Finding culture in the UAE

Where to find tradition and culture in modern day UAE

Camel beauty contest judging at Al Dhafra Festival

Dubai is just a bunch of skyscrapers. It’s all glitz and glamour. It lacks any culture

These are common sensationalist headlines that I bet you’ve read about the United Arab Emirates.

Have these sort of statements put you off visiting the UAE?  Made you question whether there’s any real benefit to stepping off the plane? Is there really more to it than skyscrapers and desert?

Articles by international journalists of this nature have left me reeling of late – and I am not the only one with Sultan Al Qassemi also weighing in on the issue in a very public way.

It’s undeniable that there is a very modern image to the UAE, Dubai particularly.  What people are forgetting though is that culture isn’t always something you can see.   Before we delve into the details of FINDING culture in the UAE, let’s first look at WHAT IS TRADITIONAL EMIRATI CULTURE?

Traditional Culture in the UAE

Assumably the criticism levelled at Dubai and the UAE, in general, comes from the perceived lack of indigenous culture – traditional bedouin culture and what existed before the oil boom of the 1960’s.

The country itself is only 45 years old but has seen significant economic development, which is often shown off in an ostentatious way.  Yes, burgeoning skylines, glistening beaches, beach resorts and theme parks are probably the most likely images you have seen of the UAE.

And if you plan your itinerary around these features – that’s exactly what you’ll see.

A recent article by Ammar Shams in the National explains that by its very nature, there would be very little or nothing of the Bedouin culture to be seen;  The Bedouin culture is nomadic, they owned very few material items.

You won’t find many historic buildings because the Bedouin did not build permanent structures. Their traditions can be found orally, in poetry, language, values and history past from one generation to the next.

The average tourist to a country (and I do generally put myself in this bucket), does not think to look beyond the visible for our dose of culture.  We want to SEE IT, PHOTOGRAPH IT, EXPERIENCE IT, SHARE IT on our Facebook feed.

We have an obsession with materiality, whereas traditional culture Bedouin culture was about survival.

Traditional Emirati culture does exist, it’s just not always promoted in a way that overseas visitors find accessible.  Will this hinder the growth of the UAE tourism industry though, or is this not what people come here to find?

Culture in the UAE

Modern UAE Culture

On the surface, the modern image of the UAE is vastly different to its desert past.

Most people arrive through Dubai or Abu Dhabi international airports.  The first thing you are normally greeted with after a crowded arrivals hall is a blast of warm air. Into your air-conditioned taxi you will then be whisked past high rise buildings to your plush, modern hotel.

Your guidebook at this point no doubt tells you to visit one of the giant malls, head to the beach, take a ride to At the Top Burj Khalifa or visit a theme park before taking a desert safari.  All in good measure, these are reasonably sound ideas to get a feel for what the modern country is all about.

Dubai City skyline modern UAE culture

Many are surprised to hear that the native Emirati population of the country is around 11%. The vast majority of the country is made up of overseas workers, from other Gulf countries, the Indian subcontinent and the Philipines. The ‘Western’ population is also estimated around 11-12%.

English is the base language everyone should learn to get by. Though Arabic remains the legal language and is of course widely spoken, tourists will most likely deal with foreign customer service staff in English. Even if you learn a few Arabic expressions, you may get little chance to use them.

It is true that the advent of modern culture has meant the passing down on knowledge and traditions to the next generation has been somewhat overlooked.

A huge amount of effort has been put in recent years to remind the Emirati’s of their culture and tradition, installing on them a sense of pride for a very new nation. National Day celebrations held on 2 December each year are a massive event and you will see the country adorned in UAE flags. The school curriculum now includes social studies units as well as religious and language teaching for all native Emiratis.

If experiencing the modern culture is not your thing though and you are a more immersive traveller, please don’t dismiss the UAE off your agenda.  You will need to do a little further digging and research then what most guide books provide and open your mind to what is considered culture – but it DOES exist.

Cultural travel in the UAE

Here are some of the places we have discovered so far that lend themselves to the more cultured traveller to the UAE (and yes, many of them are kid friendly too!!)

Sheikh Zayed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU)

Always a good starting point for first-time visitors,  the SMCCU runs a varied program including tradition meals, street tours, cultural awareness sessions for visitors or corporations, mosque visits and educational programs.

Located in the Al Fahidi Historic Neighbourhood, it’s a great starting point to explore historic Dubai.  Dating back to the 1890’s the area original built by Persian merchants is now subject to a conservation and restoration order preventing any further demolition for new buildings.  It’s now pedestrianised and an area filled with art, traditional perfumes, spice shops and teas.

