Module 2: History and culture

Abu Dhabi Module 2 - History 1History and culture

United Arab Emirates and Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is the name of both the capital city of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and of the largest of the seven individual emirates that make up the country.

The UAE was created as a federation and became a unified independent sovereign state in 1971. In addition to Abu Dhabi, which is the largest constituent in terms of both area and population, its members are Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah.

From 1971 until he passed away in 2004, the President of the UAE was the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. He has been succeeded as both President and Ruler by his son, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

With some 10% of the world’s known oil reserves, Abu Dhabi ranks as the richest of the emirates and a global economic powerhouse in its own right.

A desert beginning

Throughout most of its history, life in Abu Dhabi and surrounding regions was an unending battle for survival against the harsh arid conditions of the desert. For generation after generation, the simple way of life of the sparse population remained largely unchanged.

In coastal areas, pearl diving, fishing and dhow trading were the main activities while, in the desert interior, life was sustained by nomadic herding of camels, goats and sheep, together with date farming and the limited cultivation of other crops around the scattered oases. Any manufacturing was confined to simple crafts.

Key facts

  • Abu Dhabi is the name of both the capital city and of the largest of the seven individual emirates that make up the country
  • The city started as a settlement on the site of a rare fresh water spring discovered by gazelle hunters, and the name Abu Dhabi means ‘Father of the Gazelle’
  • Abu Dhabi’s oil revenue has been wisely invested to ensure a highly developed and efficient infrastructure, ensuring all the modern comforts and facilities that holidaymakers seek
  • Abu Dhabi is a modern cosmopolitan city, with hotels offering outstanding levels of service and fantastic facilities, high-rise towers, fine roads, restaurants and shopping malls
  • Much environmental work has been done in recent years, so that Abu Dhabi city and Al Ain in particular boast tree-lined streets, parks and green public areas to be enjoyed by visitors looking for a break from the beaches and hotels
  • Traditions, culture and history are extremely important in Abu Dhabi – making this a great destination for culture vultures, and those looking for more from their holiday
  • The unique traditions, crafts, artefacts and architecture; the international and Arabic cuisine; the diversity of environments and the modern facilities make this a fascinating destination for every type of visitor
  • Ramadan is observed in Abu Dhabi – a month of fasting in which no food or water may be consumed and no cigarettes smoked in public during daylight hours. Non-Muslims are also expected to refrain as a mark of respect

The origins of today’s Abu Dhabi city can be traced to the mid-1700s. Legend has it that Sheikh Dhiyab of the Bani Yas tribe ordered his son, Sheikh Shakhbut, to establish a settlement on the site of a rare fresh water spring that had been discovered by gazelle hunters. The name Abu Dhabi means ‘Father of the Gazelle’.

Until some fifty years ago this settlement, located on the north side of one of the larger islands lining the Gulf coast, comprised little more than a few hundred ‘barasti’ huts (made of palm trees), some coral buildings and a Ruler’s Fort.

Oil discovery

The discovery of oil in 1958 and its subsequent export from 1962 produced a sudden upsurge in Abu Dhabi’s prosperity and laid the foundations of today’s modern society. Thanks to the vision of the then Ruler, HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, over a period of more than four decades, this oil revenue has been consistently and wisely invested to provide Abu Dhabi and its citizens with the finest infrastructure, telecommunications and all the other facilities and services that make for an advanced country. This work continues under the present Ruler, HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

With the revenue from oil, all types of infrastructure developments from highway networks to airports and golf courses involve no tax burden on the people or business community of Abu Dhabi. Likewise, high quality medical treatment, education and other social services are normally available to citizens free of charge (though there are also private hospitals etc for those that want them).

Embracing change

The transformation of the emirate has been remarkable and the visible evidence is particularly apparent in Abu Dhabi city itself, with its constantly changing skyline of high-rise towers, fine new roads, shopping malls and hotels.

But development has not been at the expense of the environment; quite the reverse in fact. The spectacular success in the greening of Abu Dhabi has been a triumphant achievement against the odds of a hostile climate. The capital city and Al Ain are both notable for their many fine parks and tree-lined streets.

A new life with old traditions

While oil provided the financial resources for massive investment in growth and development, a major part of Abu Dhabi’s charm for the visitor is that cultural change evolves slowly over time. Traditions, some of them little changed from the 19th century, coexist with a 21st century economy and lifestyle; a juxtaposition that lies at the heart of present day society.

In Abu Dhabi traditional culture is very much alive and holding its own against the global standardisation trend. The first-time foreign visitor will be left in no doubt that this is a unique society, where old world courtesies still prevail, etiquette is important and certain standards of behaviour are expected.

The people of Abu Dhabi are rightly proud of their history and heritage, key aspects of the emirate’s attraction to visitors. Given the pace of development and change in recent years, it is considered a priority to safeguard the unique traditions, crafts, artefacts and architecture that define the emirate’s culture.

Keeping the past in the present

Great efforts are being devoted to rediscovering the past through archaeology, the restoration of buildings, museums, establishing indigenous wildlife parks and much more. Traditional musicians, calligraphers, artists and craftsmen are encouraged. The artefacts and tools of pearl divers, fishermen and dhow builders are carefully preserved and displayed.

Especially honoured is the Bedouin way of life. Even though nomadic societies leave little in the way of permanent structures, the people of Abu Dhabi aspire to the noble traditions and values of their desert ancestors.

