As a true melting pot, the culture of the UAE is a blend of Bedouin, Arabian and Persian cultures. Over time, the demographics of the region has gone through many changes, from European colonists in the 16th century and the waves of Iranian and Pakistani immigrants in the 1800’s and 1900’s, to the cosmopolitan blend of cultures that it is today. Islam permeates the social fabric of modern-day UAE, and most Emirates are quite devout. This blend of high cosmopolitanism and religious devotion gives the UAE a unique sense of being a country that is at once on the cutting-edge and yet, steeped in traditions and culture. It is a country that is immensely proud of its heritage and if you travel with an open mind, you’ll discover a country as culturally rich as anywhere else in the world.
The Emirate People
The Emirate people are extremely hospitable and welcoming. You are likely to experience people you’ve never met greeting you like an old friend. This isn’t simply friendliness, but an important part of Emirate and Arab culture. When experiencing such warm hospitality, it is important to reciprocate the same level of respect in return. This can be as simple as greeting an Emirate with “Assalamu alaikum” (which means “Peace be upon you”) or responding to that greeting with “Wa alaikum assalam” (“Peace be upon you too”). One of the best ways to experience this warmth is at UAE’s fabulous hotels and resorts, such as the Bab Al Shams Desert Resort and Spa, an oasis in the sands that offers a true sense of Arabian hospitality.
Travel tip: You are likely to experience stronger gender separation than you may be used to. Hugging and shaking hands, between members of the opposite sex, is uncommon. It is best to let your host/hostess initiate a greeting and for you to reciprocate.
As a devout Muslim country, the majority of the official holidays and festivals are Islamic and non-Muslims are not necessarily expected to partake. However, one holiday worth attending is National Day, which is celebrated on December 2nd every year. National Day is the anniversary of the unification of the seven Emirates to form the United Arab Emirates and is one of the most anticipated days in the calendar. As the day approaches, you are likely to see colorful banners and flags adorning buildings, culminating in a range of celebrations happening all over the country. Parades, dances, and exciting fireworks displays are a common sight on National Day. So, if you’re expecting to be in the UAE in December, you’ll be able to experience Emirate culture and hospitality at its best.
Non-Emirate festivals and holidays are also often celebrated with equal enthusiasm, as a large percentage of the country is foreign-born. Abu Dhabi has a world-famous Jazz festival, and in Dubai, American communities get together to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Before visiting the UAE, it may be useful to learn the dates of the holy month of Ramadan. During this entire month, it is illegal to eat out in the open during the day, or drink, as the largely Muslim population of the UAE are fasting.
A thriving art, music, and dance scene awaits you in the UAE. During your visit, make time to experience an Al Wahhabiyyah performance. These shows combine traditional poetry with music and dance, and are only found in the UAE. You could get your hands painted with intricate Henna designs or enjoy an Arabian Nights-themed evening while you dine out on the dunes after a desert safari, feasting on delicious Arabian barbecue and mesmerizing belly dancing performances.
Aside from music and dance, beautiful pottery and stunning embroidery are hallmarks of Emirate art and culture. In recent years, literature and painting have also become increasingly popular. In fact, the UAE is home to several international literary festivals such as the Emirates Literature Festival.
Emirate culture is an alluring mix of the international and the local, the traditional and the modern. So whether you’re looking to delve into something entirely new, or enjoy the rich culture of the region, you’ll find plenty to see and do.
Emirate cuisine can be one of the highlights of any vacation to the UAE. Expect an exotic blend of rich and colorful flavors and, due to the many regional influences, dishes that are both new and comfortingly familiar.
Eat like an Emirate
Have you ever eaten camel meat? Often described as a delicious mix between lamb and beef, it’s a specialty of the UAE, eaten during weddings and other such special occasions. If that doesn’t appeal to you never fear – traditional Emirate cuisine is wonderfully diverse thanks to the region’s colorful history and there’s a lot more savor.