You will also find the Dubai Museum and Al Fahidi Fort in this neighbourhood.  Entry is only AED3 for adults and AED1 for children.  If you do not have time to make it beyond Dubai, this can be a great starting point for learning more about the country’s past.

Al Bastakiya - Al Fahidi Neighbourhood in Dubai
Al Bastakiya – Photo credit Explore with Mufaza

You can complete your Old Dubai experience with taking a traditional Dhow from Bur Dubai to Deira and experience the gold and spice markets which are still a bustling hub of the city and worlds apart from the towering skyscrapers of Downtown Dubai.  Our blogger friend Shea has a great guide to exploring this part of Dubai.

Heritage Village – Emirates Heritage Club

Those starting their journey in Abu Dhabi may similarly want to include the Heritage Village on their itinerary. Situated on the marina breakwater you see the stark contrast here between old and new Abu Dhabi.  You can find here examples of traditional housing and women’s handicrafts, a traditional souk (selling tourist tat as well as some nicer handicraft) as well as an opportunity to see a falcon up close.

It’s a place that I wish the tourist authorities would put more attention into; provide more signage and explanations in English perhaps? A few visits here have left us feeling a little disappointed, but again back to Ammar Shams comments – perhaps I’m still looking for cultural understanding in the wrong places?

Where to stay in Abu Dhabi

Qasr al Hosn Exhibition

In the centre of Abu Dhabi a permanent exhibit has opened next to the historic Qasr al Hosn fort.  Here a great deal of effort has gone into capturing the oral and photographic past of the country.  It’s small but well worth a look (and inside air-conditioned for summer explorers!).

There’s also the annual Qasr al Hosn Festival held here annually around March, very much geared to getting local Emirati families more involved in their culture.  A much larger redevelopment of the site expected to reopen in 2018.

100+ family things to do in the UAE - plan your family visit to the United Arab Emirates

Historic Al Ain

Trekking outside of the big capital cities is a must for culture-seekers.  Al Ain is probably the most historic centre of the UAE in terms of buildings that have been preserved and recent efforts that have gone into cultural preservation and education programs.

The Al Ain National Museum established in 1969 should be your first stop.  It is home to many of the countries first archaeological finds.   Next up is the Al Ain Oasis which has undergone significant restoration work in recent years and is now a UNESCO world heritage site. Here you will also find Al Ain Palace – what used to be the residential home of the country’s founding father and his family is now an open museum, an insight into life in the past.

As with many of the country’s  historic attractions, entry is either negligible or free.

You can get day tours to Al Ain that depart from both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, including a trip to Jebel Hafeet – Abu Dhabi’s highest point.  Note we have been told these tours can feel quite rushed and those wanting a more in-depth experience should really allow for at least an overnight visit, if not longer.

With children, I would most definitely recommend an overnight stay and catching some of Al Ain’s other attractions including the Zoo and Green Mubazzarah, a natural spring with reported healing powers!  Attending the camel souk is also another way to experience part of the modern Emirati culture that still draws on traditional life – you can read more about Al Ain in this guest post.

SEE ALL HOTELS IN AL AIN

Road Trip from Abu Dhabi to Muscat with Kids
Historic Al Ain viewed from Jebel Hafeet. Photo Credit Lynette Fortey-Burnett

Jazirat al Hamra

Perched on the northern coastline of Ras al Khaimah, Jazirat al Hamra (literally translated “the Red Island”) is a startling reminder of what coastal village life was once like in pre-oil UAE.   While other cities around it thrived, the former pearling village with history believed to date back to the 14th century was abandoned in 1968.  The outline of this once bustling village remains as a

The outline of this once bustling village remains as a permanent reminder of days gone by. Debate apparently continues on what the fate of Al Hamra should be; but in the meantime, those not put off by rumours that it is haunted can enjoy exploring the ruins of what were clearly once schools, homes and marketplace in the past and imagine what life was once like.

Finding culture in the UAE - Jazirat al Hamra Ghost Town
Jazirat al Hamra Ghost Town. Photo Credit Filipina Expat

SEE ALL HOTELS IN RAK

Al Dhafra Festival

If you are living in the UAE, or are visiting during December then attending the Al Dhafra festival in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi is a must.  Established in 2007 the festival was established to educate younger generations about their country’s indigenous heritage, traditions and culture. Events range from the ever popular camel beauty contest through to date packing, camel milking, Saluki racing and falconry.

