Global business and futuristic skyscrapers may be the hallmarks of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but the region also places a heavy emphasis on the arts, including centuries-old traditions like calligraphy and poetry. Comprised of seven emirates, the UAE’s Dubai and Abu Dhabi grab the cultural headlines for the region while its third-largest city, Sharjah, was named in 1998 the Culture Capital of the Arab World for its museums and events like the Sharjah International Book Fair.
“Dubai is a global metropolis that has retained its cultural heritage, with a strong mix of local culture and international influences,” said Steen Jakobsen, director, Dubai Business Events. “Dubai has a growing arts scene that touches all parts of the city and attracts a range of influences and styles.”
Featured on the arts calendar is the annual Art Dubai, which recently finished its 12th edition in March, showcasing prominent names in the global contemporary and modern art worlds. Another event championing local artists is the annual SIKKA Art Fair, which features audio, video and interactive artistic installations, music performances, screenings, poetry readings, painting, photography and sculptures.
Another prominent arts event was 2017’s Dubai Street Museum initiative, which allowed local and international graffiti artists to paint buildings, resulting in murals and other public art works depicting local culture.
Local artists for more than a decade have settled into the Al Serkal Arts District, which includes a number of permanent gallery spaces.
“The art galleries at Al Serkal provide an excellent space for larger groups to gather and explore cultural and artistic exhibitions, with several venues at the site suitable for events or talks,” Jakobsen said.
“Similarly, the Dubai International Financial Centre is home to a spread of art galleries that make great off-site venues for MICE groups in the city. Opera Gallery Dubai, Cuadro Fine Art Gallery, ARTSAWA and Tabari Artspace are just some of the options for groups to explore together.”
According to Jakobsen, Dubai is famous for its bold architectural developments, including the renowned Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall, as well as its world-class venue offerings, many of which can cater to MICE groups.
La Perle, for instance, is the city’s first resident show, housed in a purpose-built theater complete with an aqua stage. The venue can cater to groups of up to 1,200.
Another group option, Dubai Opera in the Downtown Dubai district, brings the world’s best-known productions to the region, according to Jakobsen, and has a unique multi-format theater capable of seating 2,000 people.
For a deeper understanding of Dubai’s heritage, the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood is an immersive district portraying the traditional lifestyle prevalent throughout Dubai until the 1970s. There are also cafes, art galleries and cultural museums lending insight into traditional experiences, from Arabic calligraphy to local coffee.
Meanwhile the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding offers groups guided walking tours, Arabic classes and a taste of local cuisine.
Also attractive for groups is the current 30-day visa-on-arrival policy for citizens from the U.S. and Canada.
“These travel regulations are designed to boost tourism and trade,” Jakobsen said. “We’ve witnessed a positive impact with Russia and China following last year’s relaxation of policies, resulting in a significant growth in the number of visitors in 2017. Visitor traffic from Russia increased by 121 percent last year, while there was 41 percent growth in the number of visitors from China following the policy change.”
Dubai will be on display later this year when it hosts the 57th ICCA Congress, which Jakobsen calls a “great opportunity to showcase our progress as a world-class city with unrivaled connectivity to key industry bodies around the world.”
The city is expanding its hotel inventory as well. The Mandarin Oriental-Dubai, overlooking Jumeirah Beach, is in the works for a September 2018 opening and will offer 200 rooms and suites, meeting rooms, and will be close to both Dubai International Airport and Dubai World Central–Al Maktoum International Airport. W Dubai-The Palm will open on Palm Jumeirah island in June 2018 with 350 rooms and suites, six dining outlets, a private beach and meeting rooms.
Gevora, the world’s tallest hotel, opened in Dubai’s Trade Center area earlier in 2018 with 528 rooms and a rooftop for events. Also sporting a rooftop terrace will be the upcoming Stella Di Mare-Dubai Marina, with 369 rooms and a ballroom for 250 guests.
In the new Business Bay district on the Dubai Canal, the Renaissance Downtown Hotel, Dubai debuted in December. In 2018, the Radisson Blu Hotel Dubai Waterfront is set to open with 432 rooms and suites, a ballroom and 11 meeting rooms.
In the emirate’s westernmost region of Al Dhafra, the Rub Al Khali, or Liwa Desert (also known as the Empty Quarter), touted as the world’s largest uninterrupted sand mass, was the first filming location for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Groups can visit the Qasr Al Sarab (Mirage Palace) Desert Resort by Anantara, located in the Liwa Desert, and take part in desert walks, tours to the nearby Liwa Oasis, dawn yoga amid the dunes, camel trekking, desert drives and archery, among other activities.
Star Wars isn’t the only big name associated with arts and culture in Abu Dhabi.
The Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi theme park is due to open on Yas Island later in 2018 as a complement to the popular Ferrari World Abu Dhabi and Yas Waterworld already on the island.
“Abu Dhabi is one of the most promising cultural hubs in the region,” said Mubarak Al Shamsi, director of the Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau.
“Its growing number of museums and galleries, both publicly and privately owned, showcase the city, and indeed the entire county, as an emerging destination for contemporary art enthusiasts.”
Many of those new and future museums are based in the Saadiyat Cultural District, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi, an art and civilization museum that opened in late 2017.
Designed by Jean Nouvel and inspired by the UAE’s palm groves, the museum displays art, manuscripts and objects of historical and cultural significance.
In the works for Saadiyat is the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, designed by Frank Gehry. Its permanent collection will feature global art dating from the 1960s to the present day.
Also in Saadiyat, Zayed National Museum will be the UAE’s first national museum and will highlight the life of the founding president of the nation, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
The Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island is set to open in 2018.
The Department of Culture and Tourism recommends groups visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one the world’s largest mosques, with 82 domes and 24 carat gold-gilded chandeliers.
In addition, Abu Dhabi is home to UNESCO World Heritage Site Al Ain, one of the world's oldest permanently inhabited settlements. Nearby is Al Ain National Museum and Al Ain Palace Museum, both of which can host groups. In the Ain Al Fayda district of Al Ain, the Qaryat Al Torath Heritage Village features 32 souq stalls offering a variety of traditional handicraft goods.
A 175-room Aloft Al Ain opened in 2017.
Groups can visit Emirates Heritage Club to learn aspects of the desert way of life, including a campfire and a goats’ hair tent. There are workshops where craftsmen demonstrate traditional skills, such as metal work and pottery, while women sit weaving and spinning.
Along with its traditions, Abu Dhabi is setting an eye on the future.
“We recently launched our new comprehensive digital initiative, which acts as a ‘one-stop-shop’ for all cultural information for the emirate of Abu Dhabi,” Al Shamsi said. “The initiative, launched recently as part of UAE Innovation Month and called ‘Abu Dhabi Culture’, allows users to gain instant access to all aspects of cultural life and heritage in the emirate via their mobile phones.”
There are also new properties in the works, including a 428-room Grand Hyatt Abu Dhabi, which is opening soon in 2018 with 46,000 square feet of meeting space.
Jumeirah Al Wathba Desert Resort is slated to open in September 2018. The Arabian-style hotel will be located southeast of Abu Dhabi city in the Al Wathba District and will offer 90 rooms and 13 villas, a pool, rooftop bars and spa, as well as conference and meeting facilities.
UAE CVB Contact Information
Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau
Abu Dhabi Department
of Culture & Tourism
Dubai Business Events/
Department of Tourism
and Commerce Marketing