This article originally appeared in Raffles magazine.


Culture and art are perhaps not the first things you’d expect to come across in a travel guide to Dubai – although it has been said that the entire skyline is like a vast art installation. Yet away from the glittering skyscrapers, glossy shopping malls, indulgent brunches and sunny beaches, Dubai has a cultural heart that beats solid and true. And it’s not hard to find it, as long as you know where to look.

The Shindagha district is a restored neighbourhood that hugs the banks of the Dubai Creek. It was the centre of the city’s pearling industry until its demise in the 1940s. From Shindagha, the forefathers of present ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, presided over and protected the land and community. Their efforts and the significant mark they made on the city’s growth are documented in the minimuseums that have sprung up  in Shindagha’s restored buildings.

Even early in the morning, there’s a heat haze across the creek and the sun beats down on Shindagha’s interlocked pathways. But in the Traditional Architecture Museum, in the former house of Sheikh Juma bin Maktoum (Sheikh Mohammed’s great uncle), the cool rooms vibrate with the sounds of hammering and sawing. As it turns out, this is a soundtrack for the exhibits at the museum, which provides absorbing insight into Emirati design and construction. The impact of this history is apparent in many of Dubai’s newer developments – hotels, apartment blocks, even shopping malls – which have been built to mirror a distinctive style. Using coral stone and gypsum, their intricately carved balustrades and doors provide a cultural reference to Dubai’s old trading partner, India.


TRADITIONAL ABRA BOATS PROVIDE A CHEAP AND SCENIC WAY TO CROSS DUBAI CREEK. PHOTOGRAPH BY SIDDHARTH SIVA.

A minute’s stroll along the banks of the creek, where dhows (traditional sailing vessels) unload their wares as they have for generations – a reminder of how important the sea has been to the livelihood of the Emiratis – is the house of Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum Al Maktoum, Dubai’s ruler for  46 years until his death in 1958. The house itself is a national monument and documents the history and development of the city through artefacts and stunning historical photographs. The view from the sheikh’s summer majlis (reception rooms) on the top floor is well worth the small entrance fee. Next door is the world’s only camel museum, built in tribute to these stoic ships of the desert. Their esteemed place in Arabian culture, however, seems to be slightly at odds with the menu at Barjeel Al Arab, a nearby restaurant where local delicacies include the house speciality, camel burger.

The achievements of Emirati women are the subject of a lesser-known museum on the opposite side of the creek, in a side street by the bustling Gold Souk. To reach it, take the abra, which at one dirham (30 cents a trip) must rate as one of the cheapest commercial boat rides in the world.

First opened in 2012 and situated in an airy, three-floor  building, the Women’s Museum pays tribute to the intellectuals, artists and poets who were pioneers in their fields and offers visitors a refreshing, often unexpected glimpse at how Emirati wives and daughters view themselves and their place in society. As its founder, Dr Rafia Ghubash, has said: “Women here were empowered a long time ago, but we haven’t had a chance to tell our story. Don’t think that because we are covered we are not empowered.”

Away from the skyscrapers and shopping malls, Dubai has a cultural heart that beats solid and true.

The area of Al Fahidi, back over in Bur Dubai, is a perfect embodiment of how Dubai’s traditional and contemporary cultures blend together harmoniously. The neighbourhood has undergone painstaking restoration. Tucked away in its ancient winding streets lies the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding – an initiative instigated by the ruler to educate expatriates and visitors in the cultural mores of his country. Styled as a traditional home, the centre offers a packed calendar of events throughout the year, including heritage tours and the ever-popular cultural meals, where visitors can join an Emirati host for a congenial chat about UAE customs and religion over breakfast, lunch or the recently launched Saturday brunch (some new Dubai habits are clearly here to stay).

Elsewhere in Al Fahidi, vibrant life spills from restored buildings that are home to craft shops, cafés and even a traditional guesthouse. However, it is the number of art galleries springing up that have really put the area on the map. Each year in March, Al Fahidi plays host to the SIKKA Art Fair, a fringe festival to the city’s more commercial Art Dubai. Specifically designed to feature UAE contemporary art and initiatives, SIKKA – which is named after the area’s narrow alleyways, designed to generate cool breezes through the buildings – has become a way for Emirati and UAE-based artists to work and engage with the visiting international art community during Art Week and the Art Dubai fair, the major Modern and contemporary art event in the region. Throughout SIKKA the neighbourhood takes on a carnival atmosphere, with outdoor film screenings, live music, entertainment and, as ever in Dubai, a melting pot of nationalities enjoying it all together.


ONE OF THE RESTORED OLD SOUKS NEAR AL FAHRIDI. PHOTOGRAPHY BY SIDDHARTH SIVA.

