United Arab Emirates: Cultural Briefing

As a true melting pot, the culture of the UAE is a blend of Bedouin, Arabian and Persian cultures. Over time, the demographics of the region has gone through many changes, from European colonists in the 16th century and the waves of Iranian and Pakistani immigrants in the 1800’s and 1900’s, to the cosmopolitan blend of cultures that it is today. Islam permeates the social fabric of modern-day UAE, and most Emirates are quite devout. This blend of high cosmopolitanism and religious devotion gives the UAE a unique sense of being a country that is at once on the cutting-edge and yet, steeped in traditions and culture. It is a country that is immensely proud of its heritage and if you travel with an open mind, you will discover a country as culturally rich as anywhere else in the world.


It may be set in an ancient land with expansive deserts, distinctive tribal groups, and rich Arab heritage, but modern-day United Arab Emirates (UAE), is a relatively young country. It was formed only in 1971 by the union of seven different Emirates, each continuously populated for thousands of years. A visit to the UAE offers incredible insights into how the ancient and the modern can co-exist side by side – where a civilization that can trace its roots back a hundred thousand years now boasts a skyline that rivals some of the most impressive in the world!

The Modern UAE

The Seven Emirates (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Sharjah, Fujairah, and Ras al Khaimah) united in 1971 (though Ras al Khaimah joined in 1972) under the authority of Sheikh Zayed of Dubai. Today the Sheikh lies interred in the grand Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, which is a masterpiece of contemporary and classic Arabian architecture, resplendent in brilliant white. A remarkable piece of architecture, visit this mosque with us and discover hundreds of grand towers, chandeliers of 24-carat gold, the world’s largest hand-woven carpet.

The UAE is one of the world’s largest exporters of oil – one of the main reasons for the region’s considerable wealth. Indeed, Dubai has grown from a small port city at the edge of a desert to one of the world’s most popular destinations in just around forty years. There is no better way to gain a sense of this immense growth than a tour of modern Dubai with a local expert, past glittering malls and boutique hotels to the Palm Jumeirah (an artificial island shaped like a palm tree), and of course, the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.

Today, visitors from all over the world flock to the UAE for its world class hotels and shopping centers, vibrant events and festivals, and exotic location.

The Old World

For many centuries, the region was home to numerous loosely connected Sheikdoms and tribal cultures. This was until the land came to be dominated by European Imperial powers such as the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. From 1820 to 1971, the region, which is now the UAE, was called the Trucial States and at the time was more famous for pearls than oil and tourism.

For a real sense of the old UAE, visit Abu Dhabi’s heritage village with our experts. A walk through the city’s traditional mud-brick houses, through bustling souks, and peaceful mosques will have you delving deep into UAE’s age-old traditions and mores. In the cool evening, you could head out to the desert and enjoy a safari ride to a Bedouin camp – just like in the old days!

The Emirate People

The Emirate people are extremely hospitable and welcoming. You are likely to experience people you have never met greeting you like an old friend. This is not simply friendliness, but an important part of Emirate and Arab culture. When experiencing such warm hospitality, it is important to reciprocate the same level of respect in return. This can be as simple as greeting an Emirate with “Assalamu alaikum” (which means “Peace be upon you”) or responding to that greeting with “Wa alaikum assalam” (“Peace be upon you too”). One of the best ways to experience this warmth is at UAE’s fabulous hotels and resorts, such as the Bab Al Shams Desert Resort and Spa, an oasis in the sands that offers a true sense of Arabian hospitality.

Travel tip: You are likely to experience stronger gender separation than you may be used to. Hugging and shaking hands, between members of the opposite sex, is uncommon. It is best to let your host/hostess initiate a greeting and for you to reciprocate.


