However, Emiratis of a new generation are opening their lives — and some their homes — to become the representative of their heritage.
Shamsa Al Naqbi is just 20, one of the youngest members of the now roughly 200-strong network of independent freelancers working as tour guides in Abu Dhabi, offering mostly private tours. Studying a law degree in French at Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, she gives tours on the weekends as a way of giving back to her country, she says.
She specializes in mosque and cultural site tours such as her favorite, the city’s Grand Mosque, and Qasr Al Hosn fort, which stands proudly at the gateway to the island, but there are many other beautiful mosques to see.
Over the centuries Qasr Al Hosn, or the “palace fort,” has been everything from the seat of power to a community library.
Al Naqbi shows visitors a diverse array of architectural styles including the modern, geometric Al Aziz Mosque on Al Reem Island; the simple, elegant Emirati-style Family Park Mosque; and the more ornate Turkish-style Mary, Mother of Jesus Mosque, renamed in 2017 for the UAE’s Year of Tolerance.
She feels she has a role to play in breaking down the stereotypes that still surround Emirati women.
“Many of the tourists think that the women are at home raising kids, or that we are all rich and don’t need to work,” she says with a laugh from the front seat of her blacked-out Jeep. “People also get confused with Saudi and think we don’t drive here. Seeing me helps them to be able to ask questions and see how modern we are.”
Saleh Al Ameri is young too, just 22, and has been a guide for four years. He works full time in Emirates Palace, one of the country’s most opulent hotels. But in his spare time, he specializes in food and shopping tours, delighting in the budget street food offerings frequented by the local community.
“Food is one of the most important ways to see a country,” he says. “Some people want to see the history, or the architecture, but my way is to discover the food.”
He takes guests to spots known mostly by locals, where signs are written in Arabic. These are simple spots around the older part of downtown Abu Dhabi, where the quality of food and hospitality takes precedence over the aesthetics.
He explains the crossovers of Indian and Emirati cuisine, the two countries having blended through trade over the years. From the spices to dishes such as biryani, the influences are obvious.
The food is plentiful, and the private tour takes well over two hours to hop between four locations.
The tour has everything from decadent desserts such as luqaimat (the Emirati donut) and chebab (a pancake filled with cream cheese and honey) enjoyed standing and with sticky fingers, bought from street food vendors, to more opulent offerings such as camel kebabs, enjoyed from the traditional carpet setting, eating on the floor with your hands.
Saleh speaks loquaciously about spices and flavors, when particular dishes are usually eaten and any other details he can share to tell the stories behind his culture’s fare.
On his shopping tours, he takes visitors to see the tailors behind the male and female national dress as well as jewelers who provide the lavish adornments worn at weddings and festivals.
Opening the doors to the majlis
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the second stop on Hiara Tours’ Abu Dhabi City Tour.
Courtesy Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Majed Alzubaidi feels it is so important to have Emirati tour guides that he has set up Hiara Tours, a guide company led by locals.
He wanted to make Emiratis “more accessible” to tourists as well as highlighting not only the glittering new architectural sites of the city but even more so its heritage and culture. By day, Majed works for the government, but this, he says is a “passion” calling.
The first stop on his tours begins at the majlis, a critical part of every UAE neighborhood. In there, guests are greeted with Arabic coffee and a range of teas including karak chai and zaatar tea.
It is in the majlis that heads of communities meet with the locals to discuss the issues and needs of the day — everything from the regional political situation to sharing common pleasures such as watching big sporting events.
Every week these meetings continue to play a critical part in the lives of Emiratis, who still hold true to their Bedouin roots.
Majed says it is critical to bridge the divide between visitors and locals.
“We are breaking down stereotypes,” he says. “Sometimes people come with a certain mindset about Emirati life and they’re ready for you to explain these things like dress codes, social conduct, questions about why men wear white and women black, about having many wives, the things many tourists are curious about.”
He explains in detail the intricacies of the majlis, found not only in the Gulf Cooperation Council, but in countries such as Iraq and Yemen.
The circular shaped sitting areas found in each neighborhood act as a leveler, though there is strict order when it comes to hierarchy among the “tribe.” From the way one enters and leaves to the hierarchy of the seating, the greetings to the behavioral nuances, there are ways to do things and certainly ways not to do them.
It is, he says, a preservation of the tribal system, one which the leadership continues too, the Crown Prince holding his own each week in addition to visiting others in the emirate.
This is the place stories have been told amongst this very oral tradition, where decisions have been made, including the UAE’s decision to introduce national military service.
In the early evening, it is a place the men of the community come together. Usually closed to non-Emiratis, this part of the tour opens up an insightful window to the ways these communities have worked for centuries.
The guides offer a window into a world which, until now, has remained somewhat hidden from the UAE’s plentiful offerings; a chance to hear the stories from the people who know them best, and from the generation who will take this culture into the future.
Melanie is a British freelance journalist based in the UAE, where she has lived and worked for around 12 years.