What You Need to Know About UAE Culture and Traditions

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In the midst of the sand of the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates blend glitz and glamour with a history that stretches back for centuries. Here’s what to know about UAE culture and traditions.

Understanding UAE Culture and Traditions

Through one window, the horizon tilts back and forth in shades of golden rose. Through the other, red dust blocks all that can be seen.

And through the windscreen there is almost nothing at all.

Dune bashing convoy in the desert in Ras Al Khaimah
 Dune bashing convoy in the desert in Ras Al Khaimah

My work with the airline Royal Brunei highlighted an unusual travel destination to explore: the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah in the U.A.E. This article forms part of a project produced in partnership with Royal Brunei, RAKTDA and Ritz Carlton. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Now let’s begin!

An Evening in the Desert

Through one window, the horizon tilts back and forth in shades of golden rose. Through the other, red dust blocks all that can be seen.

And through the windscreen there is almost nothing at all. Just blue, blue sky, that hovers, stops, dips and disappears, as we fall into a cloud of sand on the other side of the dune.

This is dune bashing in the desert of Ras Al Khaimah. And it’s not for the faint of heart.

Deserts are strange affairs: vast swathes of sand that capture our imagination in a way that forests and fields never can.

Objectively, we can take a step back and compare camels to cows, dunes to the Downs of England and their gentle, rolling hills.

After all, dunes are soft, they sift beneath our feet, they catch on the breeze. They don’t have the towering permanence and immediacy of a sheet of jagged rock, of blades of ice, the nervousness of a bridge across a ravine.

Sand is fun, we play games with it as children, we long for it on our beaches, we stick it to paper for crafts around the home (or, for some athletes, fix cricket matches with it but that’s a story, I think, for another day.)

And nowhere does sand take on such a prominent role than in our talk and thoughts about the Middle East.

The surprise of rich food in the desert in UAE

Deserts unnerve us, and perhaps well they should

Yet sand, when it becomes the floor of the desert, loses its friendly innocence.

Deserts unnerve us, and perhaps well they should.

The first definition from the Merriam Webster dictionary sounds suitably soulless:

  1. arid land with usual sparse vegetation, especially: such land having a very warm climate and receiving less than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of sporadic rainfall annually.

The second cuts right to the point:

2. A desolate or forbidding area

I think, perhaps, we all carry with us an image of the stranded, struggling traveller, delirious with the heat, following a mirage, tongue gasping, without water, confused and lost, to their end.

And perhaps that’s why deserts fascinate us so much.

But what impresses us more are the people and animals who have managed to make them home.

Falconry in Ras Al khaimah
 Falconry used to help people to survive in the harsh conditions of the desert


The Sand of the Arabian Peninsula

The Arabian Peninsula, a subcontinent of Western Asia, is the largest peninsula in the world – and three quarters of it is covered in desert.

To the south is the world’s largest sand desert, the Rub’ al Khali, or Great Arabian Desert. The literal translation is Empty Quarter. It is here where temperatures soar to 50 degrees in the day and plummet below freezing by night.

As the northernmost emirate of the United Arab Emirates, Ras Al Khaimah sits on the edge of all this, dipping its toes into its 64 km of coastline and breathing cool air in the Jebel Jais mountain range.

The coast at Ras Al Khaimah
The coast at Ras Al Khaimah

The Influence of the Desert

In other words, here in Ras Al Khaimah, there’s more than just the desert, but there’s also a lot of it as well.

Today, life has moved to cities and breeze block homes and traffic from trading routes travels along slick tarmac roads.

But the footprints of the desert remain almost wherever you look.

The traditional dress, still widely worn, protects from abrasive sands and heat stroke. The practice of falconry stems from the difficulty of hunting in hot, barren sands and the impossibility of settling and agriculture.

And then, of course, there are the camels.


Camels in the desert in Ras Al Khaimah
Camels in the desert in Ras Al Khaimah

The Role of Camels: Trade, Transport, Beauty and Botox?

Good old Wikipedia describes them as an “even-toed ungulate that bears distinctive fatty deposits” and it’s as awkward a phrase as the movement of the animals themselves.

There’s simply no mistaking the wildly zig-zagging lurch as a camel stands and then sits down, a sensation ten times more disorienting than a seat on a horse that decides to buck.

