The UAE has a rich culture and heritage that reflects Arab and Islamic values. Environment and terrain also influenced the lifestyle. Read to know about the different aspects of the Emirati culture and their inspirations then and now.
The UAE is blessed with a rich heritage that encompasses architecture, sports, occupations, traditions, arts, crafts, food, places of historic and archaeological importance, lifestyle and values imbibed in Islam.
This page attempts to give you a peek into the UAE's glorious heritage and the UAE's efforts to preserve it amidst the modern changes.
Features of the Arab and Islamic heritage
Some of the distinct features of the Arab and Islamic heritage are hospitality, tolerance, family cohesion and solidarity among members of the society along with honour and pride associated with being part of this heritage.
Validation of the UAE's heritage
The city of Al Ain in the emirate of Abu Dhabi is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The cultural sites include six oases and the archaeological sites of Bida bint Saud, Hafeet and Hili. Read more about Al Ain, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The emirate of Sharjah has gained two prestigious titles for bearing the torch of the UAE's culture and heritage. In 1998, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named it ‘The Cultural Capital of the Arab World'. In 2014, it was named the capital of Islamic culture for 2014 by Organisation of Islamic Countries.
Efforts of the UAE Government in preserving the heritage
Government entities have taken and continue to take several measure not only to preserve the heritage but also to create awareness about it. It has achieved this through:
holding festivals and events
establishing heritage villages
establishing and maintaining museums
Festivals and events
Annual festivals such as Qasr Al Hosn Festival, Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival, Sultan bin Zayed Heritage Festival, Sharjah Heritage Days bring alive the UAE's heritage and gives the chance for the new generation to experience and value it. These festivals are very popular and draw huge crowds.
Heritage villages are a complex of structures that include traditional houses, schools, markets and public spaces. It is like a replica of structures in the olden days. All emirates have at least one heritage village. The heritage villages offer a peek into the different aspects of the lives of Emiratis in the olden times.
Museums in the UAE have contributed a lot towards preservation of the culture of the UAE.
There are several museums in the UAE. They house artwork, rare pictures, utensils, armoury, maritime equipment, currencies etc. Museums that have opened in original structures that served as forts or palaces in the olden days reflect the heritage of the UAE in a unique way.
The harsh climate and the mostly arid terrain played an important role in influencing the social life of people in the past.
One of a tribe
Every one belonged to one tribal group or the other and swore allegiance to it. This way, everyone was bound by obligations to protect his tribe and in turn be assured of the same for himself from the rest of his tribe members.
The tribal people settled and moved together in groups. The Bani Yas group was the largest tribal group. It roamed the deserts of the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The other tribes at that time were the Awamir and Manasir that also wandered.
The tribes wandered with their camels in search of greener lands for themselves and their cattle. Almost all Bani Yas families, except the Al Rumaitha, who were into fishing, returned to their dwelling in the oases of Liwa occasionally.
Water: key to economic and social structure
As per the book ‘The Tribal Society of the UAE and its Traditional Economy' by Frauke Heard-Bey, the availability of water was key to the economic life and hence the social structure of the then UAE. The country can be broadly divided into three geographically and therefore economically different regions: firstly, the coasts and islands; secondly, the Hajar mountain range with its valleys (wadis) and adjacent gravel plains; and thirdly, the sandy desert.
Life by the coast
On the islands of Abu Dhabi, archaeological evidences show that tribespeople came to fish in the winter and even brought their camels over in boats. They used rainwater, stored in cisterns, or caught in horizontally placed sails.
With the rise of pearling industry, many families moved to the coast. Thus, increasing the size and importance of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Life in the oases
The pearling industry resulted in families gathering wealth. Some of these moved to Al Ain and started date farming. They put some of their wealth in bringing underground water for the date farms from springs near the mountains to the plains. The area and its economy started thriving after the availability of water.
Life in the desert
Bedouins had found a way to live in the harsh desert. In the deserts of Empty Quarter in Abu Dhabi, sometimes, they could find water in the dunes, which was potable, sweet and adequate for their population. They even created date gardens and built themselves houses using the branches of the date palms.
The camel supported the bedouin in their daily life struggle. The camel was not only a mode of transport but also a source of food and a thing of entertainment and utility. Camels were herded for their milk and meat. They were also raced for fun as a sport. Camel hide was used to make bags and other useful utensils, while some of the finest mens' outer garments (bisht) were woven from their hair.
Foundation of the governance culture
The culture of sharing and participation is intrinsic to the Emirati culture. In the olden days, the ruling Sheikhs used to travel to remote lands in the UAE and camp in villages where they would hold ad hoc meetings in large tents. These meetings were informal in nature and largely involved sharing, discussing and resolving local issues relating to society, agriculture, trade and economy, housing, medical and other topics relating to the well-being and happiness of the people. These meetings were referred to as Barza or Majlis (Arabic words for gatherings) and drew Emiratis in huge numbers.
The UAE society today
The UAE's population was estimated to be around 8.2 million around mid-2010. The UAE Government has invested its wealth from oil in building a nation with world-class infrastructure. Emiratis now have access to good education, health services, housing and other vital infrastructure such as public works, banks, telecommunication etc. The UAE leads the Arab region in many of these sectors.
Owing to their earlier practice of settling in groups, even today, Emirati families live together. They stand for cohesiveness bound by religious and tribal ties and traditional values of cooperating and sharing.
Emiratis are social. They like to meet people and continue to hold regular gatherings at home or social venues. They are warm hosts and treat their guests with utmost honour. An Emirati man greets another Emirati man by rubbing his nose against the other's nose. A handshake, an embrace and greetings of peace follow.
