With a population of 3.3 million, out of which almost 90% of whom are foreigners, Dubai has an eclectic mix of cultures and food. Although traditions from various cultures blend here to form a truly multicultural society, Dubai has held on to the traditional Emirati customs that have been carried through generations of Arabs living in the region.
THE EVOLUTION OF DUBAI’S CULTURE
Traditional Emirati customs date back to before the seventh century, when nomadic Arab tribes herding camels and goats, traversed through the deserts in search of fertile lands and water.
With great hospitality embedded in their nature and a knack for resourcefulness, most of these nomad tribes today have evolved into modern-day locals in Dubai.
The oil boom in the Gulf region brought an influx of South Asian immigrants from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. And that led to a brilliant blend of traditions from the Arab and South Asian realms to give Dubai the wholesome, all-embracing culture it is renowned for.
With greater progress, the UAE and Dubai in particular saw more expats flying in from the west. Many who merely planned on renting an apartment while they furthered their career found that the region blossomed into something more than a temporary opportunity. As more and more people from the United States and various European and African countries made Dubai their home, they brought with them a mix of regional music, art, fast food and the pop culture – making Dubai the epicentre of globalisation in the Middle East.
Let’s now look at the different elements of Dubai’s Culture in greater detail.
The oldest variants of music in Dubai are the Bedouin folk music and the lesser known Khalil music. The Beduoin folk songs are mostly based on poetry, such as the Nabati that focuses on tales of Arab heroics, life, love and family.
The Khalil music is usually instrumental, played with several traditional instruments, like the tabla – a type of drum. Other classical instruments used over the years to compose music in Dubai include the rebab, the tamboura and the oud.
The rebab is similar to a violin or a banjo, the oud is an 11 or 13-stringed guitar-like instrument and the tamboura is a long-necked, stringed-instrument native to central and south Asia.
Another important part of Dubai’s music culture is the Liwa dance. Although of African origin, the Liwa Dance is part of the Native Emirati tradition.
While dancing the Liwa, men clap and move in a circle on the beat and tempo of a mizmar – a type of oboe that is usually played in the centre of the dancing circle. At different points during the dance, men break off into lines in step with the beat of the daf.
Local Dubai artists populate the rock scene as well. Expat performers Karl Wolff and Eslam Jawaad are two artists who grew up om Dubai and have become popular worldwide.
- Five Places to Hear Dubai Music: Check out this list of five hip venues in Dubai where you can hear traditional music.
- The Oud: Read about the history of the oud and how it’s played.
- The Rebab: Learn about the unique design of the rebab.
- Three Popular Dubai Folk Dances: Compare the Liwa with the Ayyalah and the Haban.
- Nabati Poetry: Nabati poetry is a lyrical form of oral poetry narrated in colloquial Arabic.
- The Daf: The daf is similar to a tambourine without bells and is a popular musical instrument in Dubai and throughout the Middle East.
- An Interview With Karl Wolff: Read musician Karl Wolff’s take on growing up and living in the UAE and his music career.
- Arab Hip-Hop and Rap: Eslam Jawaad put Arabic rap on the map.
- Dubai Jazz Festival: The American-born music genre of jazz has found a second home here.
- Virgin Radio RedFestDXB: This festival is the biggest music event in Dubai and draws celebrity performers from all over the world.
Like any other culture around the world, language forms the core of Dubai’s culture. Arabic is the official language in Dubai. Laws and official correspondence are all documented in formal Arabic, which also known as Modern Standard Arabic.
When speaking Arabic, Emiratis follow local dialect of Gulf Arabic, which is very different from the Levantine and Egyptian dialects you hear in the region’s popular soap operas.
Given the large expat population, English is the most commonly used language in the emirate. It acts as the bridge between people of different linguistic backgrounds.
You don’t need to learn Arabic to get around Dubai – everyone here is comfortable using their native language within expat communities and that’s part of the beauty of culture in Dubai.
Urdu is also quite common, since there are so many expats from the Indian subcontinent living in Dubai.
- Learn Colloquial Gulf Arabic: Knowing a few useful words and phrases could make your life easier.
- A Comparison of Arabic Dialects: How is the Gulf dialect distinct from others?
- Gulf Arabic Greetings: Learn how to say “Hello, how are you?” in Gulf Arabic.
