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.
Dubai Shopping Festival One month in Jan/Feb. 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 Nov–mid-April), 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, dance and other events.
Dubai International Jazz Festival Three days in Feb wdubaijazzfest.com. Top local and international jazz and pop acts perform at Dubai Media City Amphitheatre. Recent participants have included Sting, James Blunt, Santana, Earth Wind & Fire, and Olly Murs.
Art Dubai Four days in mid-March wartdubai.ae. The biggest event in the Dubai visual arts calendar, this four-day Art Dubai fair features exhibits from some 75 galleries from around the world at Madinat Jumeirah.
Sikka Art Festival Ten days in mid-March wbit.ly/SikkaArtFair. Running concurrently with Art Dubai – and other events – as part of the city’s so-called “Art Week” (wartweek.ae), the Sikka Art Festival transforms Bastakiya quarter into a vibrant cultural district, with exhibitions and installations galore, plus other events including open-air film screenings, live music, cultural walks, talks and workshops.
Abu Dhabi Festival Three weeks in March/April 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 Ten days in March wemirateslitfest.com. Established in 2009 and now the Middle East’s largest literary festival, with several days of readings and discussions featuring leading local and international scribblers.
Arab Fashion Week Dubai Four days in March wdfw.ae. Leading Middle Eastern fashion event, showcasing work by designers from Arabia and beyond.
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 plenty of chances to sample food and drink served up in situ by many of the city's leading restaurants and chefs.
Dubai Summer Surprises Mid-June to mid-July. 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've got kids in tow, however.
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.
Al Dhafra Festival Three weeks 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.
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.