Across town, that same passion for the arts is also evident in the unlikeliest of places. Alserkal Avenue is a creative arts district situated in Al Quoz, Dubai’s gritty industrial area of warehouses and factories, which is far –  in sentiment if not distance – from the city’s tourist trail.  It was founded in 2007 by Abdelmonem Alserkal, a forward-thinking Emirati who wanted to create something akin to London’s Shoreditch or New York’s Meatpacking District in his home city. His vision has paid off. Just a few years after the first handful of galleries tentatively moved into Alserkal’s cavernous warehouses, the 250,000 square-foot area has filled with dynamic art and performance spaces and cultural initiatives. 

Its galleries include art scene pioneers such as Green Art, the Emirate’s very first launchpad for regional artists, as well as other galleries who have participated in international events, such as Carbon 12 at Art Cologne and Lawrie Shabibi at Art Basel Hong Kong. Many of Alserkal’s galleries are committed to affordable art: Versus Arts  shows emerging artists alongside the completely unknown, while A4 Space and The Fridge give creatives the ability  to mingle by presenting a variety of cinema events, cafés  and performance spaces. At Gulf Photo Plus, directors  Mohamed Somji and Hala Salhi have set up what they call  a “hub within a hub,” creating an environment where photographers of every level can learn, interact and exhibit – they can even buy and sell equipment in a dedicated photographic marketplace.


THE GALLERIES OF ALSERKAL AVENUE PROVIDE A SHOWCASE FOR LOCAL AND INTERNATIONAL ARTISTS SUCH AS MATILDA GATTONI, WHO
DOCUMENTED WOMEN AROUND THE WORLD IN HER 2015 PHOTO EXHIBITION HER AT GULF PHOTO PLUS. PHOTOGRAPH BY SIDDHARTH SIVA.

On Gallery Night, which takes place twice a year in September and March, the whole avenue opens its doors and art lovers and patrons stroll the streets between the galleries, glasses and canapés in hand. “It is a completely unexpected side of Dubai, even for people who have lived here for a long time,” says Mariam Fawaz, a longtime Alserkal fan. “Although the community is better known now than in the earlier days, it still feels very edgy and uncommercial.”

The vibrancy of Dubai’s young art scene has had a significant effect on other creative industries, too, as product and furniture design in the city increasingly makes its mark. Although only five years old, Design Days Dubai is already the leading fair in the Middle East dedicated to collectible and limited-edition furniture and design objects. “It is always a challenge to trailblaze new disciplines, ideas and concepts,” says fair director Cyril Zammit. “In the first year, I don’t think people knew what to expect, but the local and international community have embraced the fair wholeheartedly.”

The fifth edition of Design Days took place in March and drew some 13,500 visitors to a large tent Downtown. It gave international designers the opportunity to present themselves to an increasingly savvy local audience, while local designers also had the chance to launch their work. Aljoud Lootah showed her first collection of furniture based on Japanese origami at the 2015 fair: “It’s a great chance for visitors to Dubai to see that the UAE homegrown talent is on par with anywhere in the design world,” she says.


THE 2015 DESIGN DAYS DUBAI FAIR INCLUDED ORIGAMI-INSPIRED PIECES BY ALJOUD LOOTAH, SUCH AS THIS TEAK LAMP. PHOTOGRAPH BY SIDDHARTH SIVA.

Many of the city’s young designers have set up shop in the d3 Dubai Design District, launched in March 2015  in a three-day extravaganza of art, food, fashion and music – the sort of brouhaha the city revels in. As a brand-new neighbourhood, d3 will, when complete, mix edgy residential and office space with major and small boutiques, galleries, workshops and artists’ studios. It may not  have grown organically like other creative areas of the emirate, but it is evidence of the direction in which Dubai sees its future.

From 2016, this future will encompass perhaps the ultimate cultural statement of any city – an iconic opera house, which will serve as a centre for performing arts  from all over the world. Apart from opera, the 2,000-seat, multiformat venue plans to host theatre, concerts, art exhibitions, orchestral works, film and sports events. Poignantly, Dubai Opera’s architecture is styled after  the classic wooden dhows that have sailed the Arabian Gulf for generations and hold such significance in this city of traders, which constantly looks forward to the future, but rarely without looking first to its past.

Stella Rosato is a UAE-based journalist.

LEAD IMAGE: SINCE 2007, THE WAREHOUSES OF ALSERKAL AVENUE IN AL QUOZ HAVE BEEN TAKEN OVER BY GALLERIES SUCH AS A4 SPACE. PHOTOGRAPH BY SIDDHARTH SIVA.