Despite Dubai’s popular reputation as the land that culture forgot, the city hosts a number of world-class annual festivals showcasing film, music and the visual arts, while neighbouring Abu Dhabi also stages a number of leading cultural events. For a complete listing of events in the city, see wdubaicalendar.ae.
Al Dhafra Festival Fifteen days in Dec/Jan waldhafrafestival.ae. Held at the small town of Madinat Zayed in western Abu Dhabi emirate, this lively annual festival is devoted to traditional Bedouin desert culture and heritage. The centrepiece of the festival is a huge camel fair, with races, auctions and even beauty competitions for the best-looking dromedaries. Other events showcase the region’s handicrafts, poetry, cooking and traditional date industry.
Dubai Shopping Festival One month in Jan/Feb wdubaievents.ae/en. Only Dubai could dream up a festival devoted to shopping – and only in Dubai, one suspects, would it have proved so popular. The festival sees shops citywide offering all sorts of sales bargains, with discounts of up to 75 percent, while the big malls lay on lots of entertainment and children’s events to keep punters’ offspring amused during their parents’ extended shopping binges. The festival also sees a spate of events at the Global Village in Dubailand (wglobalvillage.ae; open Oct–March), comprising a range of eye-catching international pavilions that showcase arts and crafts from countries around the world, as well as performances of world music and dance and other events.
Dubai International Jazz Festival One week in Feb wdubaijazzfest.com. Top local and international jazz and pop acts perform at Festival City. Previous participants have included the Brand New Heavies, James Blunt, Macy Grey and Mica Paris.
Art Dubai Four days in mid-March wartdubai.ae. The biggest event in the Dubai visual arts calendar, this four-day art fair features exhibits from some 75 galleries from around the world at Madinat Jumeirah.
Abu Dhabi Festival Three weeks in March wabudhabifestival.ae/en. Long-running arts festival featuring a mix of classical music, ballet and theatre, with performances by top global stars.
Emirates Airline Festival of Literature Five days in March weaifl.com. Established in 2009 and now the Middle East’s largest literary festival, with five days of readings and discussions featuring over 100 leading local and international scribblers.
Dubai Fashion Week March and Oct. Leading Middle Eastern fashion event, held twice yearly, with autumn/winter collections taken for a catwalk in late March, and spring/summer collections on show at the end of October.
Bastakiya Art Fair One week in mid-March. Held at the same time as Art Dubai, the lively week-long Bastakiya Art Fair offers a kind of fringe alternative to its more mainstream cousin, with shows of work by up-and-coming artists at venues throughout the historic Bastakiya quarter, backed up by film screenings, book readings and various talks.
Sharjah Biennial March to May wsharjahbiennial.org. The oldest (established 1993) and most famous art festival in the Gulf, held over two months every other year (odd-numbered years) and showcasing major Arabian and international artists, along with other cultural events.
Taste of Dubai Three days in mid-March wtasteofdubaifestival.com. Three days of live cookery exhibitions in Dubai Media City by local and visiting international celebrity chefs, plus wine tastings and the chance to sample signature dishes from some of the city’s leading restaurants at heavily discounted prices.
Womad Abu Dhabi Three days in mid-April wwomadabudhabi.ae. Abu Dhabi edition of the legendary world music festival, with three days of free concerts on the Abu Dhabi Corniche and at Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain.
Dubai Summer Surprises Mid-June to mid-July wdubaievents.ae/en/dss. An attempt to lure visitors to Dubai during the blisteringly hot summer months, Dubai Summer Surprises (DSS) is a mainly mall-based event – really more of a marketing promotion than a genuine festival – with a decent selection of shopping bargains on offer and masses of live children’s entertainment presided over by the irritating cartoon figure known as Modhesh, whose crinkly yellow features you’ll probably quickly learn to loathe. Great if you’re travelling with children, however.
Abu Dhabi Film Festival Ten days in mid-Oct wabudhabifilmfestival.ae. Established in 2007 to encourage the work of Arab filmmakers, and serving up a wide-ranging selection of films and documentaries from around the world, with guest appearances by assorted Hollywood, Bollywood and Middle Eastern celebrities.
Dubai Fashion Week See March.
Dubai International Film Festival One week in mid-Dec wdubaifilmfest.com. This major film festival showcases international art house films, including a particular focus on home-grown work and usually a few well-known celebs in attendance.
National Day Dec 2 The UAE’s independence day is celebrated with a raft of citywide events, including parades, dhow races and performances of traditional music and dance.
The Islamic holy month of Ramadan is observed with great attention and ceremony in Dubai, and is the one time of the year when you really get the sense of being in an essentially Muslim city. For Muslims, Ramadan represents a period in which to purify mind and body and to reaffirm one’s relationship with God. Muslims are required to fast from dawn to dusk, and as a tourist you will be expected to publicly observe these strictures, although you are free to eat and drink in the privacy of your own hotel room, or in any of the carefully screened-off dining areas set up in hotels throughout the city (alcohol is also served discreetly in some places after dark, but not during the day). Eating, drinking, smoking or chewing gum in public, however, is a definite no-no, and will cause considerable offence to local Muslims; singing, dancing and swearing in public are similarly frowned upon. In addition, live music is also completely forbidden during the holy month (though recorded music is allowed), while the city’s nightclubs all close for the duration, and many shops scale back their opening hours.
Fasting ends at dusk, at which point the previously comatose city springs to life in a celebratory round of eating, drinking and socializing known as Iftar (“The Breaking of the Fast”). Many of the city’s top hotels set up superb “Iftar tents”, with lavish Arabian buffets, and things remain lively until the small hours, when everyone goes off to bed in preparation for another day of abstinence. The atmosphere is particularly exuberant, and the Iftar tents especially lavish, during Eid ul Fitr, the day marking the end of Ramadan, when the entire city erupts in an explosion of celebratory festivity.
Falling approximately 70 days after the end of Ramadan, on the tenth day of the Islamic lunar month of Dhul Hijja, Eid al Adha (the “Festival of the Sacrifice”) celebrates the willingness of Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ismail at the command of God (although having proved his obedience, he was permitted to sacrifice a ram instead). The festival also marks the end of the traditional pilgrimage season to Mecca. Eid al Adha is celebrated in Dubai with a four-day holiday, during which lambs are sacrificed and the meat divided among the poor. No alcohol is served on the day before the festival day itself.
Ramadan Scheduled to run from approximately June 28 to July 27, 2014; June 18 to July 16, 2015; June 6 to July 4, 2016; May 27 to June 24, 2017. Precise dates vary according to local astronomical sightings of the moon.
Eid ul Fitr Estimated dates: July 28, 2014; July 17, 2015; July 5, 2016; June 25, 2017.
Eid al Adha Estimated dates: Oct 4, 2014; Sept 23, 2015; Sept 11, 2016; Sept 1, 2017.