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Traditional culture

Al-Jahili Fort in al-Ain / Photo Shutterstock

The UAE’s traditional culture was the product of the survival skills of a seafaring and nomadic people and the harsh environments they faced daily – the desert and the sea. Before the establishment of the oil economy in the early 1960s, two main orientations shaped traditional Emirati culture: that of the nomadic, desert-dwelling Bedouins, engaging in small-scale oasis farming in the broader context of the desert economy and culture; and that of the maritime culture that revolved around pearling and sea trading. These subcultures were economically, politically, and socially interdependent, creating a common culture and social identity. The UAE shares significant aspects of its culture with neighbouring Arab countries and the broader Arab culture.

The tribe has been the principal building block of UAE society since successive waves of migration, beginning in the middle of the first millennium BCE, brought Arab tribes to the region. The varied terrain which these tribes inhabited – desert, oasis, mountains, and coast – dictated the traditional lifestyles that evolved over the centuries, the common thread of which was the resourcefulness which the people displayed in exploiting their harsh environment to its limits. They were aided in this by the age-old social structure, in which each family was traditionally bound by obligations of mutual assistance to their immediate relatives and to the tribe as a whole. In the tribe, an individual’s selfless hospitality was the source of his honour and pride. A common religion, Islam, bound the people together.

Traditional UAE culture can be found in places still frequented by many Emirati people, including fishing ports, fish markets, boat-building yards, falconry centres, gold and spice souks, perfume and traditional dress shops, and even the desert itself, still a favourite spot for Emiratis on weekends and holidays. Many families still keep a desert house and farm (mazra), now maintained by guest workers, where they spend time visiting with family and relatives and riding horses. Some of these farms are also on the scheduled stops of tourists on what are known as desert safaris, where they can ride camels and see goats and sheep. Cultural events are organized throughout the year, offering attractions such as races, games, exhibits, and lectures. For example, the Emirates Heritage Club holds regular races for longboats, dhows, and camels. Similarly, the Culture and Heritage Centre in Abu Dhabi and the Heritage Village in Dubai, also sponsor important cultural events and permanent exhibitions.

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