National dress

The national population still chooses to wear their traditional dress. For men, this is the “dishdasha” or “khandura”, an ankle length robe, usually white. Dishdashas are usually worn with a white or sometimes red-checkered head cloth (“gutra”) and a twisted black rope-like coil (“agal”) which holds the gutra in place; under the headdress is a skull cap (“gafia”).

In public, most national women wear a black “abaya”, a long loose black robe that covers their normal clothes, plus a head scarf, called a “shayla”. Some women also wear a thin black veil covering their face, while some older women wear a small mask made of fabric known as a “burkha”, which covers the nose, brow and cheekbones.

Dress code

The attitude to dress in Abu Dhabi is relaxed but visitors should show respect for local culture and customs in public places by avoiding revealing clothing and dressing conservatively. However on beaches and around swimming pools modern swimwear can be worn without contravening local dress codes. It is advisable to cover up under the strong Middle Eastern sun with sleeved clothing, hats and sunglasses.

Lightweight clothing is suitable for most of the year, but some slightly warmer garments maybe needed in winter months, especially in the evenings and as air-conditioning used in the hotels, restaurants and malls can be a little cold.

Women should avoid wearing revealing clothing, especially in rural areas, and go for loose clothing such as loose-cut trousers and long dresses.

Hotel restaurants do not insist that male guests wear ties, but most men, if not wearing a lightweight suit and tie, will at least be in smart casual attire.


Modern Arabic cuisine is a blend of many types of cooking, from Morocco, Tunisian, Iranian, Egyptian to Afgani, but in Abu Dhabi modern Arabic usually means Lebanese.

Most famous are the shawarma (lamb and chicken sliced from a spit in pita bread) and falafel (ball of deep fried beans) sold on stands along the sidewalks.

Popular starter selection is known as Meze a variety of appetisers served with pita (ie humous, tabouleh, fattoush).

Sales pointers

  • Excellent telecommunications, transport and tourist infrastructure
  • Modern city with a spectacular array of facilities
  • Shopping facilities range from air conditioned malls to traditional souks
  • Fascinating culture and heritage to experience
  • Great choice of international cuisine
  • Huge choice of gifts and traditional crafts

Charcoal grilling is a popular style of cooking however a Ramadan favourite is khouzi (whole lamb served on a bed of rice mixed with nuts) an authentic dish served at the mansa a formal Bedouin dinner.

The meal ends with Lebanese sweets – most widely known as baklava (filo pastry layered with honey and pistachio nuts).

Pork is not on the Arabic menu and its restriction is not just limited to eating the meat but also preparation and service. In Islam it is forbidden to consume blood or meat or any animal that has not be slaughtered in the correct manner. The meat of animals killed in accordance with the Islamic code is known as ‘halaal’.


Ramadan is the holy month in which Muslims commemorate the revelation of the Holy Koran (the holy book of Islam).

Ramadan is a month of fasting in which no food or water may be consumed and no cigarettes smoked in public during daylight hours.

In the evening the fast is broken with the Iftar feast and festive Ramadan tents are filled with people enjoying shisha and traditional Arabic cuisine.

Licensed premises are closed during Ramadan and working hours reduced. Business is sometimes conducted after dark. The end of Ramadan is marked by joyous feasting and dancing over the three-day Eid Al-Fitr holiday.

Non-Muslims are required to refrain from eating, drinking and smoking in public places as a mark of respect. The sale of alcohol is restricted to evenings after 7 p.m. in enclosed hotel restaurants only during the whole month.

The date is not fixed but each year it occurs approximately 11 days earlier then it did the year before.


Abu Dhabi’s culture is firmly rooted in the Islamic traditions of Arabia. Islam is more than just a religion it is a way of life that governs all aspects of everyday life, from what to wear to what to eat and drink.

However in contrast to some misconceptions held in the west, Islamic culture as manifest in Abu Dhabi is tolerant and welcoming; foreigners are free to practice their religion, alcohol is served in the hotels and the dress code is fairly liberal. Women face no discrimination (and contrary to neighbouring countries) are able to drive and walk around unescorted.

Amongst the most highly prized values are courtesy and hospitality and visitors are sure to be charmed by the genuine warmth and friendliness of the people.

The rapid economic development of the country means that life has been transformed in recent years in Abu Dhabi. However significant efforts are devoted to preserving the traditional heritage and such activities as falconry, camel racing and traditional dhow sailing.

Tradition is also very much alive in the clothes, Arabic poetry, dances, songs, traditional art and weddings and celebratory ceremonies.

Music and dance

Traditional dance and folk songs are a part of most festivities, particularly weddings. The Ayyalah performed by up to 50 men, which has its oral traditions in a tribal war chant and victory dance is usually part of the extended dancing and singing that may begin a week or more in advance of an Arabic wedding celebration.

During Eids (the end of Ramadan) and other national festivals, where feasting and dancing take place, young girls may perform the ‘hair dance’ swaying their long hair to the rhythm of the music.

Another practice of the wedding ceremony is to paint the bride’s hands and feet with henna on the eve of the ceremony.

Traditional crafts

Bedouin women were traditionally expert weavers. Floor mats, food mats and bowls were woven from date palm fibres. They also wove cotton and silver threads into trimmings for their garments and fashioned coloured yarns into camel blankets.

Examples can still be found in Abu Dhabi’s souks. Arab-craft metal objects such as handsome patterned coffee pots, daggers and swords are being reproduced for souvenir trade. Bedouin jewellery would be given to the bride as a wedding gift. It too is available in the markets of Abu Dhabi.


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