12 April, 2006

Why the Emirati culture matters

(Permission granted by author)


The older I get the more I realize that I don’t really know that much about the culture of the United Arab Emirates, and I am a local! Sure I know that culture is more than just the physical means of living in the U.A.E., we learn that in school. But does the culture of the U.A.E. really matter? It would seem to me that what really matters is not me being me but being more like those expatriates who tell us how to be. Maybe I have been giving my own culture the short end of the stick as I have been caught up in the wave of the west is the best.
I used to generalize a lot about the culture of the U.A.E. and think it was primitive and needed to change. I have always argued with people that my culture, the U.A.E.’s culture, is a very close-minded culture and needs to loosen up. But today I am finally beginning to realize that my culture is more than a just Henna, dune bashing and dancing. Culture is more than just the means of living in the U.A.E., it is the very law under which all we Emiratis live, and I had to learn that the hard way. I hope I have not begun to learn about the importance of my culture too late!
When people meet me for the first time they usually assume that since I’m an Emirati national I know and understand the Emirati culture, but to their shock, just because I wear a sheila and abayaa doesn’t mean I am a U.A.E. cultural expert! In fact I am embarrassed to admit that many expatriates know more about the culture of the U.A.E. than I do.


How can this be? Well in short the success of the U.A.E. might also be seen as its failing. (Sir I didn’t get what you talking about here)

You see, even though I am an Emirati I have lived most of my life traveling around the world from one country to another following my father where his career took him. I am embarrassed to say that I have grown up learning about many different cultures but I have failed to learn my own.



There is no question the UAE culture is unique. Unlike many consumer driven cultures ours is also heavily steeped in our religion, and as hard as this is for westerners to understand we are proud of the place of our religion in all we do. In fact our religion merges with our very traditions creating something that is very special.
As you learn more about the U.A.E.`s culture you realize that all the parts that you once believed were negative, or that you are told are negative by the ever powerful media and global flow of ideas especially those that expatriates bring with them to the U.A.E., turn out to be positive in one way or the other.
I have only just begun to realize that it isn’t the culture of the U.A.E. that has the problem but me! It is me, an Emirati, who has been looking at this truly amazing culture from a very narrow-mind point of view.
The Emirati culture as it grows, accommodates and reasserts its fundamental tenants of community, sharing and goodwill that makes this country so exceptional. Many of my fellow countrymen hold onto our culture with great defiance as they fear it will be lost with time. Dubai is slowly drifting toward that very consumer culture that so many expatriates were socialized into in their own homeland.
What is scary me today is that the Emirati people are slowly and systematically being told that our culture and progress don’t match be it from business, to construction, to education we are slowly being stripped of our unique culture to help aid the rapid development of one of our great cities, and what sadness me is that some of the other Emirates are right behind Dubai in adopting this consumer culture.
The aim of Dubai, as I see it anyway, is to be an international city where everyone is welcomed. But wasn’t that the situation 20 years ago? Hasn’t our culture always been to welcome people, ideas and great stories that can help us grow? Today we seem to be growing at the expense of our very lifeblood, our culture.


Many of my expatriate friends have told me that the reason they have come to the U.A.E. was the good pay, safe environment, and the difference in culture. If that’s the reason then shouldn’t all UAE residents Emirati and non-Emirati worry that the UAE culture is slowly changing into something foreign? Sure every culture has its up’s and down’s, as nothing is perfect but we should all stand together and acknowledge the beauty of this culture and not be so quick to sell it out.

The culture of the U.A.E. is the legacy of our ancestors; it is a piece of art of living, thinking and being that should never fade away. Maybe we need Emitari’s to remember to “act locally and think globally” because once we have lost our culture we will never get it back!

Méytha Al Mutawaa.

6 comments:

Dani said...

I remember my own country..where every little thing in 'our' culture is 'borrowed'. I hope it won't happen here.

Seabee said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Seabee said...

This is very well expressed: The aim of Dubai, as I see it anyway, is to be an international city where everyone is welcomed. But wasn’t that the situation 20 years ago? Hasn’t our culture always been to welcome people, ideas and great stories that can help us grow? Today we seem to be growing at the expense of our very lifeblood, our culture.


Many of my expatriate friends have told me that the reason they have come to the U.A.E. was the good pay, safe environment, and the difference in culture. If that’s the reason then shouldn’t all UAE residents Emirati and non-Emirati worry that the UAE culture is slowly changing into something foreign? Sure every culture has its up’s and down’s, as nothing is perfect but we should all stand together and acknowledge the beauty of this culture and not be so quick to sell it out.


I first came to Dubai in 1977 and immediately felt welcomed by the friendliness & hospitality of the people.

From its very beginning, Dubai traded with other countries, was comfortable dealing with other people and cultures, but didn't lose its own culture. It would be very sad if it happened now.

I think it's even more important than ever, with the huge numbers of expats coming to the UAE and Emiratis becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of the total population, that the culture is preserved for us all to enjoy.

trailingspouse said...

The UAE needs to do a better job of promoting its own culture if it wants to avoid being swamped by the cultures of its expatriates. Organizations like the Dubai Museum and the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding do a great job, but it's way too small scale. With tourism continuing to increase they have a wonderful opportunity to project a positive face for both the Arab world and Islam. However at present too many visitors leave, having had just a dinner in the desert with shisha and belly dancers, thinking they have experienced "local culture". What a shame so much of Dubai's promotional budget goes on shopping festivals.

Tim Newman said...

Al Mulhama,

Your command of the English language is magnificent. I wish I could speak my second language as well as that.

bandicoot said...

Meytha, I'm glad you didn't start by pointing fingers at Westerners and their alleged corrupting influence and sabatoge of Emirati culture. Your self-critique is appreciated, but may be misdirected. You probably know that most if not all visitors to this blog are people who can do little to make a difference as to the fate of your culture. So I hope you can take your eloquently expressed concerns to the people who need to hear the, in your own community, in the language they best understand, and that you follow that with concrete action and intiative. This would aim at giving the UAE culture its due and make it a genuine part of the tourist and expatriate experience in this country. The current course of UAE development, though undeniably very profitable, is also one of cultural self-destruction. The fact is the most recognizable culture of the UAE today is its blatant consumerism, holiday/shopping tourism and wacky self-promotion. Residents and visitors hardly experience the local Emirati culture (or any other local culture (Indian, Persian, various Arabic sub-cultures, etc.) in any meaningful way. Most "cultural" activities revolve around eating, drinking, and shopping in a shopping mall. The so-called Global Village is actually a shopping village. Preserving and promoting culture is clearly not a local priority. This country's education budget for example is a trifle of what it spends on real estate projects. Where are the museums, the cultutal foundations and institutions, the folkloric events, the well-organized and attended cultural activities? Where are the local scholars and experts on heritage and culture, the programs that teach this at local universities, the books, journals, exhibitions, reserach and conferences? Promoting local culture is usually done in a supeficial way and as part of commercial or business promotion. Without a genuine and significant effort to change the current situation, Emirati culture will pay the price of erosion, misperception and, occasionally, the troubling adverse effect of blamig Western countries and expatriates for the its own self-induced plight. How about a Heritage Tower (that is not for rent) for a start, and eventually, hopefully before the Gulf totally disappears, some kind of a UAE Cultue Island (that is not for sale)?

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