On World Heritage Day, we explore the UAE’s ‘intangible heritage’, the customs, traditions and practices that are invaluable to the planet
Most people are aware of the world’s Unesco World Heritage Sites, and will often add them to travel itineraries when visiting a new city or country.
But what about the intangible heritage? The non-physical traditions, folklore and practices that you can’t necessarily put on the bucket list, but simply admire from afar or on an intellectual level.
In 2008, Unesco created its Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage, after the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage took effect.
It aims to better protect these traditions and raise awareness of them, acting as a repository of cultural diversity and creative expression.
Its importance "is not the cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next", it says on Unesco's site.
Here we explore the UAE’s 12 entries on Unesco's lists, which sit alongside dozens more from the Gulf and wider Mena region.
In December, Unesco added Arabic calligraphy to its Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
Sixteen countries, led by Saudi Arabia and including the UAE, presented the nomination to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
"Arabic calligraphy is the artistic practice of handwriting Arabic script in a fluid manner to convey harmony, grace and beauty," Unesco said on its website.
"The fluidity of Arabic script offers infinite possibilities, even within a single word, as letters can be stretched and transformed in numerous ways to create different motifs."
Falconry has been practised in the Arab region for 4,000 years, mainly by desert-dwelling Bedouins as an important form of hunting and fishing in a land with scarce natural resources.
Last year, falconry’s inclusion on Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity was extended to include another six countries.
The UAE led the efforts of 24 countries around the world to expand the inscription, which now includes Croatia, Ireland, Poland, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Kyrgyzstan.
"The successful fourth inscription of falconry and the growing interest among countries from all regions of the world in elaborating a multinational file reflects the importance of falconry as an integral part of our shared living heritage,” Noura Al Kaabi, the UAE Minister of Culture and Youth, said at the time.
Al aflaj, the traditional irrigation network system in the UAE, is on the representative list as of 2020, as are its oral traditions, knowledge and skills of construction, and maintenance and equitable water distribution.
The aflaj is a "source of pride for the associated communities", Unesco recognised, as its knowledge has been passed down over 3,000 years.
"Throughout the centuries, al aflaj have served to provide drinkable water for humans and animals, and to irrigate farms in an arid environment, demonstrating the community’s creativity in the face of water scarcity and the desert environment," Unesco says.
Camel racing was recognised for the UAE and Oman in 2020 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The sport remains popular today but has been around for centuries. Scholars believe it dates as far back as the 7th century.
"Camel racing is a fundamental part of their nomadic lifestyle and a source of inspiration in poetry and singing," Unesco says on its website.
"Its importance and continuity in Bedouin society is connected to the prominent role camels play in the desert environment."
Fourteen countries, including the UAE, nominated the date palm for inscription and were successful in 2019.
"The date palm has been connected to the regional population of the submitting states for centuries, serving both as the source of numerous associated crafts, professions and social and cultural traditions, customs and practices, and as a key form of nutrition," Unesco says.
It recognised the crucial role the evergreen plant has played in strengthening the people and land in the Arab region, helping to face challenges brought about by the desert environment.
"The cultural relevance and proliferation of the element over the centuries prove how committed the local communities are to sustaining it."
Al azi is a traditional poetry recital performed by a group of people without rhythmical or musical instruments and it was inscribed on to the list in 2017 of cultural heritage in need of urgent protection.
While al azi was performed frequently among communities until the mid 1900s, performances began to decrease gradually over the years, as citizens moved from rural to urban areas and sought employment in sectors not associated with culture and arts.
"The number of poets has decreased greatly over the past 20 years," says Unesco. "Despite these challenges, al azi has withstood extinction thanks to the efforts of a number of creative people and traditional art troupes."
After a submission again from Oman and the UAE, Al Razfa was added to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2015.
It is a traditional artform performed by men during special occasions, from weddings to national festivals. Performers form two lines facing each other, as dancers fill the space between.
A main singer leads, while the two rows create a dual chorus and sing chants, such as verses of nabati poetry, accompanied by drums and other instruments. Dancers move to the music while holding swords and wooden replica rifles.
"Practitioners have adapted musical instruments and composed melodies to interest younger audiences while maintaining the older expressions and oral traditions of the art," says Unesco.
The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar led the nomination for Arabian coffee, which was added to the representative list in 2015.
The serving of Arabian coffee is a vital part of hospitality in the region and "considered a ceremonial act of generosity", says the Unesco inscription.
There are various traditional rituals associated with making and serving it. For example, it is prepared in front of guests and the most important or oldest drinker will be served first.
A quarter of the small cup will be filled, but then refilled when they ask for more. It is customary for guests to drink at least one, but not more than three.
"Arabic coffee is made and enjoyed by men and women from all segments of society, particularly in the home.
"The sheikhs and heads of tribes who serve Arabic coffee in their meeting spaces, elderly Bedouin men and women and owners of coffee trading shops are considered the main bearers.
"Knowledge and traditions are passed on within the family through observation and practice."
The majlis, a cultural and social space prevalent throughout the region, was also added in 2015 on behalf, again, of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar.
It is a sitting area, usually filled with floor cushions in a vast space, where members of the community gather to talk about news, issues and to generally socialise.
"The majlis is where the community gathers to resolve problems, pay condolences and hold wedding receptions," the Unesco description says.
It's here that knowledge is passed on through generations.
"As majlis spaces are open to all age groups, knowledge is mostly transmitted informally as children accompany community members on their visits," Unesco says.
"Through observing elders in the majlis, young people learn the manners and ethics of their community, dialogue and listening skills, and respect for the opinion of others."
Al ayyala, a cultural performance practised in north-western Oman and throughout the UAE, was added in 2014.
It involves chanting poetry, percussion and dance, and a simulated battle scene.
Two rows of 20 men face each other, carrying bamboo sticks, and they move their heads and props to the rhythm, while other performers move around holding other weapons.
It usually takes place at weddings and special occasions.
"Performers come from diverse backgrounds and age groups. The lead performer is usually an inherited role and is responsible for training others performers.
"Al ayyala is inclusive of all ages, genders and social classes."
This was another joint effort between the UAE and Oman, and al taghrooda, traditional Bedouin chanted poetry, was added in 2012.
This poetry is composed and recited by men travelling on camels through the deserts.
"Bedouins believe that chanting entertains the riders and stimulates animals to walk in time," Unesco says.
They are short poems, about seven lines or less, and the lead singer will chant the first verse while a second group responds. They can also be chanted around campfires and at special occasions, and often camel races.
"The most important aspect is the social bonding during the oral exchange of verses," says Unesco.
"Themes include sending messages to loved ones, relatives, friends or tribal chiefs. It is also a medium for the poet to pass comment on social issues."
Sadu, a traditional weaving technique, is on the list twice, one for the UAE and another for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
It marks the UAE's first appearance on the list, as it was added in 2011.
It is a traditional art form practised by Bedouin women in rural communities, creating soft furnishings and decorative accessories and using wool from sheep, camels and goats.
The traditional colours are black, white, brown, beige and red, with distinctive patterns appearing throughout the designs, including bands and geometric markings.
"Weavers often gather in small groups to spin and weave, exchanging family news and occasionally chanting and reciting poetry," Unesco says.
"Such gatherings are the traditional means of transmission: girls learn by watching and are gradually given tasks to do, such as sorting the wool, before learning the more intricate skills involved."
The practice has declined over the years, but is still prevalent among older women.