- Written vs. Spoken Arabic: Read a quick overview of the difference between written and spoken Arabic.
- Ordering Food in Arabic: Request your lamb mandi in fluent Arabic.
Dubai natives stand out when they wear traditional clothing. Both men and women wear long robes. The men’s robes, called thobes or kandoras, are white. They’re paired with a headpiece called the ghutra.
About two decades ago, it was rare to see an Emirati man go anywhere without the ghutra. Today, as Dubai has become more westernised, some men reserve ghutras for formal occasions and celebratory events.
Local women in Dubai wear black robes known as abayas with headscarves or hijabs. They might be plain or accented with embroidery or other designs. Some women in Dubai wear the niqab or face veil, which only shows the eyes.
Locals aside, Dubai’s culture allows people to dress the way they want, as long as their attire is reasonable for public gatherings and modest for places of worship. So, it’s not uncommon to see people, mostly expats, wearing suits, jeans, t-shirts and even dresses.
- Kandora Styles: Familiarise yourself with the different types of thobes.
- The Meaning of the Ghutra: Learn why men in Dubai wear the ghutra.
- Buy Your Own Abaya: Here are six stores in Dubai where you can buy an abaya of your own.
- Dubai Dress Code: What Can Travelers Wear? Find out which styles you can and can’t get away with.
- Arab Fashion Week: Dubai’s Arab Fashion Week is the forum for the latest Gulf and international styles.
- When It’s Not a Ghutra: Know the differences between the keffiyeh, the ghutra, and the shemagh.
- What’s the Difference Between a Hijab, Niqab, and Burka? Women in Dubai may wear different head coverings.
Dubai’s food culture has adapted to the palates of immigrants and expats, but there are still some iconic dishes that all visitors must try.
Machboos is a fragrant rice dish topped with pieces of tender lamb, beef, chicken or goat. This dish is served with pine nuts and a spicy tomato sauce called daqoos. If the meat is cooked in a pressure cooker, the dish is called madghut. When it’s cooked on hot stones, it’s called mathbi.
A South Asian dish biryani, is also a culinary staple in Dubai. Biryani is mixed rice flavored with Indian spices paired with meat or chicken. Chutney or raita is served with it on the side.
Dubai is also famed for its tea and coffee. Both beverages are often accentuated with saffron, cardamom or anise. Tea can be drunk before or after a meal and may be accompanied by dates.
- Seven Foods You Should Try in Dubai: Don’t leave without trying at least one of these seven dishes.
- Machboos Recipe: Try making machboos in your own kitchen with this chicken recipe.
- A Garlicky Daqoos: Garnish any rice or meat dish with this tangy sauce.
- Top Ten Mandi Restaurants: Try chicken or meat mandi at one of these restaurants.
- Chicken Biryani Recipe: Impress your Indian or Pakistani neighbors with this recipe for chicken biryani, which is also popular in Dubai.
- Emirati Cuisine: History and Top Places to Eat: Learn the history of your favorite dishes and where you can get them.
- The Origins of Ragag Bread: Read about the origins of Ragag bread and test the recipe.
- Kahwe Arabiyye: Adding Cardamom to Coffee: Arabic coffee with cardamom is a light and refreshing hot drink.
- Tasting Al Harees: Porridge with meat may seem like an odd combination, but it’s quite tasty.
- The Cultural Significance of Dates: This small fruit can have many layered meanings.
- Taste of Dubai Festival: The Taste of Dubai Festival celebrates Emirati and international cuisine.
- Camel Burgers a Fast-Food Trend: Eat a camel burger for a new experience.
- UAE Food Trends: Vegan and gluten-free options are gaining popularity.
- Luqaimat: If you’ve had zalabia, jalabiya or gulab jamun, you’ll love the UAE version – luqaimat.
- Basbousa Recipe: Bake this light and fluffy semolina dessert.
- Balaleet: Try the UAE version of an omelet.
Dubai’s cultural tapestry is rich with diversity beyond its years due to the multicultural background. In everything, from the music to the cuisine, there’s a tremendous amount to discover. Definitely more than can be explored in a day.
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With that we end this post on the culture of Dubai. Stay tuned to MyBayut for more interesting news and updates on Dubai and the UAE.