Cultural Dubai



Cultural understanding. It’s why a lot of us travel, to leave familiarity behind and reach out to those who do things in a different way. Bridge gaps. Open minds.

Now think of Dubai, city of malls and towers, blingy shops we know selling bloated brands we recognise. Not exactly the first port of call for those seeking cultural understanding, perhaps?

Enlightenment can come in the most unexpected of places, my child. Take Bastakiya, the 19th-century Persian quarter of Dubai. This dense little enclave has been restored to within an inch of its life, but its high-walled alleyways retain a whiff of atmosphere – along with one of Dubai’s essential cultural stops.

I’m seated, cross-legged, on the courtyard floor within one of Bastakiya’s villas. A veiled woman stands at one end of the room. “Eighteen or twenty percent of Emirati men take more than one wife,” she is explaining, in a soft West Coast American accent. “But there’s a divorce rate of almost 40%.”

Amused tutting ripples around the seated circle. “But please,” she smiles, gesturing to the bread, dips, pasta, deep-fried pastries smothered in date syrup and more laid out in front of us. “Tuck in.”

We’re not in a private home, though this is, quite literally, a cultural breakfast. Amid Bastakiya’s lanes, the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding – named after the craggy-featured Ruler of Dubai – makes a point of serving up Emirati culture alongside Emirati food.

Too many visitors – and expats – pass through Dubai, the thinking goes, without breaking through the glitzy surface. So the idea of the SMCCU emerged. It offers visits to the glittering Jumeirah Mosque, enhanced by a guide providing insight into Islamic practices. It runs tours of Bastakiya, cultural events, even classes in spoken Arabic, all designed for newcomers to get a handle on what makes the UAE tick.

This morning there are 17 of us – intriguingly, 14 women and only 3 men – seated together, from Britain, Sweden, the US, the Philippines and beyond, split roughly equally between tourists and resident expats. As we nosh, our “guide” Salamah, originally from Oregon, tells us about the etiquette of men and women sitting together on a plane, about how Islam forbids prayer between sunrise and noon in case it’s mistaken for sun worship, even about the traditional greeting between two Emirati men which involves rubbing noses and making kissy noises.

The atmosphere is jovial, with people chipping in – and nothing is off-limits: during our chinwag we touch upon Emirati attitudes to neighbouring countries, the veiling of young girls and, of course, polygamy.

It’s a cheery, thought-provoking way to start the day, shedding light on Dubai’s hidden roots. And the food’s excellent.

Cultural breakfast: Mon & Wed 10am, Dh60 per person. Cultural lunch: Sun & Tues 1pm, Dh70 per person. Advance booking essential. More info:

You can get Dubai as a stopover with the Rover RTW or Navigator RTW