Breakfast, like everywhere else, is the most important meal of the day. Traditional Emirate breakfasts are often delicious and filling affairs, packed with all the nutrition you need to start your day. Take for example, the popular breakfast dish balaleet – a bowl of vermicelli sweetened with rosewater, saffron, and cardamom, and topped with a perfectly cooked egg omelet. Packed full of goodness, this savory dish has an interesting sweet undertone that will surprise you.
Since the UAE spreads across the Gulf of Oman, seafood is common in Emirate dishes. One of the highlights is the Jasheed, a dish made from rice and bay shark! You could also try the machboos al samak, a delicious blend of rice, spices, dried limes and fish that’s a favorite during Ramadan. There are variations of this dish with chicken and mutton too.
Many popular Emirate dishes are comfortingly simple. During the holy month of Ramadan, Emirates enjoy harees, an interesting mix of wheat and meat that resembles oatmeal or porridge. It is popular across the Persian Gulf with each country adding or changing small details; some countries, for example, add parsley for garnish.
Emirate food, like the majority of cuisine from the region, is very meat-heavy. However, if you’re a vegetarian, or are cutting down on the amount of meat you eat, you’ll find plenty to enjoy in the UAE.
One very popular meatless (and vegan!) dish is fattoush. Made of lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers, and flavored with mint leaves, onion, garlic, lemon, and olive oil, it’s served with traditional Levantine flatbread, making it wonderfully filling, and very healthy.
If, at the end of the day, you want something more familiar, you’re in luck. Thanks to the number of expats in the region, and the UAE’s popularity with travelers from all over the world, international dishes are available around every corner in larger cities. Emirate cuisine shares enormous similarities with food from across the Levant and the Arabian peninsula, and some countries even claim some Emirate dishes as their own!. You are likely to find food from all over the world, from the comforting dishes of an Italian trattoria to a good old-fashioned burger.
So, whatever your preference, eating out in the United Arab Emirates will constantly delight you. We expect you’ll be eating like an Emirate, long after your vacation has ended.
It may be set in an ancient land with expansive deserts, distinctive tribal groups, and rich Arab heritage, but modern-day United Arab Emirates (UAE), is a relatively young country. It was formed only in 1971 by the union of seven different Emirates, each continuously populated for thousands of years. A visit to the UAE offers incredible insights into how the ancient and the modern can co-exist side by side – where a civilization that can trace its roots back a hundred thousand years now boasts a skyline that rivals some of the most impressive in the world!
The Modern UAE
The Seven Emirates (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Sharjah, Fujairah, and Ras al Khaimah) united in 1971 (though Ras al Khaimah joined in 1972) under the authority of Sheikh Zayed of Dubai. Today the Sheikh lies interred in the grand Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, which is a masterpiece of contemporary and classic Arabian architecture, resplendent in brilliant white. A remarkable piece of architecture, visit this mosque with us and discover hundreds of grand towers, chandeliers of 24-carat gold, the world’s largest hand-woven carpet.
The UAE is one of the world’s largest exporters of oil – one of the main reasons for the region’s considerable wealth. Indeed, Dubai has grown from a small port city at the edge of a desert to one of the world’s most popular destinations in just around forty years. There is no better way to gain a sense of this immense growth than a tour of modern Dubai with a local expert, past glittering malls and boutique hotels to the Palm Jumeirah (an artificial island shaped like a palm tree), and of course, the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.
Today, visitors from all over the world flock to the UAE for its world class hotels and shopping centers, vibrant events and festivals, and exotic location.
The Old World
For many centuries, the region was home to numerous loosely connected Sheikdoms and tribal cultures. This was until the land came to be dominated by European Imperial powers such as the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. From 1820 to 1971, the region, which is now the UAE, was called the Trucial States and at the time was more famous for pearls than oil and tourism.
For a real sense of the old UAE, visit Abu Dhabi’s heritage village with our experts. A walk through the city’s traditional mud-brick houses, through bustling souks, and peaceful mosques will have you delving deep into UAE’s age old traditions and mores. In the cool evening, you could head out to the desert and enjoy a safari ride to a Bedouin camp – just like in the old days!
We’re happy to welcome you to the UAE – a land where the ancient lives harmoniously with the modern.
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