Dubai's cultural scene is growing in leaps and bounds thanks to creative expat communities and the government investing in such ventures as the Dubai Opera to fuel the local performing arts scene. International A-list entertainers regularly make the city's state-of-the-art venues a stop on their concert tours.
Alongside plenty of cover bands ranging from cheesy to fabulous, Dubai also has a growing pool of local talent performing at festivals and venues such as Barasti, Hard Rock Cafe, Fridge and Irish Village. Rock and metal dominate but sounds from punk to reggaeton to EDM are here too.
Homegrown bands to keep on the radar include rock groups The Boxtones, Bull Funk Zoo, Kicksound and Nikotin; metal band Nervecell; hip-hop collective The Recipe; electronic music mavens Hollaphonic and Arcade 82; singer-songwriter Ester Eden; acoustic fusion band Dahab; chilled-out jazz star Aman Sheriff; and alternative rock by Daisygrim. A major success story is Dubai-based Juliana Down, who became the first local artists to sign with a major label (Sony) in 2011. Another cool new band is Vandalye, who backed Elton John when he was last in town.
One initiative nurturing local talent is Freshly Ground Sounds (www.freshlygroundsounds.com). Founded in 2013 by Ismat Abidi, the collective puts on acoustic and lo-fi sessions in small, indie community venues.
Classical music is not terribly prevalent, although this has changed somewhat with the opening of the Dubai Opera, whose extensive roster of events includes the occasional concert. Older venues to check out include the Madinat Theatre. The Dubai Concert Committee puts on the World Classical Music Series with concerts held at the One&Only Royal Mirage.
Local and imported talent also rock the many festivals, including mega-events such as Party in the Park, Groove on the Grass and Sensation. Major festival RedFestDXB has seen line-ups that include international hotshots such as Steve Aoki, Craig David and Rita Ora. Since 2015 the Wasla Music Festival has shone the spotlight on alternative Arabic music from such diverse genres as rock, soul and techno.
At the Movies
Catching a movie is a favourite local pastime with most cinephiles flocking to mall-based high-tech multiplexes for the latest international blockbusters. Indie and art-house cinemas are slowly making inroads too, most notably Cinema Akil in the Alserkal Avenue campus. There's also a smattering of indie film clubs, most importantly the Scene Club (www.thesceneclub.com), founded by Emirati filmmaker Nayla Al Khaja. It screens international alternative flicks at the Roxy Cinemas at The Beach in Dubai Marina and at CityWalk. Loco'Motion (www.facebook.com/locomotionuae) hosts free screenings at various venues, including the JamJar at Alserkal Avenue. A kids- and families-only Reel Cinemas (with beanbags and healthy snacks) has opened at the new Springs Souk shopping mall (www.facebook.com/thespringssouk).
A long-running outdoor cinema series is the free Movies under the Stars Sunday screenings at Pyramid Rooftop Gardens in Wafi City.
Theatre & Dance
Dubai’s performing arts scene is slowly evolving with the best productions being put on at DUCTAC and the Madinat Theatre in Souk Madinat Jumeirah. Both present their own productions and visiting troupes, both in theatre and dance, especially ballet. Smaller performing arts spaces include the Courtyard Playhouse and The Junction, both in or near Alserkal Avenue arts campus in Al Quoz. The first play written in Dubai premiered at the latter in 2016. Called Howzat, the dramatic comedy was written and directed by Australian playwright Alex Broun and tells the story of an Indian and a Pakistani family living on the Palm Jumeirah. In late 2017 the Vegas-style show La Perle by Dragone, created by a co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, became the hot ticket in town.
The most popular traditional dance in the region is the ayyalah. The UAE has its own variation, performed to a simple drumbeat, with anywhere from 25 to 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. You can see the dance on video at the Dubai Museum or during heritage festivals around the UAE.
Horse racing has a long and vaunted tradition in the Emirates. Racing season kicks off in November and culminates in March with the Dubai World Cup, one of the world's richest horse races. It's held at the superb Meydan Racecourse, a futuristic stadium with a grandstand bigger than most airport terminals.
Camel racing is deeply rooted in the Emirati soul, and attending a race is hugely popular with locals. Although relatively few tourists attend a camel race these days, it’s a novel sight with hundreds of one-humped dromedaries flying out of their pens and onto the dirt track and heading off, somewhat shambolically, in a lumbering gallop with legs splayed out in all directions, scrambling towards the finish line at top speeds of some 40km/h. Firmly attached to their backs are the quaint-looking robot jockeys attached with walkie talkies (so the camels can hear directions) and remote-controlled whips, both are operated by the owners while driving their white SUVs on a separate track alongside the animals. All live commentary and announcements are in Arabic only.
A pressing question for some may be whether camel racing is cruel. While there is no doubt that any form of forced racing of an animal is unlikely in its best interest, the fact that camels are so revered in the UAE, as well as being expensive to purchase and highly valuable, means that you are more likely to see an undernourished and unhealthy camel in a European zoo than at a camel race.
Racing season runs between November and April. The closest track to Dubai is Al Marmoum, about 40km south of town en route to Al Ain. For the schedule, check www.dubaicalendar.ae (search for 'camel'). Admission is free.
Attending a local football match can be great fun as up to 10,000 spectators crowd into the stadiums to passionately cheer on their favourite team while a singer and a band of drummers lead song and dance routines to further inspire the players. Ten clubs compete in the country's league – called the Arabian Gulf League (www.agleague.ae) – which was founded in 1973 and went pro in 2008. The season runs from mid-September to mid-May. Check the league's website for the schedule and venues.
The enormous Indian and Pakistani communities in Dubai l-o-v-e cricket. You’ll see them playing on sandy lots between buildings during their lunch breaks, in parks on their days off, and late at night in empty car parks. If you want to get under the skin of the game, talk to taxi drivers. But first ask where your driver is from – there’s fierce competition between Pakistanis and Indians. Each will tell you that his country’s team is the best and then explain at length why. (Some drivers need a bit of cajoling; show enthusiasm and you’ll get the whole story.) Remember: these two nationalities account for about 45% of Dubai’s population, far outnumbering Emiratis. Because most of them can’t afford the price of satellite TV, they meet up outside their local eateries in Deira or Bur Dubai to watch the match. Throngs of riveted fans swarm the pavements beneath the crackling neon – it’s a sight to behold.
Need to Know
Keep tabs on what's on and upcoming via www.timeoutdubai.com, www.infusion.ae and www.whatson.ae. Look for flyers in bars, cafes and hip stores and boutiques. Another excellent source is the biweekly Hype magazine (www.thehypemagazine.com).
The easiest way to buy tickets for big-name concerts, parties and events is online through www.ticketmaster.ae, www.800tickets.com and www.platinumlist.net.
Costs vary wildly. You can hear a jazz trio in a snazzy bar for the cost of a glass of wine or shell out Dhs1000 for a big-name artist.