Economic factors still affect social lifestyle. Yet, the one thing that did not change is that the Emirati culture resonates Islamic values.
UAE Interact website
The book ‘The Tribal Society of the UAE and its Traditional Economy' by Frauke Heard-Bey
Music, dance, poetry, pottery, weaving and embroidery were popular forms of art in the olden days. Today, paintings and literature have joined the art forms thriving in the UAE.
Music and dance
Music and dance were widely practised in the olden days. Ayala or the ‘stick dance' is one of the folk dance forms. It involves performances by two rows of dancers facing one another. Dancers are positioned close together in rows, signifying the unity and co-operation amongst tribal people. It is accompanied by drumming.
Al Wahabiyyah is one of the oldest art forms of Ras Al Khaimah and is performed only here. The songs during this performance are divided into three sections. Drum players stand between two rows of performers comprising the band. One of the performers begins by reciting a line of poetry. He repeats it a number of times until the other performers have memorised it. Then he recites another line of poetry from the same poem. The first line is a start and the second is the ostinato or pedal.
The two rows of dancers rhythmically move forward and backward, a row bows and drummers keep drawing nearer to it for 10 minutes while moving their heads. The opposite row repeats the some movements as the drummers draw nearer to them as well. Dancers with swords and guns add charm to the show.
Today, Emiratis play traditional music and perform traditional dances on important social occasions.
Traditional UAE's literary heritage comprises Taghrouda and Nabati poetry. Taghrouda involves a poetry duel. This art was practised in rural areas to hasten the search for a lost camel or horse. Al Taghrouda, which is popular at weddings, is also performed on horseback to urge horses to speed up. The equestrian taghrouda is usually about courage, bravery and magnanimity.
Nabati refers to the dialect of Arabic spoken by non-Arabic natives. Nabati poetry has been a feature of life in the Arabian Peninsula since the 16th century. H. H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum composes Nabati poetry. He has published compilations of such compositions.
Crafts such as pottery, weaving and embroidery have been part of the Emirati culture since the time they lived as bedouins. In fact, pottery can be traced back to the Paleolithic Age (6000 B.C. - 3500 B.C.). The Emirati traditional form of weaving, known as Sadu, is on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's ‘List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding'.
Paintings and literature
There are several art galleries, art districts and art museums in the cities of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. Today, the UAE is emerging as an international hub for promoting art and culture. The UAE is venue for several art and literature exhibitions and festivals.
Nabati poetry - Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Cultural Understanding
Pictures (except of pottery) are from VisitAbuDhabi.ae.
Owing to the harsh climatic conditions, agricultural produce was limited in the olden days. Hence, the Emiratis relied on animal products. Some Emirati dishes have a hint of Arabian, Indian, Iranian, Mediterranean and Turkish influences.
Fish and meat
Along the coasts, fish was found in abundance. The Emiratis learnt to store fish by drying it and made it accessible to those living in the deserts and oases.
In the deserts and mountainous regions, Emiratis largely relied on camel milk and meat. Meat of sheep and goat were also staple.
Rice and spice
Foreign trade led to import of spices and later rice. The availability of rice and spice led to the invention of dishes such as Khuzi (stuffed whole roast lamb or goat on a bed of spiced rice), Machboos (casserole of lamb or chicken layered with rice seasoned with spices and some saffron) and Biryani (meat cooked with Indian-style spiced rice).
Cinnamon, saffron and turmeric, along with nuts, limes and dried fruit heighten the flavour of Emirati dishes. Spices were also used to prepare fish dishes such as Machboos, Saloona (stew), Mhammar and Al Madrooba. Mhammar is a side dish where the fish are spiced and prepared whole. It is often served with sweet caramelised onions and sugary yellow rice, which is a blend of savoury and sweet.
Emiratis also favour the other dish, Al Madrooba. It is a mix of salted fish, spices and thick sauce. It is sprinkled with saffron, nuts and spices and served with rice.
Bread and pancakes
Bread and pancakes were popular before rice came in. The Arabic bread Khameer (which is the Arabic word for yeast) is made from yeast, flour and powdered milk. It is sprinkled with sesame seeds and served with cheese or honey.
The Emirati pancake, Chabab, is made with flour, eggs, sugar and spices like cardamom and saffron. It is served with date syrup.
Coffee and dates
Guests and visitors are traditionally welcomed with coffee and dates. Local coffee comes blended with cardamom and saffron. Coffee is served in small handle-less cups called finjans.
Date palms flourish in the oases. Dates are considered a boon in the desert, as they are a vital source of nutrition. Even today, fasts during the holy month of Ramadan are broken with dates. Dibs or date syrup, is used as a dip to relish both savoury and sweet dishes. More than 40 varieties of dates are grown in the UAE; each having its own distinct colour and flavour.
In the olden days, dates were fermented in the sun to act as a raising agent to prepare bread. Today, dates coated in chocolate or stuffed with almonds or candied orange peel make for luxury gifts.
Coffee (called Gahwa in Arabic) and dates (called Tamr in Arabic) are still an integral part of the Emirati culture.
Culinary scene today
Today, the culinary scene in the UAE has undergone a huge change. The UAE has many restaurants, cafés and bars. Popular cuisines served in restaurants are Afghani, African, American, Arabic, British, Chinese, Filipino, French, German, Greek, Indian, Indonesian, Iranian, Italian, Japanese, Malay, Mediterranean, Mexican, Nepali, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Thai and Vietnamese.