Owing to its Bedouin heritage, the most popular art forms in the UAE are traditional dance, music and poetry, although of late other forms of artistic expression have seen a surge in popularity. Sizeable art communities have sprouted in Dubai and Sharjah alongside world-class galleries and such international art festivals as Art Dubai, Abu Dhabi Art and the Sharjah Biennial.
Abu Dhabi is especially ambitious when it comes to positioning itself as an art-world leader, with plans to turn a corner of Saadiyat Island into the world's biggest cultural district. In 2017, the Louvre Abu Dhabi became the first of the three planned anchor museums to open here.
The UAE also hosts the Dubai International Film Festival.
In Bedouin culture, a facility with poetry and language is greatly prized. Traditionally, a poet who could eloquently praise his own people while pointing out the failures of other tribes was considered a great asset. One of the most important poets in the region was Mubarak Al Oqaili (1880–1954). There's an entire museum dedicated to him in a traditional building in the Deira Spice Souq in Dubai. Modern UAE poets of note include Sultan Al Owais (1925–2000) and Dr Ahmed Al Madani (1931–95).
Nabati (vernacular poetry) is especially popular and has traditionally been in spoken form. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai’s ruler, is a well-respected poet in this tradition, as is the award-winning contemporary female poet Ousha Bint Khalifa. The Women's Museum in Dubai's Deira district devotes an entire room to her work.
There are scores of well-known male poets in the UAE who still use the forms of classical Arab poetry, though they often experiment by combining it with other styles. Well-known female poets writing in the modern tafila (prose) styles include Rua Salem and her sister Sarah Hareb as well as Sheikha Maisoon Al Qasimi.
Music & Dance
Emiratis have always acknowledged the importance of music in daily life. Songs were traditionally composed to accompany different tasks, from hauling water to diving for pearls. The Arabic music you're most likely to hear on the radio, though, is khaleeji, the traditional Gulf style of pop music. Alongside this, an underground rock and metal music scene is increasingly taking shape, especially in Dubai.
The UAE's contact with East and North African cultures through trade, both seafaring and by camel caravan, has brought many musical and dance influences to the country. One of the most popular dances is the ayyalah, a typical Bedouin dance performed throughout the Gulf. The UAE has its own variation, performed to a simple drumbeat, with anywhere between 25 and 200 men standing with their arms linked in two rows facing each other. They wave walking sticks or swords in front of themselves and sway back and forth, the two rows taking it in turn to sing. It's a war dance, and the words expound the virtues of courage and bravery in battle.
A traditional dance performed by women is the al naashat, where the dancers roll their heads from side to side to show off their long, jet-black hair to songs that pay tribute to the love, honour or bravery of the men of the tribe.
Environmental awareness is increasing at the macro level in the UAE, due in no small part to the efforts of the late Sheikh Zayed, who was posthumously named a ‘Champion of the Earth’ by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2005. With his efforts in wildlife preservation, such as Sir Bani Yas Island, which operates a breeding programme for endangered Arabian wildlife species, as well as the ban on hunting with guns put in place decades ago, Sheikh Zayed foresaw the acute threats to the region's endangered native species.
In Dubai, the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) comprises 225 sq km (5% of the area of the Dubai emirate) and integrates both a national park and the super-luxe Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa. One of the DDCR’s most notable achievements is the successful breeding of the endangered scimitar-horned oryx. Migrating birds and flamingos are the darlings of the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary, at the head of Dubai Creek within view of the Burj Khalifa and the high-rises on Sheikh Zayed Road. Sharjah has a successful breeding centre at Sharjah Desert Park, as does Al Ain Zoo.
In terms of going green at the micro level, however, much work needs to be done in the UAE. Single-use plastic consumption is atrociously high, and water and energy wastage (nearly all water comes from desalination plants) and littering are major issues. Resources are consumed at a much faster rate than they can be replaced, which is why the ecological footprint of the Gulf cities is so high. It is no easy feat to reverse the trend and achieve environmental sustainability when the UAE relies so heavily on imported goods and urban dwelling has become the norm.
There are a few projects aimed at reducing the impact, such as the Shams 1 solar plant south of Madinat Zayed. Other projects such as Abu Dhabi's Masdar City – which was touted to be the world’s first carbon-neutral, zero-waste community powered entirely by renewable energy – have so far turned out to be more useful as green-tech experiments, having failed to meet the aimed-for carbon-neutral goals.
For more information, check the website of the UAE’s leading environmental organisation, the nonprofit, nongovernmental Emirates Environmental Group (www.eeg-uae.org).