Before Dubai was the thriving cosmopolitan city that it is today, it was a small fishing village surrounded by the vast desert. Dubai is part of the Rub al Khali desert which translates to “the Empty Quarter” and forms part of the larger Arabian desert. Rub al Khali is the largest sand desert (650,000 km2 / 250,000 sq mi) in the world; it encompasses most of the Arabian Peninsula including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen. Dubai’s history is rooted in this desert and for centuries it was traversed by its earliest inhabitants, the Bedouin.
The United Arab Emirates was only formed in 1971; before that, Bedouin roamed the lands of the Arabian Peninsula. Although the Bedouin people were not confined to the United Arab Emirates, they are still considered the native people of the country. Some of the Bedouin from this area nearer to the coastline were fishermen and pearl divers but most of them were nomadic camel herders.
Nomadic in nature and leaving very little trace other than footprints in the sand, the Bedouin historically had a very low impact on their natural surroundings. What they did leave behind is their stories which have been passed down through the generations in the form of poetry, music and traditional performances.
For many travellers, Dubai’s remarkable man-made wonders and list of world-firsts seem to overshadow the cultural legacy of nomadic Bedouin life in the desert. Luckily there is still a way for Bedouin to share stories about their fascinating cultural heritage and rich traditions with Dubai’s visitors.
It is still possible to walk off Dubai’s beaten path surrounded by skyscrapers, escape the city and head into the desert for a unique glimpse into a day in the life of a Bedouin in the desert. There’s something to be learnt from the resourceful and hospitable nature of this ancient nomadic culture.