Zn-based Al2O3-suported materials have been proposed as inexpensive and environmentally friendly catalysts for the direct dehydrogenation of propane (PDH), however, our understanding of these catalysts’ structure and deactivation routes is still limited. Here, we correlate the catalytic activity for PDH of a series of Zn-based Al2O3 catalysts with their structure and structural evolution. To this end, three model catalysts are investigated. (i) ZnO/Al2O3 prepared by atomic layer deposition (ALD) of ZnO onto γ-Al2O3 followed by calcination at 700 °C, which yields a core-shell spinel zinc aluminate/γ-Al2O3 structure. (ii) Zinc aluminate spinel nanoparticles (ZnxAlyO4 NPs) prepared via a hydrothermal method. (iii) A reference core-shell ZnO/SiO2 catalyst prepared by ALD of ZnO on SiO2. The catalysts are characterized in detail by synchrotron X-ray powder diffraction (XRD), Zn K-edge X-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS), and 27Al solid state nuclear magnetic resonance (ssNMR). These experiments allowed us to identify tetrahedral Zn sites in close proximity to Al sites of a zinc aluminate spinel phase (ZnIV–O–AlIV/VI linkages) as notably more active and selective in PDH relative to the supported ZnO wurtzite phase (ZnIV–O– ZnIV linkages) in ZnO/SiO2. The best performing catalyst, 50ZnO/Al2O3 gives 77% selectivity to propene (gaseous products based) at 9 mmol C3H6 gcat−1 h−1 space time yield (STY) after 3 min of reaction at 600 °C. On the other hand, the core-shell ZnO/Al2O3 catalyst shows an irreversible loss of activity over repeated PDH and air-regeneration cycles, explained by Zn depletion on the surface due to its diffusion into subsurface layers or the bulk. ZnxAlyO4 NPs gave a comparable initial selectivity and catalytic activity as 50ZnO/Al2O3. With time on stream, ZnxAlyO4 NPs deactivate due to the formation of coke at the catalyst surface, yet the extend of coke deposition is lower than for the ZnO/Al2O3 catalysts, and the activity of ZnxAlyO4 NPs can be regenerated almost fully using calcination in air.