Things to know about the Somali community in the UAE

As Somalia celebrates its 62nd independence day on July 1, here's a look at how the community has integrated itself into the fabric of the Emirates

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More than 50,000 Somalis call the UAE home, with some having arrived before the union of the Emirates in 1972. This includes my parents, who were among those who moved to the UAE early on to seek job opportunities and raise their children.

In the early 1990s, my father served in the military in Abu Dhabi, where I was born in a hospital, Al Corniche. My mother was among the first Somali businesswomen in the UAE to begin buying goods and selling them back home, which has now become a common practice.

For a long time, the Somali community in the UAE made its mark through businesses and cultural celebrations, and we have tended to settle near each other in areas such as Dubai’s Gold Souq or Abu Dhabi’s Musaffah.

Members of the UAE's thriving Somali community can be found living around the Gold Souq in Deira, Dubai. