Cultural history of United Arab Emirates

Cultural history of United Arab Emirates

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

This may be one of the controversial line you’ve read about the United Arab Emirates. Have these sort of statements put you off visiting the United Arab Emirates(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?

World EXPO 2020 is the magnet that keeps pulling people from various nations to United Arab Emirates for the past six months.It’s undeniable that there is a very modern image to the United Arab Emirates, Dubai particularly. What people are forgetting though is that culture isn’t always something you can see.

Check out this video shot from the UAE pavilion during our EXPO 2020 exploration.

Cultural history of United Arab Emirates

The UAE has long been a melting pot of cultures with over 200 nationalities calling it home today. As expats, we have all heard of a few authentic Emirati traditions.

In the past, Emirati traditions varied between two main groups: desert-dwelling nomads called Bedouins and seafaring pearl divers and fishermen. Most locals we meet today trace their origins to these groups.


The Arabian Peninsula is the historic and original homeland of The Bedouin, Beduin or Badu nomadic Arab tribes.They are traditionally divided into tribes, or clans and historically share a common culture of herding camels and goats.The Arabic term for Bedouins ('Badu') is plural for 'Badawi'. This word translates to 'Badiyah dweller', where 'Badiyah' means visible land, like a plain or a desert. Bedouins are also known as ‘people of the tents’
Bedouin tent

These tribes were always on the move and would journey thousands of miles across the sand dunes, with just the sun to indicate the directions and the stars to point out the north, while the slant of sand dunes sculpted by prevailing winds offered a further sense of direction. The Bedouins were expert trackers and could distinguish the footsteps of humans from the animals in the sand, identifying whether these belonged to a man, boy, woman or girl.

The arid desert climate and a scarcity of water and natural resources forced the Bedu to rely on whatever they had access to, in order to survive. Despite this, they led a life of pride and simplicity in the desert, and treated their surroundings with respect. Everything around them was used for daily life, such as ghaf trees for shade and shelter, while wood and desert plants were used to build homes.

Camels were integral to their survival. These utilitarian beasts, known as the 'ships of the desert', were a mode of transport, a source of nourishment, and a symbol of wealth. Camel hide was used to make tents, shoes and warm clothing (necessary in cold winter months), while camel hair was woven into rugs. Camel milk, which is packed with nutrients, was used to make yoghurt or clarified butter, and in times of celebration such as weddings, camel meat was served as a delicacy.

Falconry is another tradition steeped in Bedouin history. The Bedouin discovered that the speed, power and dexterity of a falcon during hunting was far greater than that of a bullet. And they sought to make these birds an indispensable hunting tool. The meticulous process of taming and training turned the wild falcon into a hunter for catching hare, birds and other prey. The bond between a falconer and his bird is cultivated over a long period of time, during which the bird becomes reliant on its owner and accustomed to his voice.

The Bedouin are a proud race, and follow a strong code of honour. They are known for their loyalty, first to their immediate families, then to their clans and tribes. In times gone by, each member of the household would contribute to family life. Men were tasked with hunting, trading and protecting the tribe, while women would manage the household, prepare meals and raise children.

They are also known for their hospitality and welcoming nature – a trait seen in modern day Emirati life as well. Guests would be greeted with utmost respect, and were likely to be welcomed with food, dates and coffee. This tradition carries through today, and it is not uncommon to see hotels and offices offer dates and coffee in reception areas.

While many Bedouins have abandoned their nomadic and tribal traditions for a modern urban lifestyle, many retain traditional Bedouin culture or clan structure, traditional music, poetry, dances and many other cultural practices and concepts.Urbanized Bedouins often organise cultural festivals, in which they gather with other Bedouins to partake in and learn about various Bedouin traditions—from poetry recitation and traditional sword dances to playing traditional instruments and even classes teaching traditional tent knitting. Traditions like camel riding and camping in the deserts are still popular leisure activities for urban Bedouins who live in close proximity to deserts or other wilderness areas.

