Essential things you need to know about the history and culture of Dubai
Time Out staff
Get up to speed on the most important things to know about your new home.
UAE history Although little is known about Dubai’s ancient history, archaeologists have unearthed remains that suggest humans have inhabited what is now the UAE since 3,000BC.
The Sassanid dynasty occupied Dubai Creek from 224AD until the area was conquered by the Umayyads, who introduced Islam to the region and developed the trade in silk and porcelain from Middle Eastern and European markets.
In the late 16th century, the emirate fell under the control of the Portuguese. A turbulent period in the region’s history followed, with the Portuguese struggling against French and Dutch interests until the British finally garnered control of Dubai’s waterways in 1766. In 1833, the Bani Yas tribe, led by the Saudi Arabian ancestors of the current ruling Maktoum family, settled by the Creek on what is now the Bur Dubai side. In 1894, Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher Al Maktoum saw the potential for the natural harbour to become a prosperous trading centre and declared the port tax free, signing an exclusive agreement with the British and causing the population to swell to over 10,000 people.
Following advances that led to the cultivation of pearls in the late 1920s and the economic depression of the 1930s, Dubai’s fortunes declined. Convinced that the pearl trade was finished, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who ruled from 1958-1990, decided that the port’s future lay in the profitable re-export business for gold. The precious metal was imported duty free and then immediately re-exported for a profit.
The success of the Creek was further enhanced when it was dredged in 1959, allowing larger trading ships to dock in the port and cementing the harbour’s status as a centre for commerce in the lower gulf.
Oil was discovered in 1966, dramatically altering the wealth of the emirate and financing the city’s rapid expansion. Then, on December 2, 1971, following the cessation of British occupation in the late 1960s, Dubai became one of the six emirates to form the UAE – Ras Al Khaimah, the seventh and final emirate to make up the union, joined in early 1972.
Seen as the father of modern Dubai by many, the charismatic Sheikh Rashid oversaw numerous modernisation projects, including the construction of the Al Maktoum Bridge, which connected Deira to Bur Dubai across the creek, eliminating the need to complete the lengthy journey around the tributary. Other achievements under the Sheikh’s stewardship included the completion of the UAE’s first modern medical centre, Al Maktoum Hospital, and the creation of Dubai’s airport.
Tensions existed between the emirates over disputed borders and the direction of the UAE until 1979, when Sheikh Rashid agreed with Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi that Dubai would continue to pursue free trade while Sheikh Zayed’s city would apply stricter controls to the other emirates. Sheikh Rashid’s successor and son, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, continued the emirate’s liberal economic development and presided over the introduction of tax-free employment zones, such as Dubai Internet City and Dubai Maritime City. Since his death in 2006, Dubai has been ruled by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, his predecessor’s brother, who is also Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE.
Although the catalyst for Dubai’s rapid economic expansion was oil, the emirate’s main revenues now come from tourism, property and financial services. It is home to some of the world’s biggest and most innovative landmarks, as well as the UAE’s largest population, despite being only the second largest emirate.
The family The extended family is of crucial importance to Emiratis. Names tend to define someone within their immediate family – such as bin (‘son of’) or bint (‘daughter of’) – and within their tribe or extended family by the prefix ‘Al’. The existence of ‘wasta’ – the ‘old boys’ network’ of favours given to those with family and friends in high places – still exists alongside new meritocracy.
The weekend The official weekend is Friday and Saturday. Friday is the Islamic holy day, and Muslims spend it with loved ones at parks, beaches or in their homes. Many shops and souks don’t open until late afternoon.
Islam Islam is an important part of Emirati society and before long you’ll become accustomed to the sound of the call to prayer played through loudspeakers attached to mosques. Muslims pray five times each day, facing Mecca, and you might see stickers or signs in hotel rooms specifying in which direction the holy city lies. It’s not uncommon to see people praying in office corridors or by the side of the road, although there are prayer rooms for Muslims at most shopping centres and at the airport. Avoid walking in front of anyone praying, and don’t stare. As for other faiths, the UAE is pretty tolerant and allows temples and churches, though active promotion is not allowed. There are many different days each year commemorating aspects of Islam, and most will mean a public holiday.
