It is all gaiety and swank at the Sheikh Zayed Festival as the annual event marks the UAE's golden anniversary.
Running from November 18 to April 1, the cultural jamboree has always been about honouring local customs and traditions. This year, a new and improved family-friendly programme celebrates the country’s achievements from the past 50 years, and highlights its diverse migrant community.
The festival, which opens daily at 4pm, has augmented its Al Wathba venue almost twofold, with dedicated districts for several countries including the GCC states, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, India, China and Morocco.
The districts hold daily folkloric performances with over 650 acts set to perform in the coming months. They also feature stalls brimming with spices, foods, clothes, books and trinkets from each participating nation.
At the Palestinian wing, Amer Eid, Al Wathba’s self-proclaimed “zaatar king", hails passersby to his stand, offering conically-wrapped pieces of pita dipped in assorted blends of the Middle Eastern spice mixture.
“Palestinian zaatar is well known,” Eid says. A resident of Al Ain, he has been participating in the Sheikh Zayed Festival since three years. “I wanted to bring something new this year,” he says. “This one is mixed with pomegranate syrup, and this is a makdoos blend that I call the Palestinian Kentucky blend.”
Among the must-try dishes on offer at the festival is the regional favourite, halwa. Made in a large steaming pot with almonds, farina, caramelised sugar, rose water, saffron and cardamom, the dessert is one of Oman’s most popular traditional dishes and can be found in the Omani wing.
In the Yemeni section, Mohammed Al Muleiki attracts attendees by scooping large dollops of honey and letting them trickle back into their pots in viscous golden and amber trails.
Al Muleiki says he has been attending the festival for several years and that this is its biggest iteration yet. “It’s still the first day so we’ll see how it progresses, but the attendance is pretty great,” he says, before offering me another plastic teaspoon overflowing with ginger honey.
Al Muleiki is right. The turnout, hundreds strong, is impressive even by pre-pandemic standards. After two years of Covid-stunted events, there is an evident demand for family-friendly programming and the festival delivers in spades.
There are fireworks and laser shows, drawing portraits of the country’s leaders in the night sky, awe-inspiring performances by aerialists and a minutely choreographed water display at the Emirates Fountain. An ice rink, sports resort, funfair, flower garden, children’s theatre and even a house of horrors provide activities to suit a multitude of moods.
Celebrating the 50th
But perhaps the most marked additions of this year’s festival are the exhibitions highlighting the UAE’s accomplishments in the last half century, underlining the role the event's namesake, Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, had in the nation’s development.
Outdoor displays of archival photographs show key moments in the country’s early history such as the hosting of the UAE flag following the 1971 union and its inclusion to the United Nations.
A “Year of 50” zone features interactive displays that highlight some of the country’s most recent accomplishments – including the mission to Mars and the construction of museums including the Guggenheim and Louvre in Abu Dhabi.
A section is also dedicated to the UAE’s heritage, highlighting traditional crafts such as Khoos, a form of weaving that involves braiding palm fronds to create objects. The objects made often serve a functional purpose, such as the circular Surood, on which food is placed, or the fan-like Mahafa, used to cool oneself or fan a flame.
The festival is also hosting a number of competitions, including the Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan International Festival for Arabian Horses Prize Draw, Sheikh Zayed Dhow Sailing Race, Zayed Grand Prize for camel riding and Sheikh Zayed Falconry Competition. A saluki show will also highlight the age-old tradition of keeping and caring for the elegant desert hounds.
On December 2, the festival will host a special programme in celebration of the UAE’s 50th National Day, marking the occasion with folklore shows and live performances.
More information about the Sheikh Zayed Festival can be found at www.zayedfestival.ae