Dubai’s journey from dusty, desert camel treks to uber-modern Ferrari freeways has been – to say the least – rapid. In a mere half-century soaring skyscrapers have replaced palm trees as the tallest features on the skyline. Most significantly, the Emirati people have become strangers in their own land: outnumbered 8 to 1 by the ex-pats who have flocked to Dubai in their search for a slice of the wealth-cake.
Dubai Creek, where traditional dhows sail in front of those tall glass-and-steel skyscrapers, epitomises Dubai’s fast-forward journey from desert backwater to global power. Inevitably, culture shock and culture clash are part of that journey, even for the most experienced of travellers.
As the United Arab Emirates is a Muslim country, visitors often feel uneasy about their behaviour. Is their flimsy attire too revealing in a land where the thermometer races past 50 centigrade in summer? Should they refrain from public displays of affection?
Dubai’s beaches, where white dish-dashed men lead camels through the skimpy bikinis of sun-worshippers, provides a striking visual metaphor for change. Then there’s the aural image of sun-bathers, sound-insulated by headphones playing western pop, rarely hearing the mosque’s call to prayer.
It is not a new problem. Back-in 1998 the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding was founded. Based in the Bastakia Quarter of Dubai, on the banks of the creek, where divers once sought petals, the SMCCU was set-up to break down the barriers between the many nationalities who now make Dubai their home.
The Emirati are a quiet reserved people and the ex-pats who have flocked to Dubai find it difficult to get to know the indigenous population. Today, only 5% of Dubai’s wealth derives from oil and ex-pats fly in from every corner of the globe to ply their trades and professions.
The recently developed Al Seef region, creating a low-rise take on Dubai before the oil, runs into Bastakia, bringing a flow of international visitors to the SMCUU. Occasionally, there are Emirati in search of their roots, searching for the culture, customs that have ebbed away over recent decades.
A traditional breakfast at the SMCUU is a superb introduction to Emirati life. “There are no forbidden or questions. You can ask questions on whatever you like. How do you worship? Why do men wear white whilst women wear black? Are all the Emirati rich? How do you date? Ask what you like, I will not be offended,” invites our host honestly and openly.
We sat on Bedouin-style cushions, at floor-level, as coffee – Gahuawa Arabia, a strong blend of Arabic beans, cardamom and a hint of ridiculously expensive saffron – is served in small cups. Traditionally, it is served from the right, to the right hand, with the oldest and most revered served first. Drinking three cups is customary. Taking a fourth is a signal that you desire a confidential conversation with your host.
Then a lavish breakfast, a banquet fit for sultans, is laid out in the centre of the majlis, the lounge. We dipped pancakes, known as chahab, in cooked up chickpeas and cream cheese. Then savoured khamir, the local bread. Though it’s advisable to go easy on the lightly spiced scrambled egg as there are still the ligamat to follow: an Arabian take on small crunchy donuts drizzled in sweet syrup.
After brunch, we get to try Arabic dress. Our host tells of a wife’s traditional custom. She dipped her husband’s thin white tie in her perfume: not only to remind him of her through the working day but also to mask the pungent smell of camels as he walked alongside the desert’s beasts of burden.
But breakfast is only one of the events on offer at the SMCCU which has the apt motto “Open Doors, Open Minds”. From the base of its beautifully restored wind tower house a range of activities are on offer including Arabic classes, heritage tours and guided mosque visits.
Learn more at Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding | SMCCU (visitdubai.com)
For more travel ideas in Dubai see our Travel channel.Tags: Dubai, Michael Edwards, Travel Last modified: February 20, 2022