Ramadan The Holy Month of Ramadan is a particularly special time for Muslims, who are required to abstain from eating, drinking and smoking between sunrise and sunset – and expats are asked to refrain from the above in public or else cop a fine and possible jail sentence. During the Holy Month, cafés and restaurants will close or lower their blinds during the day, while some shops will open at sunset. Live music and dancing are also banned during the Holy Month. However, the evening festivities known as iftar – when Muslims break their fast – can be enjoyed by locals and expats, with most hotels erecting special Ramadan tents for feasting, socialising and traditional games.
The mosque Non-Muslims aren’t normally allowed inside mosques, but visitors can join the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Cultural Understanding on a guided tour of Dubai’s beautiful Jumeirah Mosque every day of the week except Friday. It’s a unique opportunity to learn about Emirati culture and religion in a relaxed and open atmosphere. Tours start at 10am and you don’t need a reservation, although you should arrive at the mosque’s main entrance at 9.45am. Tours last approximately 75 minutes and you are asked to wear modest clothing (traditional attire can be borrowed, if needed). Visit www.cultures.ae for more information.
National dress You’ll find that most Emiratis wear their national dress in public, though at home many tend to wear Western clothing. Men wear the white full-length robe known as a dishdash/a, with a white or red head dress called a ghutra. The black cord that wraps around the ghutra is known as an agal, which Bedouins once used to secure camels. Women wear the black coloured robe called an abaya with a head scarf known as a shayla, and these days it’s becoming increasingly rare to see a plain abaya – many are embroidered and embellished with beads or even Swarovski crystals. Though it’s less common, you may also spot more traditional Arab women wearing a burka – a tough fabric mask covering their faces.
Appropriate attire Sunbathing in swimwear on the beach is fine, but you must don more substantial clothes over your swimsuit before stepping off the beach, and it’s not advisable to go directly from the beach to the mall without covering up. In all public places (streets, shopping malls and restaurants), shorts and skirts must be of appropriate length – avoid miniskirts or hot pants. Avoid wearing clothing that is low-cut, transparent, or that displays obscene or potentially offensive pictures or slogans.
Women A common misconception is that women are restricted. However, Emirati women are free to drive and pursue studies and hobbies. Generally, unmarried men and women tend to lead separate lives – at weddings women usually hold separate celebrations to the men. Some areas of life are still off-limits to women. At public events, such as the horse races, it’s rare to see Emirati wives accompanying their husbands. These traditions extend to ladies’ days in parks, female-only beaches and to women being served first or separately in banks or other queues. If a woman offers her hand to you, a shake is okay. If not, a smile and a nod are appropriate.
Language Dubai is effectively bilingual – road signs, maps and daily newspapers are in English, and most Emiratis speak the language well. However, some public sector staff and other officials don’t have the same language skills and as a result can come across sounding quite brusque. But this has more to do with the imprecise art of translating Arabic into English than a desire to be rude. It is also worthwhile tuning your ear to the mix of Hindi or Urdu and English that you’ll commonly hear around town. Dubai’s ethnic majority comes from the subcontinent and often mixes this unique blend of English with a smattering of the Arabic language, too.
Drugs In short, don’t. The UAE has a zero tolerance policy and there is a long list of pharmaceutical products the UAE Ministry of Health has also classified as narcotics, including tablets readily available over the counter in chemists abroad. For a full list of banned medication, contact the UAE Ministry of Health’s Drug Control Department in Dubai (www.moh.gov.ae; 04 230 1000). Virtually all cases of hard drug possession end up with the culprit being put behind bars. Trials involving marijuana and heroin are dealt with in the same way. Recent court cases suggest anyone caught dealing drugs can expect to be handed a lengthy sentence.
Tipping A ten percent service charge and ten percent municipality fee is added at many tourist establishments, particularly hotels, although you are free to add more if the service was particularly impressive. If the charge is not included, ten or 15 percent is about average.