As a devout Muslim country, most of the official holidays and festivals are Islamic and non-Muslims are not necessarily expected to partake. However, one holiday worth attending is National Day, which is celebrated on December 2nd every year. National Day is the anniversary of the unification of the seven Emirates to form the United Arab Emirates and is one of the most anticipated days in the calendar. As the day approaches, you are likely to see colorful banners and flags adorning buildings, culminating in a range of celebrations happening all over the country. Parades, dances, and exciting fireworks displays are a common sight on National Day. So, if you are expecting to be in the UAE in December, you will be able to experience Emirate culture and hospitality at its best.

Non-Emirate festivals and holidays are also often celebrated with equal enthusiasm, as a large percentage of the country is foreign-born. Abu Dhabi has a world-famous jazz festival, and in Dubai, American communities get together to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Travel tip

Before visiting the UAE, it may be useful to learn the dates of the holy month of Ramadan. During this entire month, it is illegal to eat out in the open during the day, or drink, as the largely Muslim population of the UAE are fasting.

Emirate Art

A thriving art, music, and dance scene awaits you in the UAE. During your visit, make time to experience an Al Wahhabiyyah performance. These shows combine traditional poetry with music and dance and are only found in the UAE. You could get your hands painted with intricate Henna designs or enjoy an Arabian Nights-themed evening while you dine out on the dunes after a desert safari, feasting on delicious Arabian barbecue and mesmerizing belly dancing performances.

Aside from music and dance, beautiful pottery and stunning embroidery are hallmarks of Emirate art and culture. In recent years, literature and painting have also become increasingly popular. In fact, the UAE is home to several international literary festivals such as the Emirates Literature Festival.

Emirate culture is an alluring mix of the international and the local, the traditional and the modern. So, whether you’re looking to delve into something entirely new, or enjoy the rich culture of the region, you’ll find plenty to see and do.


Emirate cuisine can be one of the highlights of any vacation to the UAE. Expect an exotic blend of rich and colorful flavors and, due to the many regional influences, dishes that are both new and comfortingly familiar.Filling your tummy in Dubai and Abu Dhabi is an extraordinarily multicultural experience with a virtual UN of cuisines to choose from. Arabic and Indian fare are most prevalent, but basically you can feast on anything from Afghan kebabs to fish and chips in the cities’ myriad eateries. These run the gamut from simple street kitchens and fast-food franchises to family restaurants and luxe dining temples.

Eat like an Emirate

Have you ever eaten camel meat? Often described as a delicious mix between lamb and beef, it is a specialty of the UAE, eaten during weddings and other such special occasions. If that does not appeal to you never fear – traditional Emirate cuisine is wonderfully diverse thanks to the region’s colorful history and there’s a lot more to savour.

Breakfast, like everywhere else, is the most important meal of the day. Traditional Emirate breakfasts are often delicious and filling affairs, packed with all the nutrition you need to start your day. Take for example, the popular breakfast dish balaleet – a bowl of vermicelli sweetened with rosewater, saffron, and cardamom, and topped with a perfectly cooked egg omelette. Packed full of goodness, this savory dish has an interesting, sweet undertone that will surprise you.

Since the UAE spreads across the Gulf of Oman, seafood is common in Emirate dishes. One of the highlights is the Jasheed, a dish made from rice and bay shark! You could also try the machboos al samak, a delicious blend of rice, spices, dried limes, and fish that is a favorite during Ramadan. There are variations of this dish with chicken and mutton too.

Many popular Emirate dishes are comfortingly simple. During the holy month of Ramadan, Emirates enjoy harees, an interesting mix of wheat and meat that resembles oatmeal or porridge. It is popular across the Persian Gulf with each country adding or changing small details; some countries, for example, add parsley for garnish.

For Vegetarians

Emirate food, like most of the cuisine from the region, is very meat heavy. However, if you are a vegetarian, or are cutting down on the amount of meat you eat, you will find plenty to enjoy in the UAE.

One very popular meatless (and vegan!) dish is fattoush. Made of lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers, and flavored with mint leaves, onion, garlic, lemon, and olive oil, it’s served with traditional Levantine flatbread, making it wonderfully filling, and very healthy.

