The UAE is a dynamic country with an intriguing mix of old and new; from cultural hotspots to thrill-seeking attractions, picture-perfect beaches to treasures of the past.
Throughout the year the UAE hosts a wide variety of events, including a number of festivals that appeal to all tastes.
In the UAE capital, Gourmet Abu Dhabi is a 10 day festival in February that showcases world-renowned chefs and their culinary skills. Dubai gastrophiles should look forward to the month of March as that’s when the Taste of Dubai Festival hits the city. This three-day culinary tour de force sees Michelin-starred and celebrity chefs from restaurants across Dubai showcase their skills at Dubai Media City. Taste some signature dishes, enjoy a cookery class and see world-famous chefs share their secrets live on stage.
Established in 1996, the Dubai Shopping Festival is a great time to be in the city, with bargains galore for shoppers as well as many activities organised in malls across the city. Film festivals, special events for youngsters, impressive street displays, night fireworks, and international fashion shows, provide some of the cultural and entertainment programmes on offer. The prize draws held in participating malls are popular.
The Emirates Airline Dubai Jazz Festival celebrated its 14th year in 2016 and attracts artists from all around the world. Courtney Pine, John Legend, James Blunt, Sting, TOTO and David Gray have all performed at this popular event.
As well, both Abu Dhabi and Dubai have classical music festivals. Abu Dhabi Classics is an eight month-long series of classical concerts and performances which has featured international talent like the China Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as regional heritage music from Oud master Naseer Shamma. Dubai Classics has previously attracted the likes of Sarah Brightman, Magida El Roumi, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and Vladimir Spivakov with the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber.
Located primarily in shopping malls across the country, the UAE's cinema multiplexes are popular social spots for locals and expatriates alike.
In the UAE, cinema-goers have a broad range of film-viewing experiences to choose from. Here, you can watch your movie in style with VIP seating, complete with a recliner, blanket and waitstaff. Or opt for a more immersive experience with a 4D showing, where state-of-the-art makes you feel like you're part of the action. During the cooler winter months, some venues will even set up outdoor cinemas so you can enjoy your movie from the pool, beach or rooftop.
Most of the Hollywood and Bollywood blockbusters make it to the UAE's cinemas, and Arabic (and often French) subtitles cover the bottom of the screen. There are a couple of smaller independent cinemas that mainly show Hindi films, and some art spaces put on screenings of older, foreign and independent films, usually during the week and free of charge. The Scene Club is a monthly film club based in Dubai that screens international independent films, followed by a Q&A with the director or producer.
Dubai International Film Festival
Every December, the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) showcases Arabic and international film-making talent. Films are shown in venues across the city, and there is a programme of premieres, director Q&As and children's screenings.
The UAE hosts a number of concerts each year, and it seems to be attracting bigger and bigger names.
The du Arena on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi is a large, open-air concert pavilion adjacent to Ferrari World and has seen Linkin Park, Kings of Leon, Beyonce, Kanye West, and Prince play during Formula One weekends, while Stevie Wonder, Snoop Dogg, Eric Clapton, Madonna, Rihanna and Shakira have performed at other times. Abu Dhabi has also played host to some big names in the classical music world, including Joshua Bell, Sir Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic, and Lang Lang; Abu Dhabi Classics is an annual winter season of classical music in venues across Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. For younger audiences, there are dance music events such as Creamfields and Beats on the Beach, a free concert on Abu Dhabi’s corniche that has seen Ludacris, Missy Elliott and Sean Kingston perform. Past acts to play in Dubai include J-Lo, Kylie, Robbie Williams, Mariah Carey and Muse. These big name acts usually play at outdoor venues such as the Dubai World Trade Centre Arena, the Amphitheatre at Media City or the Sevens Stadium. Smaller gigs with the likes of Bob Geldof, Texas and the Happy Mondays have been held at the Irish Village.
If you’re after new musical talent, it's becoming easier to find. In Abu Dhabi, Chamas at the Intercontinental, Jazz Bar at the Hilton, Lemon Tree at Holiday Inn and Sax at Le Royal Meridien all have either regular house bands or nights for local bands to strut their stuff, while B-Lounge at the Sheraton has a regular open mic night.
Next door in Dubai, The Fridge hosts performances from local and expat artists in its converted warehouse in Al Qouz; The Music Room in Bur Dubai has live bands and jam sessions; and Barasti at Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Beach Resort & Marina has live guitar bands. Also, check out Freshly Ground Sounds, an initiative to create a community of independent acoustic musicians who play live across Dubai.
Outdoor concerts in the UAE tend to take place between November and April due to the weather.
From foot-tapping musicals to chilling ghost stories, on-stage spectaculars are growing in popularity in the UAE, particularly in Dubai.
In Abu Dhabi, touring companies and amateur dramatics groups stage performances at Al Raha Theatre, National Theatre, Resuscitation Theatre and Al Jaheli Theatre at the Armed Forces & Officers Club. Abu Dhabi Dramatic Society always welcomes new members, and there are occasional drama workshops to get involved with, most of which hold a performance at the end of the workshop.
In Dubai, the scene is perhaps a little more active with the First Group Theatre at Madinat Jumeirah and Centrepoint Theatre at DUCTAC both having regular shows, including a good choice of child-friendly performances from The Gruffalo to We’re Going On A Bear Hunt. Dubai World Trade Centre Arena is adding more acts each year, with previous performances including Michael Jackson THE IMMORTAL World Tour show by Cirque du Soleil and Swan Lake.
The Courtyard Playhouse in Al Quoz largely hosts improv theatre and theatre workshops, with National Theatre screenings, plays and stand up comedy nights also on the programme. Also, keep an eye on small art spaces like Shelter and The Fridge for one-off performances. The Act in the Shangri-La Hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road teams an interesting performance calendar with a top-class Peruvian restaurant.
A recent growth in theatre and entertainment venues in Dubai has seen the launch of The Act at the Shangri-La Hotel, which aims to be the world’s highest theatre on 42nd and 43rd floors. It’s a version of venues already popular in Las Vegas and London and boasts international acts flying in from all over the world, as well as a Peruvian dining experience.
The Lebanese crowd was delighted to welcome a home import in the form of Music Hall at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray on the Palm Jumeirah, a theatre club with varied acts. Amsterdam’s Supperclub is now also open at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray – an innovative, cutting edge venue with art, fine dining and entertainment.
The comedy scene in the UAE is slowly growing and attracting a regular fanbase. The Laughter Factory and Dubomedy both put on comedy nights featuring international and local talent at hotels in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. There is something for everyone: from one-off events featuring big international comedians at venues including du Forum on Yas Island and Dubai World Trade Centre to improve comedy nights and standup comedy workshops at the intimate Courtyard Playhouse in Dubai.
Remember that a lot of comedy is regional, so unless you’re familiar with the comedian’s country, you might not get the joke.