Where to find tradition and culture in modern-day UAE
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?
This post is part of our Discover the UAE series
(Originally written in May 2017; Updated in November 2020)
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 1960s.
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 (tourists) 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 all 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?
Modern UAE Culture
On the surface, the modern image of the UAE is vastly different from 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.
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 at 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 experiences 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!!)
The Sheikh Mohammed 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 Historical Neighbourhood, it’s a great starting point to explore historic Dubai. Dating back to the 1890s 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 without leaving the confines of the city.
Another superb but little-known experience in the neighbourhood is Wild Flight Dubai where you can meet falconry experts, watch live displays and learn more about this fascinating cultural tradition. It’s based in the Juhtoor Art Center – the House of Sheikh Khalifa Bin Saeed Al Maktoum. Entry will be 20AED from February 2018.
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 Old 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?
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. (Now open, check it out here).
Qasr al Watan
Opened in 2019, Qasr al Watan is part of the UAE Presidential Palace complex in Abu Dhabi and one of the greatest modern additions to UAE culture. Home to the country’s Federal Supreme Council and host to diplomatic visitors, it can now be viewed by the public.
Take a tour through the Great Hall, the Presidential Dining Hall and marvel at the stunning Al Barza. Guided tours run to educate people on the UAE’s heritage, governing traditions and values. You can read a full review and take a sneak-peek inside here.
Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival
A great new addition to the UAE culture calendar. The event is held in a new purpose-built centre for culture in Al Watha. You can read more about the event and see the daily line up of shows here
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.
You can read our full guide to historic Al Ain here
The Al Ain National Museum established in 1969 should be your first stop, home to many of the countries first archaeological finds. (updated Nov 2018: Closed indefinitely for renovations).
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 Museum, the former residential home of the country’s founding father. It’s 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.
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 and towns around it thrived, the former pearling village with a history believed to date back to the 14th century was abandoned in 1968. The outline of this once bustling village remains as a permanent reminder of days gone by, with rumours of the village being haunted to the simpler explanation that residents moved elsewhere in search of work.
Since first publishing this article, much work has gone into the restoration of this part of Ras Al Khaimah. The Old Fort is now (Al Jazirah Al Hamra Fort) is now a fully restored arts centre.
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.
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.
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 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 knowledgeable, all that is asked is that you main very respectful 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.
Hudayriyat Heritage Trail
On the newly opened Al Hudayriyat Island, a section of the coast has been dedicated as a heritage trail. The 1.2km path between Al Nojoum and Marsana takes visitors on a journey through pearls to wildlife in a beautiful and information coastal walk in both Arabic & English – learn more here.
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.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi opened its doors in November 2017 – you can read a detailed guide to visiting the Louvre and options with kids here.
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.
Whilst the Louvre has finally opened its doors, we await news of the opening of the 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 is due to open eminently. And those seeking to learn more about the UAE’s recent history and journey to unification will enjoy a visit to the Etihad Museum
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.
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 on the UAE
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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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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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