The cultural roots of the UAE will surprise you – find out why

The capital’s recent CultureSummit set the debate on cultural identity ablaze. We take a look at how diversity has a role to play in the UAE’s own journey


When we think of what the UAE means, we think of a strong nation raised from the dunes of the desert into a prosperous country with its own rich culture.

From pearl diving to dhow building, poetry, music, architecture and calligraphy, these practices form part of the fabric that make up the strata of the UAE’s unique cultural heritage and identity.

Yet dig a little deeper through history and it becomes clear that these practices that are so integral to the core of the UAE’s identity are the result of millennia exchanging ideas, swapping stories and cultural evolution.

From Persia to India and other ancient civilisations, the ripple effects of cultural exchange have been felt throughout history, and continue to have an effect on the UAE’s cultural identity today.

This concept of cultural exchange was one of the topics up for debate at the inaugural CultureSummit held in the capital recently.

With talks on subjects ranging from using the arts as a tool for cultural understanding to the refugee crisis and climate change, the event convened world leaders in the field from 80 countries over five days to discuss what culture means and how we relate to it in the modern age.

For Emirati oudist Faisal Al Saari, showcasing the diverse culture that has come to represent the UAE is something he strives to feature in his own work.

“I want to show through my music where we were before and where we are now,” he told us. “I perform my culture and heritage as it is, but I want to show how cultural exchange has changed the dimensions of our society.”

As a musician who plays an instrument symbolic of UAE tradition, Faisal uses the ancient art form as both a way of promoting Emirati heritage and showing how it can evolve into a modern form befitting the UAE’s contemporary cultural context.

The changing meaning of heritage and what it symbolises in an evolving cultural context is at the heart of current efforts to preserve the unique historical legacy in the Gulf and beyond.

The UAE recently made a decisive step in this regard, pledging support to the Abu Dhabi Declaration.

The landmark global coalition headed by UNESCO aims to collectively raise $100 million to protect heritage under threat all over the world, under the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.

“When we’re talking about [this convention], identity becomes really important in the present to protect that diversity and connect to it,” said Dr Zaki Aslan, regional representative for the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property in the Arab World.

“In this region of the world, there is a lot of misunderstanding of how we can relate to the past. But if we think about the historic evolution and development, that’s the thing that brought the uniqueness and identity to such cultures.

“We inherit cultural artefacts, sites, buildings and traditions from the past that have become a part of the historic strata of our culture,” Dr Aslan added.

“But what we think of as Islamic culture and heritage – in reality it’s this multi-dimensional aspect of influence from other cultures.

“Understanding that in view of looking at these influences is really important, because it became a unique part of identity here.

“It’s this kind of deep understanding that’s needed in the region – we can’t only look to those direct traditions to relate to the past.”

WORDS Camille Hogg
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