The Traditional People of the United Arab Emirates
The Bedouin people of the United Arab Emirates have a rich history. They are highly hospitable and follow many traditions! In fact, the Bedouin culture is one of the founding pillars of the UAE society and plays an integral part in the Emirati national identity.
The word comes from the Arabic word Badawiyin which means desert dweller.
Efforts are made to incorporate the ancient Bedouin heritage into modern day UAE to preserve this cultural heritage the various facets of Bedouin society like Bedouin music, dance, oral and written literature such as poetry, food, values, the tribal system, Bedouin husbandry, and traditions are nurtured and respected by the UAE people.
Who are the Bedouin People?
The Bedouin society historically is a desert-dwelling semi-nomadic Arab ethnic group, the Bedouin society is divided up into tribes and there is a strong honor system among the people who are extremely loyal, first to their immediate families, then their extended families and finally to their country.
Each Bedouin tribe is lead by a Sheikh and all the members of the tribe usually have a common ancestor.
There are Bedouin tribes in several of the Middle Eastern countries as well as the UAE.
Before the 1960’s boom of the UAE oil industry the UAE society primarily consisted of the desert living Bedouins and those who made a living from the sea including pearl diving.
So the country’s roots are grounded in the Bedouin culture. Today the UAE is multicultural making it even more vital for the Bedouin society to preserve its heritage.
Bedouin Tribe Customs
In the UAE, the Bedouin peoples prearranged marriages within the tribe used to be the norm, although they still exist there is more freedom to choose your own partner than there used to be.
Rarely if ever does an Emirati Bedouin marry a non-national and although according to Islamic law the Bedouin men could take up to 4 wives most make do with one.
Bedouin families in the UAE average 6 to 8 children. Children are raised by the mother with some input from the father. The whole village helps in the raising of a Bedouin child.
Whereas the Bedouin society usually consisted of tribes living together today many have their own abodes but live close to or next to their extended family members.
Part of Bedouin society which has not diminished is the tradition of hospitality which can be felt wherever you go in the UAE. This is one of the most wonderful experiences you can have when visiting Abu Dhabi or other parts of the UAE- make sure you don’t miss the chance to interact with these kind and generous people.
The wooden Dhow boats derived from the Bedouin people and today you can still see these vessels.
However today they are mostly used for tourists visiting the UAE rather than transporting goods.
The fishing dhow although still common has been taken over by the dhow races and dhow dinner cruises!
Many of the Bedouin pearl divers, still dive but again it is an attraction for tourists.
Traditional Bedouin life in the UAE today
In the UAE many of the Bedouin people have stopped leading a rural or nomadic life and have integrated into the urban society.
Today there is about 180,000 Bedouin in the UAE most from the Rwala, Dhafir and Baqqarah tribes.
A few groups live as nomadic shepherds but most live on the edge of the desert and have become farmers or Fellahin. They live a harsh life up against the natural elements and the woman do the majority of the labor. Arabian camels, sheep, and goats are kept and used for food and making a living.
Camels have always been an integral part of Bedouin society in the UAE, today you can see camel races in winter and sample camel milk.
The Bedouin people may still live in the traditional tents although many have moved into permanent structures. To survive financially many Bedouin now take on salaried work in the urban areas as well. The Bedouin society in the UAE is Sunni Muslim and they speak the Badawi language.
Unfortunately, Bedouin society today in the UAE is predominantly low income as the Bedouins who have only in the past few decades settled in the urban areas have had to reinvent themselves.
Where to see traditional Bedouin society in the UAE
For the benefit not only of tourists but of the UAE society which needs to preserve its heritage, there is the Heritage Village and Diving Village in Dubai and the Abu Dhabi Heritage Village where a microcosm of Bedouin society has been recreated including traditional homes, food, music, and dance.
However, if you drive into the desert, especially near Al Ain you will likely run into some of the remaining Bedouin people. We once got lost in Al Ain and were helped by a Bedouin family-they offered us tea and invited us into their tents- it was a wonderful experience.