Then there’s their faces, so full of expression. And perhaps it’s just their opinion of me, but the expression never seems to be good.

Irked, perhaps. Annoyed, at best, and when they’ve really given up on making an effort for anyone, they transform into full blown grump.

One of life’s mysteries that will puzzle me until the day I die is the notion of a camel beauty contest, but the people I meet here assure me it’s true.

What’s more, a controversy currently rages concerning the suspected foul play in such an event through the ignominious administration of botox.

I honestly can’t tell if someone’s having me on.

But traffic jams abound on the days of the camel racing, and Crufts exists, after all, so I suppose it could be based in fact.

What is the food like in Ras Al Khaimah
At the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa, food is gently spiced and often shared

Food in The Desert

Historically, of course, camels had work to do apart from run fast and look beautiful.

They transported trade and they transported the nomadic Bedouin, as well as providing a valuable source of food, another area where the desert has left its mark.

Dates, from date palms, of course are found with every traditional welcome, while camel milk ice cream is more of a delicacy.

The restaurant Al Fanar, a staple of the United Arab Emirates, offers it in flavours of saffron, pistachio and date.

They also serve luqaimat, hot fried dumplings served with sticky-sweet date honey and a flag of the Emirates thrown in for good measure.

Cardamom, turmeric, saffron and thyme flavour Emirati cuisine, often prepared in a single post since kitchen equipment was scarce for the Bedouin on the move.

RAK, with its easy access to the coast, throws in lobster, crayfish, and mussels to the culinary mix.

Coastal influences on culture and cuisine in Ras Al Khaimah

Coastal Culture and Looking For More

It’s easy to imagine the coastal people had an easier life than their desert cousins but a quick walk through the history of pearl diving soon disabuses me of that notion.

Men left huge sums of money with their families in case they weren’t to return. They went underwater with a rope around their neck and relied on their colleagues to pull them up to safety with a simple one-two tug.

Today, quite thankfully, the workers farm the pearls instead.

In fact, whichever way you look, this small Emirate has enough clues about its past and rich culture in its present to make me want to look for more.

And to its credit, the Bedouin Camp tries its best to cram these heritage clues into a single visit for the curious traveller.

Fabric tents, grilled meats, flatbread, camels and more. But the ticking clock and constraints of space leave things feeling not entirely sincere.

When we step into the jeeps for the dune bashing, that lingering question melts away.

We leave – and return – in convoy. Toy white cars against the impossibly bright blue from the sun.

It’s not my first time, but I’m older now, more cautious.

To the dismay, I’m sure, of my passengers at the back, I find myself the only one not urging our driver to go faster, faster, faster, to overtake, to go for more.

Dune bashing, let me tell you, is a cross between skidding and surfing across the sand. Reeling to the side, popping over the top, spinning down and around, it’s part thrill, part accident waiting to happen, or so the imprints of motherhood seem to be saying.

If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like, it’s a cross between a roller coaster and wave machine, without the salty sting up the nose.

We first tried it, oh young and foolish ones, ourselves, in Oman.

I loved it then and, though it takes a while for me to ease into it, I love it again now.

At a well-timed sunset photographic break, I pluck up the courage to ask questions of our driver.

How long has he been doing this, has anyone ever been left behind. You can see his answers on the video over here.

I’m pretty confident that dune bashing is unrelated to the realities of surviving in the desert but just to be sure, i ask the question.

“Why do you take these cars into the desert?”

“Just for fun,” he replies. “It has no other purpose than that.”

And that, let’s face it, dear readers, is perhaps the best answer of all.

Disclosure: This article forms part of a project produced in partnership with Royal Brunei Airlines, Ras Al Khaimah Tourist Development Authority and Ritz Carlton. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Otherwise I get grumpier than a camel. Find part one over here: Where is Ras Al Khaimah and Why Should You Go There.Tune in for more on places to stay and things to do.

Travel Tips for the U.A.E

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See our travel guide to the best things to do in Jordan and then check out this post on planing the perfect itinerary in Jordan.

And explore Israel, starting with this guide to two days in Tel Aviv.

8 thoughts on “What You Need to Know About UAE Culture and Traditions”

  1. Dune bashing is really fun and exciting! Haven’t been to Ras Al Khaimah but it sure looks a charming and picturesque place.


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