Information on the event’s program, in English at least, has been scant in the past but is improving.  It’s one of those events you should simply turn up to and absorb the atmosphere – we have a detailed guide here on our take on the Al Dhafra Festival as foreigners.

Al Dhafra Festival with Kids | Discover the UAE | OurGlobetrotters.Com

Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital

One of the much under-rated gems to visit in Abu Dhabi is the Falcon Hospital.  Falconry is a hugely important part of the Bedouin culture which is thoroughly explained during this two-hour guided tour of their facilities in Sweihan, just on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi behind the Airport – between the E11 and E311.

It comes with a heftier price tag than some of the other attractions listed here, but in our own experience, it was worth every dirham. A really in depth tour is provided with narrative, a chance to see the falcons up close, even see an operation take place.

This is one of the attractions that you must book in advance for, not just turn up. See advance booking details here.

Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital UAE Culture

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Although the Grand Mosque itself is a relatively new building being completed in only 2007,  it is a truly stunning architectural legacy from the countries founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan.

For many visitors to the UAE, this is number one on their list of attractions to visit.  Yes, it certainly makes for some beautiful photos, but it also holds an important place in the UAE’s modern culture and history. Try to attend when one of the free guided tours is held (current information

Try to attend when one of the free guided tours is held (current information here) to give you more insight into the founding father’s vision for the country, the building and all that it symbolises for the people. The staff are very knoweldgable, all that is asked is that you main very repectful of your surroundings as it is actively used as a mosque – in fact, can hold up to 41,000 worshippers!!

You can read more about what to expect visiting the Grand Mosque and how to make it family-friendly here.

Wahat al Karama

As part of a visit to the Mosque, you may also want to visit Wahat al-Karama, immediately across the road, over a footbridge.  A Memorial and Pavillion of Honour were opened here in 2016 to immortalise the sacrifices made by UAE nationals in active service for their country.

This is an incredibly sad yet important chapter in the UAE’s modern history, a country rarely involved in conflict.

SEE ALL HOTELS IN ABU DHABI

Other modern cultural openings

Last year saw the opening of the UAE’s first opera house,  Dubai Opera, which as well as staging international shows will become a venue for traditional Arab performers.

Etihad Museum in Dubai opened in January 2017, a very modern building it houses the story of the birthplace of the UAE.

And still to come in the UAE

The culture district of Abu Dhabi – Saadiyat Island, is a long-awaited development that unfortunately due to the current economic climate has seen many delays in opening.  The first stage, the Louvre Museum is now scheduled to open later in 2017.  When complete, the district will also include a Guggenheim Museum housing global contemporary art and the Zayed National Museum in dedication to the story of the Late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, both pencilled for completion by 2020.

Elsewhere, the Museum of the Future project in Dubai has been given the green light, and construction has commenced on the Mohammed Bin Rashid Library, due to open in 2018.

The UAE Government is undoubtedly aware of the need to include more cultural offerings for both its people and visitors factoring in both traditional indigenous culture and the countries modern needs.

15 important facts to know before visiting the UAE

So can you really experience UAE culture?

Don’t come to the UAE expecting to see traditional Emirati culture slap you in the face then bemoan the lack of it. Decide what it is you are coming to experience and seek it out; Understand that tradition in the United Arab Emirates isn’t always presented to you in traditional ways.

Further reading

Culture in the UAE - camel racing training at Al Dhafra Festival

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How to find and experience culture and tradition in modern day Dubai and the UAE

Keri and her family have been UAE residents since 2012. Once naysayers of the lack of culture too, they have used their time living in the UAE to learn more about the country’s modern and traditional culture and enjoy passing this knowledge on to their own children, residents and visitors alike.  

If you would like to share more of your cultural understanding of the UAE, or what cultural travel means to you, please get in touch ([email protected]) about how you can guest post and share your local knowledge and passion that can be passed on to the next generation.

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4 Comments

  • I remember the first time I went to the UAE and looking all over the internet for the information you’ve placed so well here! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • It can still be like needle in a haystack to find information but it’s definitely improving

  • What a great article Keri! There are so many ‘sustainability’ lessons we can perhaps learn form the Bedouin culture which is something I hadn’t thought of before. The Nation really has come such a long way in just 45 years which makes these Historical areas and events all the more unique and intriguing.

    • From my research, I think the Government is acutely aware that in the race for modernisation, many of these traditions are being lost.
      It would be great to see things like Al Dhafra and Al Hosn Festival get more international limelight. We have seen many of the lesser known crafts and traditions in practice, and as you say they probably know a thing or too about sustainability which would be great seen applied more here in modern everyday life.

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