The United Arab Emirates is home to a rich cultural heritage that has been strongly influenced by its unique environment. The region’s varied terrain, desert, oasis, mountains and coast, dictated the traditional lifestyles that evolved over the centuries. A resilience and resourcefulness necessary to survive in these harsh conditions was fostered by society’s age-old tribal structure: each family was traditionally bound by obligations of mutual assistance to his immediate relatives and to the tribe as a whole. Among the tribe an individual’s selfless hospitality was the source of his honour and pride. A common religion, Islam, also provided the cement that held society together.
The largest tribe, the Bani Yas, roamed the vast sandy areas that cover almost all of the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Other tribes, too, such as the Awamir and Manasir, shared this challenging environment for numerous generations. All the subtribes and clans were accustomed to wander great distances with their camels in search of grazing, moving as entire family units. Almost all Bani Yas families, with the exception of the fishing groups like the Al Rumaitha, returned to a home in one of the oasis settlements at certain times of year. Much prized date gardens were cultivated in the hollows of huge dunes at Liwa, tapping the water trapped beneath absorbent sands.
In Al Ain and other oases luxuriant date gardens were watered by an efficient traditional irrigation system (falaj Ar.pl. aflaj) bringing water from aquifers in the mountains. In the narrow mountain wadis (valleys), falaj-like watercourses (ghayl) were used to irrigate terraced gardens tended by extended families.
Life in the mountains to the north and east was quite different to that on the sandy plains, but the seas along the UAE’s extensive coastline were a common resource for all and the people of the region have been involved in trading by sea for many millennia. Great wooden dhows used to wander the Indian Ocean, bringing back new foods and new ideas. Today, seatrading is still a very profitable economic activity and the UAE remains an important entrepot.
Fishing, which traditionally supplied much-needed food in an arid environment, has not fared so well. Neither has pearling, once the mainstay of the economy with many desert dwellers spending four months of the summer pearl diving before returning to semi-nomadic lifestyles.
Eventually, the pearling boom brought increased urbanisation with a great mix of tribal people settling in coastal towns and villages. This process was hugely accelerated by the discovery and export of oil in 1962. So much so that lifestyles in the Emirates today bear little or no resemblance to those of 50 years ago.
Nevertheless, heritage and tradition and the skills that enabled survival are still held in high esteem by many Emiratis. Members of the older generation recall that they were crucial to their own survival. Today’s visitors can experience desert life (without the risks) through participation in a range of organised desert trips that usually involve transport by four-wheel drive vehicles, camels and sometimes horses. A night spent under the stars is one of the most memorable experiences of a visit to the UAE.
Other aspects of the UAE’s heritage and culture can be experienced in museums and heritage centres, by visiting fishing harbours or fish souqs, boat-building yards, falconry centres, gold souqs, spice souqs and other venues. Throughout the year various cultural events are organised by bodies such as the Emirates Heritage Club, which runs dhow races, longboat races, camel races, and a host of other activities that encourage an interest in the UAE’s heritage and culture. Festivals such as the Qasr al Hosn Festival in Abu Dhabi, TCA Handicrafts Festival in Al Ain, Liwa Date Festival, and Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition also preserve and promote traditional culture.