Treasure Hunt - We navigate Dubai's unexpectedly rich cultural scene


Words: Stella Rosato    Photography: Siddharth Siva


Culture and art are perhaps not the first things you’d expect to come across in a travel guide to Dubai. Yet Dubai has a cultural heart that beats solid and true

Hugging the banks of the Dubai Creek, the Shindagha district is a restored neighbourhood that was the heartbeat of the city’s pearling industry until its demise in the 1940s. Even early in the morning there’s a heat haze across the Dubai Creek and the sun beats down on Shindagha’s interlocked pathways, but in the former house of Sheikh Juma bin Maktoum (Sheikh Mohammed’s great uncle) the cool rooms vibrate with the sounds of primitive hammering and sawing. This is merely a soundtrack, as it turns out, for the exhibits in the Traditional Architecture Museum, which provides an 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 providing a cultural reference to Dubai’s old trading partner, India. A minute’s stroll along the banks of the Creek – where dhows still unload their wares as they have for generations, a living 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. Next door is the world’s only camel museum, built in tribute to these stoic ships of the desert.

Anse Lazio
Land of tortoises map
Aldabra Giant Tortoise

Asmaa al Shabibi, director of the Lawrie Shabby gallery; traditional abra boats on the Dubai Creek; origami-inspired teak lamp by Aloud Loootah

The achievements of Emirati women are the subject of a lesser-known museum on the opposite side of the Creek, tucked away in a side street by the bustling Gold Souk. First opened in 2012, and situated in an airy, three-storey building, the Women’s Museum pays tribute to the women who were pioneers in their fields – intellectuals, artists and poets – and offers visitors a refreshing, often unexpected glimpse at how Emirati wives and daughters view themselves and their place in society.

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 and, tucked away in its ancient winding streets, is 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 its ever-popular cultural meals, where visitors can join an Emirati host for a congenial chat about UAE customs and religion over a traditional breakfast, lunch or the recently-launched Saturday brunch.

Away from the glittering skyscrapers, glossy shopping malls, indulgent brunches and sun-kissed beaches, there is a cultural heart of Dubai that beats solid and true

Aerial shot of deep waters
Craggy, granite-rocked coatline

Visitors enjoy a meal at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding; art installation called Deer in the Headlights; a restored souk near Al Fahridi

Elsewhere in Al Fahidi, the number of art galleries springing up has 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 event. Specifically designed to feature UAE contemporary art and initiatives, SIKKA has become a way for Emirati and UAE-based artists to work and engage with the visiting international art community.

Across town, Alserkal Avenue is a creative arts district situated in Al Quoz, Dubai’s gritty industrial area, home to warehouses and factories and 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 the vibe of London’s Shoreditch or New York’s Meatpacking District in his home city. His vision has paid off handsomely. Just a few years after the first handful of galleries tentatively moved into Alserkal’s cavernous warehouses, the 250,000 sq ft community has filled with dynamic art, performance spaces and cultural initiatives. Its galleries include art scene trailblazers such as Green Art, the Emirate’s very first launch pad for regional artists, and has seen other partners expand on to international platforms (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.

A4 Space is just one of the galleries on Alserkal Avenue, most of which are housed in gritty, industrial warehouses, very different from the fine 1927 courtyard of the Traditional Architecture Museum

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 literally concrete 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, multi-format venue plans to host theatre, concerts, art exhibitions, orchestral works, films and sports events. Poignantly, Dubai Opera’s architecture is styled on 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 first looking back to its past.

The galleries of Alserkal Avenue were inspired by London’s Shoreditch and New York’s Meatpacking District; international artist Matilda Gattoni at her 2015 photo exhibition, “HER”

Active art

Here’s where to go in Dubai and if you’re looking for fine old museums and the latest in art, culture and design

Al Shindagha

Traditional Architecture Museum:

+971 4 392 0093; open Sunday to Thursday, 8am-2pm.

Admission: Free

Sheikh Saeed House:

+971 4 393 7139; open Saturday to Thursday, 8am-8.30pm, and Friday, 3pm-10pm.

Admission: Dhs3

Camel Museum:

+971 4 392 0368; open Sunday to Thursday, 8am-2pm.

Admission: Free


Women’s Museum:

+971 4 234 2342; open Saturday to Thursday, 10am-7pm.

Admission: Dhs20

Al Fahidi

Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding:

House 26, Al Mussallah Road, Al Fahidi District, Bur Dubai;

+971 4 353 6666; various opening times and activity

Al Quoz

Alserkal Avenue Arts and Cultural District Street 8, Al Quoz:

+971 (50) 556 9797; various opening times


d3 District:

+971 4 433 3000

Dubai Opera:

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