UAE Festival Culture

Before I came to the UAE, I wasn’t sure what its public musical culture would look or sound like. I discovered, first of all, that it is festival-based, especially in Abu Dhabi. The best place to see a live performance is at a festival, and festivals are ongoing in the cool months. A second defining characteristic of music here is extreme diversity. It’s easy to hear music from all over the world, and especially the types of music that populous expat communities like.

From the standpoint of the UAE’s linguistic and cultural plurality, its festival scene is fascinating. I’ve kept track of festivals and cultural events in Abu Dhabi and Dubai (and often attended them), with an eye on the different places people go to hear music, and the way languages, genres, and people mix around entertainment. Although it seems possible to choose the community through which you experience public culture in the UAE, audiences mix in unpredictable ways.

An Arab-inspired Bollywood performance during the Abu Dhabi Film Festival

The last four months of festivals have already covered an overwhelming spectrum of themes—among them vehicles (F1 race events, Volvo Ocean Races, Dubai Motor Festival) food (Taste of Abu Dhabi, Emirates International Date Palm Festival, Dubai Food Festival) shopping (Dubai Shopping Festival), film (Dubai and Abu Dhabi Film festivals), music (Creamfields Abu Dhabi, Dubai Sufi Weekend, Sharjah World Music Festival, Abu Dhabi Classics, Holi Festival of Colours), UAE heritage (National Traditional Handicrafts Festival, Sheikh Zayed Heritage Festival, Al Dhafra Festival, Qasr el Hosn Festival), and holidays (UAE-wide Eid Al-Adha and National Day Festivities, Dubai Christmas Festival, Dubai’s New Year’s Eve). And this is just a partial list.

UAE performers
Emirati dance troupes are the most ubiquitous performers in the UAE, appearing at all sorts of events, including the Dubai Motor Festival in November.

Often festivals that aren’t ostensibly musical come with the most music. A great example is January’s Dubai Shopping Festival, always accompanied by hundreds of shows around Dubai. They are held in shopping malls (like this performance), at Dubai’s Global Village (like this one), in parks, and at concert venues. This year, Indian artists were brought for Bollywood music concerts, traditional Chinese musicians for an event called The Spirit of Orient, popular Filipino artists for the Pinoy Fiesta, and Latin-American and Spanish performers for the Latin Art Fest. And since many of DSF’s non-local visitors come from other GCC countries, twenty-one popular Arab singers were invited for a concert series called the DSF Celebration Nights.

The DSF Celebration Nights and the F1 Arabic Night that I described last time are musical events that successfully more exclusively target Arab audiences. But Arabic entertainment also appears within multilingual and multicultural lineups—like at Beats on the Beach, another F1 concert series that ran parallel to the after-race concerts I described before. The Beats on the Beach concerts were held at Abu Dhabi’s Corniche, and were free and open to the public.

corniche 1 corniche 2
Parts of Abu Dhabi’s corniche. Beats on the Beach was held on the West Plaza and Lagoon Beach (right)

I checked out Beats on the Beach for one night to compare its vibe to the Arabic night on Yas Island. The whole Corniche was busy—the Abu Dhabi Science Festival occupied the East Plaza, and the F1 Fanzone and Beats on the Beach the West Plaza. The tightly packed crowd near the stage made it feel like an outdoor nightclub, but many families sat further back, along the water, eating snacks and enjoying the festive atmosphere. Babies and children napped on picnic mats and in their parents’ laps.

That night, I saw Emirati singer Ruwaida El Mahrooqi (read about her here), who was followed by American artists Miguel and Jason DeRulo. Since the concerts were right in town and open to all, high schoolers were out in large numbers, buzzing with intense energy. The audience was diverse – Jason DeRulo in particular had attracted teenagers from all backgrounds.

Jason DeRulo
A raucous audience at Beats on the Beach waits for Jason DeRulo to come on stage

The diversity of Beats on the Beach attendees makes sense in light of the nightly lineups. The artists invited from Nov 20-22 were Lebanese, Emirati, Moroccan, Indian, Filipino, American, and British. It’s a savvy event-planning technique I see at some festivals – diversifying entertainment to attract multiple UAE communities at once. The festival website expressed pride in this choice, calling it “one of the most diverse line-ups of performers ever seen in the UAE.”

Beats on the Beach
This digital poster shows the featured performers on each of the three nights of Beats on the Beach.

The centrality of music to public culture in the UAE makes it an important window into contemporary Emirati culture. Artists need to present themselves to mixed, multilingual audiences (like at Beats on the Beach), or targeted, but diverse audiences (like at the F1 Arabic Night), whose members may share a language but differ by dialect, region of origin, religion, and longevity in the UAE. We can glimpse in music festivals and the discourse of artists and sponsors an emerging pluralistic Emirati identity, even if it’s never referred to in this way. This discourse relies on shared place (Dubai/Abu Dhabi/the UAE), experience (music/food/cars/art/holidays), and acknowledgment of diversity (shout-outs to people from different countries, mention of the UAE’s unique cosmopolitanism/internationalism). Celebratory discourse of Emirati pluralism coexists with a more exclusive definition of Emirati national identity. The two orientations contrast, yet both contribute to the creation of the UAE as a global center of art and culture.

In case you’d like to catch a better glimpse of some of the festivals I’ve mentioned, here’s The Who performing at Du Arena few nights after the F1 Arabic night; Ragheb Alama’s audience singing along with him at Beats on the Beach, Abu Dhabi’s Holi Festival of Colours in December; Creamfields Abu Dhabi; the Volvo Ocean Races that included Emirati folklore and a jalsah style concert by Lebanese singer Myriam Fares; Dubai’s Christmas Festival and New Year’s Eve; a Yemeni dance performance at Global Village during DSF; and another DSF dance performance, this time at Deira City Centre. And as for Emirati heritage festivals, I’ll save them for an upcoming entry.

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