How to immerse yourself in Emirati culture

How well do you know Abu Dhabi and the UAE’s culture and history in general? Broaden your knowledge and appreciation of local traditions by taking part in these activities.

Despite calling the UAE our second home, many of us don’t have a deep understanding of local culture and traditions. A survey published back in 2012 by HSBC showed that expats in the country struggle to integrate with Emiratis and don’t make the effort to learn the local language. 

A lot has changed since that study was made public and today there are many government and private initiatives to help share culture-related activities with those of us who call the UAE home as well as people visiting the country. So if you’re curious to learn more but don’t know where to start, here are some activities to help you explore local culture, history and heritage.

Travel back in time 

Your introduction to Emirati culture would not be complete without a visit to Qasr al Hosn, Abu Dhabi’s oldest stone building erected in 1761. Reopened in December last year, this enduring landmark still symbolises the capital’s strength and resiliency. The renovated structure now features four different sections, namely, Qasr al Hosn fort, the Cultural Foundation, National Consultative Council and the House of Artisans. The fort is home to a permanent exhibit featuring photographs, oral testimonies and artefacts that trace Abu Dhabi’s colourful history and evolution. 

There’s also a children’s library and people can join various workshops hosted inside the complex. AED 30 for adults, AED 15 for children aged six to 11 years old. Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum Street. Sat-Thu 9am-7pm, Fri noon-10pm. Contact: 02 697 6400, qasralhosn.ae 

Way of the Bedouins 

The camel plays an integral role in Emirati culture dating back to Bedouin times. Follow in the footsteps of the country’s early settlers by joining the camel trekking tour with Desert Rose Tourism. 

Be whisked away to the desert on the back of a camel where you’ll stop at a traditional Bedouin camp and camel farm, learn how to pet and feed the camels and carry on with your journey to the dunes. The tour will give participants an opportunity to discover the importance of camels and why it’s the transport of choice for desert dwellers. AED 300. Daily 8am-noon. Contact: 02 446 6346, desertrosetourism.com 

Be their guest

Ever wonder what goes on inside a local household? The Emirati House Experience will offer some insight. 

This unique tour – designed for up to five people at a time – will give a taste of local hospitality by visiting an Emirati home. Along the way, feel free to ask questions of your host about various topics such as Emirati family life, habits and customs. 

Traditional dishes will also be served to make the conversation more fun and relaxed, and you can even try Emirati clothes and take photos for a souvenir. AED 450. Meets at Mazyad Mall, 28th Street, Mohammed Bin Zayed City. Sun, Tue and Thu 6pm-9.30pm. Visit: bit.ly/2WLMdQa

Venture to the Garden City

The city of Al Ain, also known as the Garden City because of its lush landscaping and natural greenery, is arguably the best place to learn more about local culture with its array of heritage sites. To make the most of your trip, take a city tour such as the one organised by Rayna Tours and Travels. 

The excursion will take guests to various historical landmarks including Al Ain Museum and Al Ain Heritage and Cultural Village for a glimpse of history and old traditions. The Hili Archaeological Park, meanwhile, is a stunning location featuring ancient monuments, a tomb, Bronze Age settlements and fossils from thousands of years ago. From AED 232.10. Pick-up locations vary. Daily from 8am. Contact: 02 639 3938, raynatours.com 

Through the palate 

What better way to gain appreciation of a culture than through food? The Top Traditional Food in Abu Dhabi tour will take groups of up to four people on a mouth-watering journey centred on trying local favourites such as luqaimat, khanfaroosh and dango. AED 120. Starts from Mushrif Mall, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Street. Sat from 4pm. Visit: bit.ly/2SszPX2

Speak the dialect

Saying ‘shukran’ can only take you so far. Learn the local dialect by signing up to a language course offered at Eton Institute. Supervised by an Emirati instructor, non-Arabic speakers will gain knowledge about words, phrases and grammar, so you’ll be able to converse and understand the language like a local. AED 1,775 for 30 hours. twofour54 Park Rotana Complex, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Street, near Khalifa Park. Sun-Wed 7pm-9pm. Contact: 02 449 9641, contact.uae@etoninstitute.com 

Local jewel

Long before oil, the UAE was a pearling industry. Learn more about this vital part of the country’s past on the three-hour Pearl Journey experience, where you can learn more about diving history, the tools used and even open a live oyster in search of a pearl. As bonus, you get to take home a true pearl at the end of the voyage. AED 1,000. Starts from Eastern Mangroves Hotel and Spa by Anantara, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Street. Days vary, from 9am-6pm. Visit: bit.ly/2Dt0E2T

Community explorers

The Local Neighbourhood Walk will see participants venture to Al Mushrif, an old neighbourhood full of Emirati households.

A local tour guide will walk you through the neighbourhood while sharing interesting facts about Emirati homes, family traditions, lifestyle and culture. The tour will conclude with a majlis stopover for more lessons about local hospitality. AED 300. Days and times vary.
Visit: bit.ly/2GAG9Ve

Getting crafty

Create your own handicrafts the traditional way through the Emirati Traditional Crafts tour. The experience will start with a tour of the Heritage Village followed by a visit to local craftsmen where participants will be taught the art of weaving handicrafts. AED 200. Starts from Emirates Heritage Club, near Marina Mall. Sat-Thu 11am-5pm, Fri 4pm-9pm.
Visit: bit.ly/2So6LzN

Sweet spot

Dates are highly regarded in UAE culture. Find out why with this one-of-a-kind tour where you can visit Al Foah factory in Al Ain to see how dates are picked, processed and packaged, before visiting an old souk in the Garden City. AED 800. Starts from Dhafra Alkhaleejiah Hall, Abu Dhabi-Al Ain Road. Sun-Thu 8am-1pm. Visit: bit.ly/2DxO02K

Holding the Fort

As founder and CEO of the consultancy and intercultural communication firm Arab Culturalist, Nasif Kayed has been on a mission to educate people from all walks of life about Emirati culture and traditions. We chat with Nasif to find out more about local culture and how non-Emiratis can learn about the country’s customs and history. 

How different is Emirati culture to other Arab cultures?

I wouldn’t say it’s different from other Arab nationalities depending on who you’re comparing it to; it’s Arabic in language and Muslim in faith so it’s very similar to the other Arab cultures. The dress may vary, the food may vary, the belief is the same, the language is the same, the lingo may vary – so there are more similarities because we are an Arab and a Muslim country. 

How would you describe Emirati culture?

Emirati culture is founded on the core values of honesty, hospitality and openness to other cultures, race and beliefs.

Are there any common misconceptions about Emirati people or culture?

Most people think that the Emirati culture is not that old and many are not familiar with the country’s history of pearling and trading. 

Another misconception is that all these people are rich Arabs; this is not true as there are levels in society like anywhere else. Each have different histories on how they accumulated wealth, and the government doesn’t give them money just because they’re Emirati.

Another misconception is that women have no role in society. The truth is women have always played an important role in the local community. In the old days, she was a mother and a wife but at the same time she was a merchant, a doctor, a teacher… Nowadays, she is an engineer, a politician and a minister. 

How can expats learn more about Emirati traditions and immerse themselves in the local culture?

Look for cultural events that are organised to educate people about UAE history and traditions. There are a lot of events organised by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi in both Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. 

Don’t be afraid to mingle with locals; there will always be somebody to translate for you if you don’t speak the language. 

Read books written by locals, especially those that talk about their own personal experiences growing up here in the country. 

Visit and explore old areas and try to learn as much about its history as you can. Don’t hesitate to talk to the people who are there – they might have very interesting                  stories to tell. 

WORDS Ferdinand Godinez

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