Before oil discovery, the UAE depended on a subsistence economy with families relying on natural resources to provide for basic needs, through pearl diving and agriculture.Back in the days, Emirati families produced just what they needed.In the past, it was a simple village life. Palm trees were used to provide dates as food for the family. Palm tree branches were used to build the house roofs. Tree trunks supported tents and flooring of dwellings were made by woven palm leaf strips.
from Pinterest

The pearling industry, which created a period of wealth for the United Arab Emirates from the late 19th century through the second decade of the 20th century, relied on extensive expertise, from shipbuilding to sailing. But the most complex process of all was the pearl diving voyage, which lasted four months during summer.The shallow Arabian Gulf waters provided an ideal environment for pearling because oyster beds were shallow enough for divers to reach without modern scuba equipment.

Interesting facts about pearling:
  • 4 months and 10 days is how long the divers - all men, would be gone for.
  • They would be at sea from mid-May to early September.The women would be left behind, with a designated man to look after and protect them. The main pearling season in the United Arab Emirates was called Ghous Al-Kabir (‘the big dive’) .
  • Men were inducted into the pearling business at age 9 - when they had to pry open oyster shells with knives to get to the pearl. Age 12 onwards, they began to dive. Around 50, it's time to stop.
  • The first 10 days of the new pearling season were the toughest for divers. They may suffer from nausea and sea sickness .
  • Divers would dive for 12-14 hours,about 10 meters deep, before sunrise, and till sunset.
  • The rhythm was dive 5 times, rest once. Repeat.

  • Sweet and salty water, the combination is the best environment for oysters. And the pearls gathered from these oysters are the pearls with the best colour.
  • The best pearls are the size of chickpeas. And nobody likes green pearls. They do exist. But the market value is nowhere close the yellow/white/pink/ grey ones.
  • On the first day, crews would be sent off with a ceremony called hiraat (‘oyster bed’), that took place on the beach. The crews would depart with their families and community bidding them farewell from the edge of the beach. T
  • On the last day of Ghous Al Kabir, a cannon would be fired from the shore as a sign of the imminent return of the divers, and this was a signal for families to prepare for their arrival. People would festoon their houses with cloth flags called bayraq or bandira, and prepare special food, including sweets, juices and nuts.

  • As the pearling vessels beached on the sand, the crews would then receive songs of welcome and would reply with their own songs.

  • The most important members of the crew were:

     • Nukhadh: the owner of the boat or a manager on behalf of the owner, who ran the entire pearling operation. He distributed the profits of each season to the crew members.
     • Sardal: the captain of the fleet, who was an expert navigator and knew the best hiraat (oyster bed) locations.
     • Divers: these men performed the most difficult work, working in dangerous conditions, diving all day for oysters.
     • Seib: the man in charge of the ropes used to lower divers to the oyster beds and then pull them up when they were ready to surface.
     • Tabbab: boys aged 10-14 years old, often the sons of crew members, who would help the seib in pulling up the divers.
     • Ridha: young boys who served food and tea to the divers and helped to open the oyster shells.
     • Naham: a man with a beautiful voice, who provided the entertainment during the long months at sea, with songs and poetry
  • A variety of specialised tools were used aboard the ship:

  • Dean: this woven bag was worn around the neck of divers and used to hold the oysters collected.
  •Zubail: this rope was tied to the stone weight that was attached to the diver’s leg, allowing him to sink to the seafloor and stay there .
  • Yada: this rope was held by seib. When the diver was ready to come up, he would tug hard on the rope to pull him up.
• Fettam: clip made of turtle shell or sheep’s bone that helped to close the diver’s nostrils while underwater.

"50 daily trips in the sea, with all their associated difficulties made the joy of returning home more precious than the pearls collected by the captain."

Life in the UAE has shifted remarkably, but the values of the Emirati society remain consistent amid life's rapid changes.
the city's transition from fishing village to a metropolis is "surreal."

Villages of Bedouins, divers and fishermen have now evolved to form a modern, multicultural society with a population of over 9 million. But the life change in UAE didn't happen overnight.In the early 1960s, oil was discovered in Abu Dhabi, an event that led to quick unification calls made by UAE leaders in 1971. While expats make up the majority, locals remain at the core of the UAE with Emirati culture, traditions and heritage proudly displayed on several occasions.



from UAE style magazine

Emirati clothing has since been all about functionality and comfort combined with the UAE traditions of following the Islamic values practised in the region.
For instance, the harsh desert sun required caution when it came to covering skin. So Bedouins opted for full sleeves and long hemlines. Furthermore, the climate made it uncomfortable to wear fitted clothes. Hence, in the UAE culture, we see loose cuts in the traditional dresses donned by Emirati men and women.

