life
William Robert Duff was born on May 13, 1922 in Singapore to Robert Duff, an Aberdonian who had set up his business there. Bill was sent home to be educated at Cheltenham College, and went up to Hertford College, Oxford, to read Classics before being called for war service.
Professional Career
Mr Duff was commissioned in 1st Battalion Princess Louise’s (Kensington) Regiment. He served in the Italian campaign, and later in Sudan and Palestine, where his fascination with the Arab world took root. He returned to Oxford to study Arabic, and perfected his fine command of the language at the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies at Shemlan in the Lebanon.
Banking Career
Mr Duff later joined what was then the Bank of Iran and the Middle East’ originally the Imperial Bank of Persia and later, as British Bank of the Middle East, a subsidiary of HSBC.
Financial Adviser to the Kuwait Royal Family
He served the bank in several countries in the region before finding a new role, with British government encouragement, as financial adviser to the Kuwait royal family.
Friendship with Sheikh Rashid
Then, Mr Duff went to Sheikh Rashid of Dubai. The strength of the friendship between the two men contributed to the evolution of Dubai as a relatively tolerant meeting place of Islamic and Western cultures. Duff also often acted as native guide for the Sheikh and his family on holidays in Scotland, based at the Gleneagles hotel. He also persuaded the Sheikh to endow a new library at Exeter University, later part of its Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies.
Dubai’s Journey to Development
Mr Duff, who had got to know many of the 50,000 Dubai residents by name when he first arrived, watched the population grow to more than two million. He personally set up Dubai’s first department of customs, its department of finance, its first electric utility, the Seafarers’ Mission, the first English kindergartens and schools and the Jebel Ali Free Trade Zone which now sits alongside the biggest port in the Middle East. He also founded Dubai’s first English-curriculum school, which for many years was run by his wife, the Polish-born Irenka Trachimovic.


On February 14, 2014, Mr Duff died of natural causes at his home in Jumeirah, Dubai, next to the historic Union House.

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