The United Arab Emirates is home to a rich cultural heritage that has been strongly influenced by the resourcefulness of its people who exploited the harsh environment of the region to the limit. This resilience, in the face of extreme hardship, was supported by society’s tribal structure, which has bound peoples together since successive waves of migration, beginning over 2,500 years ago, brought Arab tribes to the region. The varied terrain that these peoples inhabited, i.e. desert, oasis, mountains and coast, dictated the traditional lifestyles that evolved over the centuries. Under an age-old social 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 the 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 the absorbent sands.
In Al Ain and other oases the 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.
ghaus) during four months in the summer. Eventually, the pearling boom brought increased urbanization 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. So much so that life in the UAE today bears little or no resemblance to that of 40 years ago.
Nevertheless, the skills of desert life are still held in high esteem by many of the UAE’s people and 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 organized 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 culture can be found by visiting places still favoured by Emirati people such as the fishing harbours or fish souqs, boat-building yards, falconry centres, gold souqs, spice souqs and other venues. Throughout the year various cultural events (exhibitions, theatrical displays, sporting events, lectures etc.) are organized by different 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.