Emirati Clothing For Women

from gulfnews

Local women in the UAE can often be seen in Abayas which are loose, flowy black dresses layered over outfits. This, of course, reflects the Arab world’s Islamic values. The traditional dress is worn with headscarves called Shelas. Fashion-conscious Emirati women sometimes use designer headscarves to cover their heads. There are additional elements that local women add to cover their faces. The Niqāb covers the entire face except for the eyes, whereas the optional Gishwa covers the eyes and face but is thin enough to see through.

Emirati Clothing For Men

From dayoutdubai

We often see Emirati men in the long white traditional clothing around the UAE. These are called Kandura or Dishdasha. Since Bedouins preferred to wear white to reflect the sun’s rays, it became the most popular colour choice for Emirati men. Browns and greys are also worn but usually shelved for cooler months. The Kandura is worn with the Ghutra, a headscarf usually white or white with red checks. This headscarf is held in place with an Agal which is essentially a fancy black rope. In the past, the Ghutra protected Bedouin men’s faces against sand on windy days, while the Agal was used to tie their camels at night.


Perfumes are also an essential characteristic of the traditions. Emirati women and men enjoy wearing perfumes. Notes of Oud and rose are the most expensive and also the most popular. It is also common among Arabs, in general, to burn Bakhoor (woodchips soaked in fragrant oils) to scent their garments before leaving the house.

Traditional UAE cuisine used to consist of camel or goat meat and fish from the Arabian Sea. Back then, Bedouins included complex carbohydrates in their diet to get energy for long journeys across the desert. Traders and merchants travelling through the country also bought Indian spices to the region. We see a lot of this influence in local UAE food as we know it today. Meat and rice make up most main dishes along with fragrant spices like turmeric, saffron, cardamom and cinnamon.

Coffee & Dates

Dallah coffee pot

One of the most significant Emirati values is hospitality. You may have noticed the Dallah coffee pot on one-dirham coins. That's how serious the UAE culture and traditions are about making guests feel at home. It is natural for Emiratis to give visitors a warm welcome with Arabic coffee and some dates. Emirati hosts usually serve coffee blended with cardamom and saffron called Qahwa, in tiny cups. The coffee comes with a side of dates, which have been a source of nutrition in the region for centuries. It helps that they have also been around the longest, what with the abundance of palm trees in the UAE.

Main Course

Harees and Machboos are popular among UAE locals and expats alike. Harees is made by cooking meat with wheat until it blends in. A dash of salt and toppings like sautéed onions complete this sumptuous and rather filling dish. Machboos is a rice dish prepared with meat or fish and infused with signature spices. Dried lemon is also added to give it the zesty flavour that UAE locals know and love.



Any mention of Emirati cuisine is incomplete without bringing up Luqaimat. These delicious dumplings are deep-fried and soaked in sweet date syrup known as Dibbs. It is a common sight to see local women in the UAE preparing and serving Luqaimat at desert safari campsites and heritage sites. These bite-sized dumplings can be quite addictive and are an absolute must-try for those visiting the UAE.


AL-Ayyala Emirati dance

The Al-Ayyala traditional dance

The Al-Ayyala is usually performed by Emirati men in a line formation and is one of the UAE traditions that is practised to date.
Emirati men usually perform this by linking arms and lining up, each carrying a stick and chanting poetry. The dance steps depict a battle scene, right from facing the enemy to celebrating a victory. Originally, Emirati men performed the Al-Ayyala with actual swords.

Other popular dances performed by Emiratis include the Liwa and Harbiya, with the former also being a war-themed dance.


