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. But in a country where so many communities and traditions co-exist, do we really know much about the UAE's own? Here are some Emirati traditions of the past and present that may give you a better understanding.
Emirati Culture: A Brief History
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.
Villages of Bedouins, divers and fishermen have now evolved to form a modern, multicultural society with a population of over 9 million. 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.
Did you know that 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, therefore, is the English term for 'those of the desert'.
Traditional Clothing In The UAE
Emirati clothing has evolved only a little since the times of Bedouin ancestors. Certain aspects of it still mirror the traditional outfits worn by locals in the past. 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, the loose cuts that we see in the traditional dresses donned by Emirati men and women in the UAE today. Emirati clothing has since been all about functionality and comfort combined with Islamic values practised in the region.
Emirati Clothing For Women
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 strong 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. Burqas cover the entire face except for the eyes, whereas the optional Gishwa covers the eyes and face but is thin enough to see through. Collectively, these garments are known as Hijab which essentially means ‘head cover’.
Emirati Clothing For Men
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.
Emirati women and men also 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 Emirati Food
Historically, 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
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 they 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.
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.
Where to try: If you are looking for a restaurant to try authentic Emirati food, we recommend Al Fanar Restaurant & Café that has several locations around the UAE, including one in Dubai Festival City. The restaurant's theme is 'UAE in the 1960s' which brings an authentic Emirati vibe to the dining experience.
Traditional Emirati Dance
The rich UAE heritage is best represented in some of the performing arts we see every now and then. When we speak of Emirati folk dances, the Yola or Yowla is the most recognized in the UAE. 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 Yowla with actual swords.
If you have ever been to the UAE National Day celebrations, you may have seen men carrying camel sticks, chanting poetry and swinging to the beat of drums. We caught a glimpse of this iconic Emirati tradition at the UAE National Day celebrations at d3 last year.
Other popular dances performed by Emiratis include the Liwa and Harbiya, with the former also being a war-themed dance.
Emirati dance forms have become something of a symbol in the region. You are bound to see some form of dance (especially the Yowla) marking every major festival or occasion in the UAE.
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. 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.
Popular Emirati Sports
A lot of the Emirati sports originated way back in the times of Bedouins. Although, 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.
Used mainly for transport and their milk by early Emiratis, camels or 'ships of the desert' have come to represent all things Emirati. 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? No? Well then, you must have noticed that the official emblem of the country has a golden falcon on it. It's not hard to imagine why falconry remains a popular sport among Emiratis. 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.
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 in the pre-oil era went searching for pearls in the sea for months at a time. It was a lucrative source of income that required skill, courage and technique. Today, diving as a means to earn is a thing of the past. 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.
The annual HH Sheikh Sultan Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Heritage Festival demonstrates UAE traditions and popular Emirati sports including camel racing and falconry. You can check it out at Sweihan City in Abu Dhabi from January 29 till 11 February 2018 to get a taste of Emirati traditions.
There you have it - Emirati traditions and culture in all their glory. Don't you feel like you know your local colleagues and friends a little better now?