Al Bastakiya: Historic Dubai and Emirati culture

2017-01-24T21:17:42+00:0017 February 2015|Dubai, People you meet, Traditions and customs|
Wind tower in Bastakiya

Wind tower in Al Bastakiya

Dubai is perhaps best known for its futuristic skyline, its just-a-wee-bit-over-the-top shopping centres and luxury hotels, its record-breaking skyscrapers, and its slightly indulgent lifestyle. But there’s more to this affluent Arabian city than first meets the eye.

Near Dubai Creek lies historic Dubai. This is where you’ll find Bur Dubai, an area mostly populated with immigrants from the subcontinent. I enjoy this part of Dubai, feels like I’m in India. Hindu and Sikh temples are just metres away from mosques, and there’s a lively textile souk. You’ll also find Al Fahidi Fort, housing Dubai Museum which tells the story of Dubai before the oil; dioramas bring the area’s 5000-year-old history to life.


Dubai Museum, Al Fahidi Fort

Then there’s Al Bastakiya, my favourite part of Dubai. What I like about it? Well, firstly, the breezy courtyard of the Arabian Tea House (formerly Basta Art Cafe), my fave breakfast spot in town (the Arabic one – tea, bread, cucumber, tomatoes, halloumi cheese – is my default brekkie here, along with a particularly delicious mint/lime juice).


Carpets and blankets for sale in Al Bastakiya

I also like wandering along the narrow winding lanes between the wonderful old wind towers (ancient, all natural air conditioning: designed to funnel cool air into the house). In the late 1980s, Al Bastakiya was in imminent danger of being demolished in favour of yet another skyscraper complex. Thanks to Rayner Otter, a persistent British architect, and to Prince Charles, the district is preserved. Who says royalty can’t play an important role…

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Al Bastakiya also has art galleries, restored traders’ houses, pretty B&Bs, as well as the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, SMCCU for short. The centre describes itself as follows:

The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding is a cultural awareness platform in which expats and visitors to the UAE are invited to join in various cultural activities in a friendly welcoming environment hosted by local Emiratis.

SMCCU is located in a wind tower building, with yet another lovely courtyard, oil lamps hanging from the tall ceilings, and fab rooftop views upstairs.

Our little group is invited to lunch at SMCCU, where we join locals and tourists around a common spread on the floor. Entering, we’re asked to remove our shoes and have a look around. Then we sit down on plump, bright cushions where we’re served coffee and dates while learning all about this particular tradition. I’m reminded of my accidental (but oh so fortunate) visit at the home of a family in Bahrain some years ago. I’ve said it before, and am happy to repeat it: in my experience, Arabs are some of the most generous and hospitable people in the world.

We’re then given lunch, typical Bedouin fare: salads, machoos (chicken, rice and spices), fareeth (a meat and vegetable stew), ligamat (sweet, deep-fried dough balls) and heaps more dishes I can’t remember the name of. We hear how Bedouins have two ways of serving their guests: The host either serves the meal then leaves the room – because he/she doesn’t want to interrupt their guests while they’re eating. Or the host eats a little at the beginning then waits until the guests are finished before continuing. This is so the host won’t accidentally take just that piece of e.g. meat the guest might have their eyes on.

Eating is serious business, in other words. And lunch is the most important meal of the day. Here at SMCCU there’s plenty left over and we’re provided with take-away containers.

sheikh mohammed centre for cultural understanding dubai

Open doors, open minds

Afterwards, we’re free to ask any question we want – and we do. SMCCU operates under the motto ‘Open doors, open minds’. We ask about education (free public school for Emiratis), health care (also free for Emiratis), parental leave (40 days with pay), wedding ceremonies (usually 3 days) and average age for marriage (25).

The UAE is ruled by a sheikh (presently Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum), who appoints his successor. I ask whether a women might ever be appointed as ruler. ‘Why not?’ says our host. ‘I don’t think it’s at all impossible that a sheikha will be appointed,’ she continues.


Our host demonstrating the different forms of Arabic women’s dress on a willing volunteer.


There are many women in government and diplomatic service in the UAE  – Sheikha Najla Mohamed Al Qassimi was ambassador to Sweden from 2008 – 2014 and Lana Nusseibeh is UAE’s ambassador to the UN. A woman president doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Our host is asked about women’s role in marriage, about the infamous 4-wives-rule, about dress codes, and much more. What we hear points to a modern society with a fairly high degree of individual freedom for men and women. Emirati men and women, that is.

If you’re in Dubai and are interested in learning a little about Emirati culture, traditions and religion, I highly recommend visiting the Sheikh Muhammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. In fact, I’d like to return – I’ve a few more questions I’d like to ask.

Visiting Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding – practical info


Crossing Dubai Creek in an abra

  • Al Bastakiya is easily reached by taxi – or if you’re up for it, just a 10-15 minute walk from Al Ghubaiba bus station in Bur Dubai. You can also take Dubai’s new, cool metro and get off at the Al Fahidi stop. If you’re on the other side of Dubai Creek, cross over in one of the many abras (water taxis) for just 1 dirham, then turn left. Shortly after passing Dubai Museum (stay on the same side of Al Fahidi Street), you’ll see the wind towers in Al Bastakiya.
  • Breakfast is offered on Mondays and Wednesdays at 10am (AED 80). Lunch is available on Sundays and Tuesdays at 1pm (AED 90). There’s also a cultural dinner on Tuesdays at 7pm (AED 100) and a brunch on Saturdays at 10.30am (AED 100). Have a look at the Calender of events for more info. NB: Reservations are essential.
  • In addition to the cultural meals, tours of mosques and various other heritage activities are offered.

