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Beyond the glitz: Cultural Dubai

Updated: Nov 24, 2020

Dubai is the best known of the Emirates comprising the UAE. It's renowned for its flashiness, wealth and audacity. A place constantly striving for bigger, taller and more incredible.

night view of the Burj Khalifa, tallest building in Dubai

But it also has a quieter, authentic cultural side. Go ahead and ride the lighting-fast elevator to the top of the world's tallest tower. Shop at the world's biggest mall and shiver your way down the indoor ski hill. Then take some time to explore Emirati cultural sites in Dubai and neighbouring Abu Dhabi.

Cross-cultural programs

The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding is a gem. It's located in a traditional Emirati home in downtown Dubai. The Centre offers programs that connect visitors and expats to locals. They provide insight into life and traditions in Dubai and throughout the Emirates. Breakfast and lunch programs let visitors sample traditional foods while learning about Bedouin culture.

My Dubai expat friend Nancy booked us in for a breakfast. Our host was a woman dressed in a conservative traditional abaya (robe) and headscarf. She welcomed questions about her clothing and about Muslim women's roles and societal norms.

I came away with a much better understanding of the dynamics at play Cross-cultural understanding is crucial here, with locals comprising only 20% of the population. And the Arabic coffee and food was delicious.

Historic neighbourhood

Nearby, the Bastakiya neighbourhood is a pretty section of shady courtyards and narrow alleys connecting some of Dubai's oldest homes. Wind towers were incorporated into building designs to provide a natural form of air conditioning. Homes have now been converted into artisan studios, galleries and cafes.

It's an excellent place for browsing art and handcrafted items created in the UAE and all over the Middle East. It was fairly sleepy when we were there in the heat of the afternoon. It's livelier in the morning and evening, according to Nancy. I couldn't leave without buying a beautiful Iranian wood-block print cotton tablecloth.

mural in Dubai's Bastakiya neighbourhood

A quick water taxi ride across Dubai Creek took us to another section of Old Dubai. The city's longest operating souks (markets) are located here. The spice souk was a delight for the senses. Piles and sacks of aromatic herbs and powders overflowed from cramped shops onto the sidewalks.

In chatting with one shop owner I learned that middle eastern cultures traditionally use spices for medicinal purposes in addition to cooking. For example the cardamom that gives that lovely aroma to Arabic coffee and foods is also used to treat digestive issues and depression.

mounds of spices for sale in Dubai's spice souk

A few blocks away at the gold souk, window displays sparkled brilliantly in the desert sunshine. This is the market where gold is bought, sold and traded by the ounce. You can easily have old jewelry transformed into new creations at one of the many shops.

Abu Dhabi treasure

Of the seven Emirates comprising the UAE, Abu Dhabi is the capital. It's less than a two-hour drive from Dubai and home to the stunning Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The gleaming white marble structure is massive, holding up to 40,000 worshipers at one time.

Its bejeweled columns and surfaces rival those of the Taj Mahal. Massive crystal chandeliers hang from domes of stained glass and luxurious carpets adorn the interiors. The vast marbled courtyards are punctuated by archways, mosaic tile surfaces, pools and fountains. It's mesmerizing.

Non-Muslims are welcome to visit outside of prayer times and tours are offered multiple times per day. Guides explain the basic tenets of Islam and rituals associated with worship and prayer. Of course they also point out architectural features of the mosque.

Before leaving, we took the elevator up to the library. It houses a huge collection of Islamic literature going back centuries. It's also blissfully air conditioned. Women especially will appreciate this, since the required black polyester abaya will feel like a personal sauna.

Desert & dhows

Before big business oil in Dubai, pearl diving was the main industry. While you're in Abu Dhabi you can take a boat trip through Abu Dhabi Pearl Journey. You'll learn about the history of pearling in the region while sailing through the mangroves on a traditional dhow.

You can hardly travel all the way to the UAE and not experience the desert. Take a day to explore the dunes: learn about the ancient art of falconry or get a taste of traditional Bedouin lifestlye on a desert safari. Dubai-based Arabian Adventures is a reputable operator.

freeway through the desert in the United Arab Emirates

Before you go

Study up on Dubai's laws and customs before visiting, since there are serious penalties for what might seem like innocent behaviour to the uninitiated. Public displays of affection, drinking alcohol outside of a licensed establishment and taking photos of people without permission are all illegal.

Women need not cover their heads, but knees and shoulders should be covered in public, and necklines should be modest. It means careful packing to ensure you can stay covered without melting in the heat. Peasant skirts and loose lightweight cotton blouses will be your go-tos.

When to go

The desert is unbearably hot during the peak summer months, with daytime highs reaching 50 degrees Celsius. Dubai is best visited October  through April when the weather is cooler, relatively speaking. Also take note of the timing of Ramadan, when most restaurants and shops will be closed from sunrise to sunset.

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