Ask Ali: The colourful history of Emirati men’s distinctive headdresses

Our brothers in Saudi Arabia prefer a red-chequered shemagh over a white one. There are lot of cultural and historical stories to explain this

Powered by automated translation

Dear Ali: Is there any specific meaning behind the different coloured headdresses men wear in the UAE? I have also noticed that Emirati men do not wear a red-chequered ghutra as the men in Saudi Arabia do. CZ, Abu Dhabi

Dear CZ: This is not a new question for me, but it is always nice to have an opportunity to answer it again.

First of all, people have to understand that shemagh, ghutra, sufra or headdress in general came about due to natural necessity.

When living in a desert environment where the sun is hot nearly every day, covering the head is very important. But, we had a need to invent something universal that would not only protect the head but could also be used during sandstorms.

As for the different colours of the headgear and why our brothers in Saudi Arabia prefer a red-chequered shemagh over a white one, there are lot of cultural and historical stories, which explain this.

There is a belief that the word shemagh came from the Turkish word “yashmak” which means loose cloths, which makes good sense. There is a story that goes back to the days when the British army came to the Arab region, and one of the commanders was wearing a red beret. He visited Jordan at first, where he trained the Jordanian army and formed their first army and police troops. From that they basically had all of their troops wear normal shirts and trousers and added the red-chequered shemagh.

And from there the same was adopted by most of the army and police departments of the Arab region. This colour was implemented into the typical Arabian-style headdress and got a popular name – shemagh. Later the red-chequered shemagh started being worn by everyone, and the name remained.

However, here in the UAE the thick and warm material of the shemagh was not that popular, due to the hotter weather. Here men prefer to wear a white ghutra, the same headdress but made of a lighter material. Maybe this preference is also because it gives that clean, shining and angelic look when worn with the white kandura, a traditional men’s dress. Though, during the winter time, you see more men in the UAE wearing the white and red shemagh because of its thickness, which provides warmth during the cooler days.

The red-chequered shemagh is also seen here a lot. Due to our healthy relationship with other Arab states since the formation of our country, we adopted many things from them, so it is not surprising that our police of that time wore the red-chequered shemagh similar to the one in Jordan; even grey and orange-coloured shemagh were worn and are now featured during our great Qasr Al Hosn Festival.

Today, the colour of the shemagh is just one part of a man’s daily outfit selection. I would not tell you that a man is from Saudi Arabia if he is wearing a red shemagh. I would rather say to look at his kandura – if it is with a collar and made of a thin material, then I would say that, yes, he is a Saudi.

Ali Al Saloom is a cultural adviser and public speaker from the UAE. Follow @AskAli on Twitter, and visit to ask him a question.

Follow us @LifeNationalUAE

Follow us on Facebook for discussions, entertainment, reviews, wellness and news.