Disclosure: This time in Dubai, I was a guest of Emirates and Dubai Tourism. As ever, I retain full freedom to write whatever I want.

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  1. Leigh 17 February 2015 at 1702 - Reply

    What a fascinating place to visit once you get past the glitz. I’ve never been, it’s never really been on my radar but I love the side you’ve shown me. Looks like a place where you could gain a few pounds in a few days.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 February 2015 at 1521 - Reply

      Arabic food is delicious, but also quite healthy, so you’ll be all right 🙂

  2. Gil 18 February 2015 at 0751 - Reply

    Beautiful pictures

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 February 2015 at 1521 - Reply

      Thanks, Gil 🙂

  3. Saiful Islam Khan 18 February 2015 at 0947 - Reply

    A drastic & significant changed over Dubai in last decade. It is now a top listed tourism destination which appreciated enough. Thank you for writing & sharing the post!

    Best regards,

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 February 2015 at 1521 - Reply

      Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Agata 18 February 2015 at 1001 - Reply

    Super interesting post! Especially that we’re so used to black-and-white stories about Arabic countries. I wonder whether it is possible to visit Dubai and wearing the cross on your neck? Do you think it would offend them anyhow?

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 February 2015 at 1523 - Reply

      It wouldn’t offend at all. There are plenty of non-Muslims in Dubai, and no special dress code, even for Muslims.

  5. Freya 18 February 2015 at 1444 - Reply

    It looks like a really interesting place. I have been to Dubai a few times on a stop-over but never saw anything except for the airport. I will definitely change that next time and take some time to explore Dubai.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 February 2015 at 1524 - Reply

      Oh, do. If even an extra day or two.

  6. Mette 18 February 2015 at 1916 - Reply

    I’ve always wondered what the sticks are doing in the wind tower? You see that design all the time in Egypt as well, and so far I haven’t been able to figure out the purpose.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 February 2015 at 1528 - Reply

      Good question. I searched a bit, and couldn’t really find an answer. I’ll ask next time I’m in the region.

  7. Lisa Goodmurphy 18 February 2015 at 2131 - Reply

    I enjoyed learning about historic Dubai – sounds much more authentic than the glitz and luxurious lifestyle that we associate with Dubai. Seems to make it a more interesting place to visit as well.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 February 2015 at 1530 - Reply

      Glad to hear it 🙂

  8. Cathy Sweeney 18 February 2015 at 2209 - Reply

    I needed this intro to the other side of Dubai I hate to admit that I’ve always just pictured the skyscrapers. Interesting look at the culture here – thanks for the introduction and some eye-opening perspectives.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 February 2015 at 1531 - Reply

      Happy to spread the word about the cultural aspects of the emirate..

  9. Rahman @ Iran travel 19 February 2015 at 1829 - Reply

    This is a very interesting way of visiting a country at its roots. Many are absorbed by the modern aspects of Dubai. The area called Bastakiya is one of the oldest parts of Dubai where immigrants came from other countries and settled there. That’s why you see the temples of different religions there.

    The wind towers OR wind catchers are very interesting parts of desert architecture. In Persian, we call them baadgir (Baad means wind & gir comes from gereftan meaning catch). They’re the most efficient air-conditions of the desert.

    Trips like this are very important to understand the true nature of the people living in far-off countries. I’m happy that you’ve gone into the heart of Dubai and written this story. I enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 February 2015 at 1533 - Reply

      Interesting to hear about the Persian version, too. Iran is on my wish list as well 🙂

      • Rahman @ Iran travel 25 February 2015 at 1553 - Reply

        Well, I’ve published a post about it some time ago: It’s a short introduction of what we have created in Iran since unknown time.

        • Anne-Sophie Redisch 8 March 2015 at 1217 - Reply

          Very interesting read. I’m constantly astonished how people in ancient times created the structures they needed with the limited machinery available then.

  10. Marcia 21 February 2015 at 1310 - Reply

    Thanks for sharing this other side of Dubai, Sophie. I was never really impressed by the shiny, over-the-top facade so I’m happy to see this. Seeing this moved Dubai up on my list of places to visit. Very informative post!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 February 2015 at 1518 - Reply

      Thanks, MArcia. There really is more to Dubai beneath the surface.

  11. Mary @ Green Global Travel 24 February 2015 at 1831 - Reply

    Thanks for sharing another side of Dubai – the city is so often identified with its urban landscape, so it’s fascinating to see another angle.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 February 2015 at 1534 - Reply


  12. Corinne 28 February 2015 at 0709 - Reply

    I loved Dubai, but I didn’t get to eat with locals. I think that is always such an amazing chance to get to know a country. Love this post!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 8 March 2015 at 1212 - Reply

      Thanks, Corinne 🙂

  13. Anirudh Singh 23 December 2015 at 1957 - Reply

    Hey Sophie, Everytime I read a post of yours, I feel like I am at your place. Dubai is not too far away from India, the way you described the emirati culture makes me feel I am in Dubai.

    Thanks for this Post !

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 7 January 2016 at 1920 - Reply

      Thanks 🙂

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