If, at the end of the day, you want something more familiar, you are in luck. Thanks to the number of expats in the region, and the UAE’s popularity with travelers from all over the world, international dishes are available around every corner in larger cities. Emirate cuisine shares enormous similarities with food from across the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula, and some countries even claim some Emirate dishes as their own! You are likely to find food from all over the world, from the comforting dishes of an Italian trattoria to a good old-fashioned burger.

So, whatever your preference, eating out in the United Arab Emirates will constantly delight you. We expect you will be eating like an Emirate, long after your vacation has ended.

Cultural Reading List

  • Beyond Dubai: Seeking Lost Cities in the Emirates by David Millar
  • From Rags to Riches: A Story of Abu Dhabi by Mohammed Al-Fahim
  • In a Fertile Desert; Modern Writing from the United Arab Emirates by Denys Johnson-Davies

Cultural Activities Information

An important part of experiencing your profession, through the eyes of your professional counterpart, is experiencing the rich culture and traditions.  We have structured the time during your exchange to include 60% of the time engaged in professional experiences and 40% of the time in cultural immersion activities.

Cultural Activities Attire

As a general guideline, clothing should be lightweight, loose fitting and easily washed. In Summer, cotton clothing is much more comfortable than other materials like nylon. Clothing and accessories that will protect you from the sun is also necessary. It’s a good idea to pack a white or light coloured, long sleeve cotton shirt. In Winter you will need warmer clothing, especially at night. Please also keep in mind that when visiting religious sites, appropriate attire is required. It is recommended for females to pack a scarf. (See Weather Information below)


 Shopping, shopping, and shopping! What holiday is complete without checking out the local wares; and UAE is no exception to the rule. The UAE has many glitzy shopping malls, modest shopping districts and classic traditional markets (souks in Arabic). Each has its own charm, character, and specialty.

Shopping ranges from apparels, accessories and gold to electronics, carpets, spices, and dry fruits. Traditional handicrafts and perfumes are widely sought after. The UAE market is abundant with local and international brands. Shopping festivals around the year distinguish the shopping experience in the UAE. Discounts and bargains are an important feature of these festivals. The festival runs all over the emirates and almost all malls and stores participate in it by offering deals.

Special night markets run during the holy month of Ramadan in the emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah are a treat to watch and shop.

Citizen Ambassador Program Policy Statement

While many delegates express an interest in shopping for local merchandise overseas, it is not a primary aim of the Citizen Ambassador Programs to place significant emphasis of time or effort on this activity. In keeping with the mission of the Citizen Ambassador Program, schedules are developed to keep professional exchange and/or cultural interaction the focus of your experience.

 The Citizen Ambassador Program can accept no responsibility for the quality or value of any goods purchased during your travel itinerary. This includes items purchased during scheduled visits and during free time on the program.


The best camera to take is one that is easy to carry and use. Multiple lenses and attachments are heavy, and replacements or repairs may be unavailable. Take plenty of film and extra batteries in your carry-on bag. Consider investing in a digital memory card with a large storage capacity if you use a digital camera.

When photographing an individual, especially up close, you should ask permission. Do not take pictures of Immigration/Customs areas or of military installations. Also, do not take pictures of police activity no matter how interesting it might appear.

The same rule of thumb also applies to places of worship and royal palaces. Permission will almost always be granted.

Photography Etiquette

When taking pictures of local people, be aware of cultural considerations. Approaching people with a warm smile and using polite gestures or simple phrases to ask permission to photograph them usually works well. It is always recommended to engage people in conversation before asking to photograph them, but if people do not wish to have their photo taken, please honor their requests. We urge you to avoid giving money in exchange for photo opportunities, which makes it harder for future travelers to have a meaningful personal interaction with local people. Please always heed your National Guide’s for what is appropriate.