Dubai – Behind All That Gold

By: Natasha Archary

Before skyscrapers spread across the desert horizon, Dubai was made up of fishing villages and Bedouin communities populated by potters, weavers and pearl divers. When you’re ready to look away from the towering architectural marvels around you and scratch the surface of the extravagance you will find Dubai to be more than just picture-perfect.

The United Arab Emirates has a firm religious foundation in Islam and much of the country’s cultural influence is based heavily on Arabic traditions and etiquette. However the country has a huge expat population and visitors may be in for a culture shock when visiting Dubai because you will meet people from every corner of the world in this eclectic melting pot of ethnicities.

In our previous post – “Tips for the first time visitor” – we shared more about the frowned upon etiquette that one should be mindful of when visiting Dubai and in this one we hope to shed some light as to why this is so integral in the strong traditions and culture of the Emirati.


Traditional mezze platter with hummus

Courtesy and hospitality are important values in the Arab world and part of the beauty in the cultural ties is the delicious food. It is considered extremely rude to decline when food is offered to you, so be prepared to pack on a few extra kg’s in Dubai. Some of the most popular dishes include:

  • Stuffed Camel – The Guinness Book of Records has noted Stuffed Camel as the world’s largest meal. Typically served in feasts of elite Arab families it consists of stuffing an entire camel with lamb, chickens, boiled eggs, fish & rice. Picture boiled eggs being stuffed in fish, the fish then stuffed into roasted chickens and chickens into the lamb. Think of it as the Emirati version of Turducken.
  • Hummus – Most Arab countries pride themselves on this popular spread/dip that is usually served as a side dish. Made up of chickpeas, tahini (sesame seed paste), olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and salt this is the gold of the desert state.
  • Schwarma – The famous street food in Arab culture is made with shredded, grilled pieces of lamb, chicken or beef. Traditionally cooked outdoors but with aims to maintain good hygiene many restaurants now serve these gems.
  • Al Harees – A dish traditionally served on special occasions like Ramadaan, Eid and weddings, this wheat and meat stew is rich in flavor and slow cooked over night in a covered clay pot over low coals.
  • Al Machboos – Similar to breyani this dish has been adopted from Kuwait but has become standard fare in Dubai and the UAE. The original chicken and rice has since been substituted with lamb and prawns and with other rich ingredients it may well be one of the most luxurious dishes in the region.
The most popular street food in Dubai is schwarma


Bedouin tents in Dubai

The Bedouin culture is one of the founding pillars in the UAE society and plays an integral part in the Emirati national identity. The word comes from the Arabic word Badawiyin, which means desert dweller. The semi-nomadic Bedouin society is divided into tribes and there is a strong honour system among people who are loyal, first to their immediate families, then their extended families ad finally to their country.

There are about 180 000 Bedouin in the UAE and most live a harsh life up against the natural elements on the edge of the desert, with the woman taking on majority of the labour.

The UAE is right to want to protect and preserve the Bedouin heritage but many tourists want to experience the Bedouin way of life and it is for this reason that a Bedouin society has been recreated. The Heritage Village and Diving Village in Dubai and the Abu Dhabi Heritage Village is where you can find a microcosm of Bedouin culture including traditional homes, food, music & dance.

Some tours also offer the Bedouin camping experience, complete with campfire, folk dancers & although not traditional a safari spit-braai.


The Arab culture is one that is often misunderstood when it comes to women. In Islam women are treated with dignity and respect in order to preserve their virtue and honour. It is important for men to stand up when a woman enters the room. When greeting a member from the opposite sex it is important not to offer to shake hands unless they extend their hand first.

Women are not forced to don hijab or a burka and it is rather a matter of personal preference to dress modestly. However, it is a requirement for women to wear headscarves when visiting mosques in the city.


For a Muslim, prayer is part of his spiritual diet, which needs to be performed five times a day. To those who think this is too often, how many times a day does your body require food to fuel you?

The call to prayer can be heard before each of the five mandatory prayer is to be performed and it is obligatory upon every Muslim, male or female, who has attained the age of discretion.

The prayers are as follows:

  1. Salat al-Fajr – The morning prayer, is said after dawn and before sunrise.
  2. Salat al-Zuhr – The early afternoon prayer, is said when the sun begins to decline, and its time extends till the next prayer. On Fridays, the Friday service takes the place of this prayer.
  3. Salat al-`Asr – The late afternoon prayer, is said when the sun is about midway on its course to setting, and its time extends to a little before it actually sets.
  4. Salat al-Maghhrib – The sunset prayer, is said immediately after the sun sets.
  5. Salat al-`Isha – The early night prayer, is said when the red glow in the west disappears, and its time extends to midnight. But it must be said before going to bed.

Before performing prayers it is necessary to cleanse those parts of the body which are generally exposed. This is called “Wudzu”, or ablution.

Ablution “cleansing” is performed before each prayer

The ablution is performed as follows:

  1. The hands are cleansed, washing them up to the wrists.
  2. Then the mouth is cleansed by means of a toothbrush or simply with water.
  3. Then the nose is cleansed within the nostrils with water.
  4. Then the face is washed.
  5. Then the right arm, and after that the left arm, is washed up to the elbow.
  6. The head is then wiped over with wet hands, the three fingers between the little finger and the thumb of both hands being joined together.
  7. The feet are then washed up to the ankles, first the right foot and then the left.

For a better understanding of culture, the Dubai government offers cultural trips for tourists on a regular basis. You get to visit a mosque and learn about the Muslim religion and Emirati culture.

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