The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is synonymous with sky-high buildings, giant shopping malls and lavish resorts. But behind the nouveau riche facade lies a fascinating cultural heritage that speaks to the region’s nomadic tribes, newfound multiculturalism, and the Arabian Peninsula’s history as a important trade centre.
The UAE is a federation of seven distinct emirates, each with its own traditions. As guest author Valentina explains, there are plenty of opportunities for visitors to interact with UAE culture during their visit.
This is a guest post by Valentina of Valentina’s Destinations. Originally from Serbia but raised in Chicago, she loves hunting down local restaurants, unique experiences and hidden gems.
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7 wonderful ways to experience UAE culture
The UAE is a metropolitan desert paradise that’s sometimes referred to as the ‘Las Vegas of the Middle East.’ But there’s much more to do in the UAE besides lounging, shopping and dining. Mindful travelers can find an incredible history and a wealth of cultural experiences to enjoy.
The UAE is an easy travel destination for tourists because English is commonly spoken, Dubai airport is highly accessible, and you can make a trip fit any budget.
Don’t get blindsided by the glitz and the glam: make some time to enjoy these cultural experiences while you’re here!
1. Take a cultural tour of The Grand Mosque
The UAE is a Muslim country. Virtually all citizens practice Islam. If you’ve never been to a Muslim country before, make sure you brush up on the etiquette. It’s important to think about how you dress and how you behave in public.
In general, modest dress is strongly recommended – especially in public spaces. Be sure to cover up from your shoulders to your knees, and avoid anything transparent or tightly fitted. You should also limit any public displays of affection.
The Muslim faith is tightly woven with UAE culture, so to learn more about the latter, it’s important to try and understand the dominant religion.
The best place to learn more about Islam is at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. This is Abu Dhabi’s most famous tourist attraction (for good reason). You’ve never seen a mosque quite like this one.
Join one of the many daily free tours that last for 30 to 45 minutes, or hire a private guide. With the tour, you’ll be able to access areas of the mosque that are forbidden to the general public. Most importantly, you’ll learn about the practice of Islam and be able to demonstrate a greater respect and understanding for this culture as a result.
2. Visit Dubai’s Global Village
Like Doha and many other capitals in the region, Dubai is a city of immigrants. Almost 80% of people living in the UAE are not citizens. The reason for this is that Dubai has very open borders. It’s become a melting pot of sorts.
Dubai isn’t just an excellent place to eat authentic Emirati food – you’ll also find authentic Chinese, Lebanese and Japanese food, too.
Dubai’s global population hasn’t just influenced the city’s food scene, it’s also inspired one of the city’s most popular cultural attractions. The Global Village is a theme park of sorts, and it’s one of the best places to visit at night. At the Global Village, you can explore a multitude of cultures and shop for unique regional products.
Each country has its own shopping experience and you can get authentic spices, perfumes and textiles. It’s a great place to meet people, ask questions, try food and buy souvenirs. Check out these great hotels near Dubai’s Global Village.
3. Ride an abra on the Dubai Creek
The Dubai Creek has been one of the most important economic routes throughout the history of the UAE, helping the emirates to grow and flourish. It’s on UNESCO’s tentative list of Heritage Sites because of its cultural and social importance.
There is evidence to suggest that Dubai Creek was the site of a pearling industry as early as the 16th century. By the 19th century, it became well-established in British documents as a trading post. Throughout the succeeding years, this was an important site for fishing, pearling and general trade.
In the early days, the Emirati people used an abra to cross the creek. An abra is a small traditional wooden boat powered by oars.
One of the most immersive ways to step back in time is by riding a traditional abra across Dubai Creek. Today’s version is equipped with a diesel engine, but you get the picture!
This is a very quick and cheap activity to enjoy in Dubai, but the views of the sparkly turquoise water are unforgettable. There are lots of other fun tourist activities to enjoy in the area.
4. Visit a UNESCO site in the desert
The Jebel Hafeet Beehive Tombs is Abu Dhabi’s hidden gem. Many tourists miss them, but if you’re willing to venture a few hours out into the desert, you can experience this amazing archaeological site for yourself.
A designated UNESCO World Heritage site, the tombs were built over 5,000 years ago by early settlers of the Al Ain region. Today, hundreds of these sacred burial sites still remain. Each tomb is roughly 2-3 metres long, and is dome-shaped with a small opening at the front.
Important artifacts are constantly being unearthed here. Some items discovered in the tombs indicate that the Al Ain people were trading with ancient Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. Beads, pottery, spears and other interesting trinkets from the Bronze Age have been uncovered.
The site can be reached by a short hike (unless you have an all-terrain vehicle). There isn’t a fancy museum or anything – just you and history in the desert. It’s a truly remarkable and immersive cultural experience to stand amongst the ruins.
5. Learn about falconry
Falconry has been practiced on the Arabian Peninsula for over 4,000 years and is an important ‘sport’ in the UAE. Breeding, training and caring for falcons has been an important part of UAE culture for centuries.
In early civilizations, falconry was a means of survival in an inhospitable desert. Falcons are more than just expensive pets – they’re trained hunters and revered competitors.
Today, the sport of falconry is grounded in respect for the animals and nature conservation. Falconry training teaches patience, perseverance and companionship. It’s associated with honour and nobility. Falcons are also the UAE’s national bird.
The best place to learn more about falconry is at the Falcon Hospital in Abu Dhabi, known to be the largest and finest falcon hospital in the world. Staff offer a wonderful tour of their state-of-the-art facility, teaching visitors about these amazing creatures and their role in Emirati culture. They also run a no-kill animal shelter to help local residents adopt other furry friends.
Another way to experience falconry is on one of Dubai’s many desert safari excursions.
Related: The top cultural tours in Doha, Qatar.
6. Try haggling at a souk
A souk is a traditional open-air marketplace. This is historically where locals came to trade and buy essential goods.
Dubai’s most famous souks are located near the Dubai Creek. There’s a Spice Souk and a Gold Souk – but you’ll find many things here besides just spices and gold! Textiles, perfumes, rugs, clothes and pipes are just some of the handcrafted trinkets on offer.
This is a great place to witness local commerce and buy authentic souvenirs yourself. Remember that price is always negotiable… Get your haggle on!
Near the Gold Souk in Dubai, you’ll also find a great little museum, the Dubai Museum. It’s located inside Al Fahidi Fort, which was built in the late 18th century as a defensive position for the ruling monarchy. Spend an hour walking through the museum, learning about the early civilizations that lived in the Arabian Desert. When you’re finished, make sure to stop off at the Arabian Tea House nearby.
7. Henna painting at the Abu Dhabi Heritage Village
Henna is a type of dye used to stain the skin. In Islam, tattoos are prohibited, so henna painting emerged as a tradition in Arabic countries.
Henna painting has been practiced for centuries and has important ceremonial value, often being incorporated into weddings for good luck. Henna also has cooling properties, which makes it even more popular in desert climates.
A great place to see henna artists performing their trade (and maybe try it for yourself) is at the Abu Dhabi Heritage Village.