They say you haven't really experienced Emirati culture if you haven't been to an Emirati wedding. These, sometimes extravagant affairs are held in two separate ceremonies, one for men and the other for women. According to the UAE traditions, this arrangement allows women who wear Hijab to celebrate freely and participate in the festivities. Family members and close friends of the groom and bride attend the Melcha, a religious ceremony performed by an Islamic scholar, generally on a different day. This is followed by a fun-filled wedding celebration held in a hotel or a wedding hall.

The bride's side of the reception is where the party really takes place. Once the guests have assembled, the bride walks in (usually alone) and women show their designer dresses and glitzy jewels off openly with the segregated arrangement in place. The music comes on and soon everyone is on the dance floor, celebrating the joyous occasion. If you are a female guest at an Emirati wedding, make sure you leave your camera at home. Since women don't wear Hijab at the ceremony, it's not appropriate to click pictures.

The Emirati groom usually wears a Bisht (a black, brown or grey cloak) over the Kandura, with most male guests wearing Kanduras. And although it appears less colourful on the outside, it is just as vibrant and fun. Emirati men also partake in wedding festivities by playing popular Emirati tunes and doing the Yowla.

In true Emirati form, guests enjoy Qahwa and dates upon their arrival, with a variety of delicious Emirati dishes and desserts served later. It is uncommon to present the bride or groom with gifts at the reception. However, close friends can always send something before or after the ceremony.Emirati wedding traditions vary depending on family background, ethnicity and financial status. Nevertheless, they are always festive affairs, with lively music, great food and joy everywhere.


A lot of the Emirati sports originated way back in the times of Bedouins. A lot of these are more cultural than sporty. Bedouins engaged in some of these activities to survive, rather than for leisure. However, it's still impressive that the heritage echoes among modern locals today who not only enjoy these sports but also participate with great enthusiasm.

Emirati Camel Racing


Originally, it was a tradition among Bedouins to race their camels to celebrate weddings or special occasions, with winnings consisting of basic necessities like food or shelter. The UAE has preserved this historically significant sport and Emiratis today frequently enjoy camel races in all major cities. With about 14,000 racing camels and 15 race tracks around the UAE, camel racing is a highly popular sport. The UAE camel racing season generally takes place every year from October until April.



Did you know that the falcon is the national bird of the UAE? The birds represent courage and strength, both of which are central to Emirati culture and all that it stands for.
Falconry was originally a hunting tactic among tribes of the past. Today, falconers train and breed their birds with care, sometimes as a pastime and sometimes to participate in falconry exhibitions and events that take place in the UAE all year. There is an art to it though. In a competition, falconers race against one another to lure their birds with live prey (called tilwa). Proud owners also enter their falcons in dedicated beauty contests held at the International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition.

Horse Racing

The UAE's equestrian streak can be linked to another symbol of pride in the nation: the Arabian horses. This popular horse breed traces its origin to the Arabian Peninsula and was once a reliable mode of transportation for riders in the desert. Fast forward a couple of years and the tradition of horse-riding has transformed into world-class horse racing enjoyed by Emiratis in the UAE. The country hosts an annual Dubai World Cup horse race championship which has become one of the biggest horse race events in the world. Last year, the Dubai World Cup 2017 was one of the richest horse racing championship in the world with over USD 10M in prize money.


Emiratis have adopted this old UAE tradition as a sport instead. Free-diving is a favourite pastime for most UAE locals. To be victorious in a competition, divers have to hold their breath underwater without resurfacing. The UAE has taken the sport to the next level with an annual Fazza Championship for Free-Diving which invites both GCC and international divers to participate.



There are several festivals held across the UAE that honours and celebrates the local culture. Al Dhafra Festival in Abu Dhabi is one of the biggest celebration of the local Bedouin culture and animal husbandry. Several events are held under the umbrella of Al Dhafra Festival with cash prizes to be won. One of the most sought-after events is the Camel Beauty contest where breeders from around the UAE participate to win an impressive cash prize.


If you wish to experience the Bedouin culture in Dubai, Al Marmoom is a great option. Several tour operators offer an immersive Bedouin experience amidst the golden sand dunes. You can also be a part of a traditional camel caravan and other activities.

To learn more about the UAE 's rich culture, Al Ain's Souq Al Qattara and Hatta Heritage Village is worth a visit. If you are a serious history buff, do check out these heritage sites across the UAE.

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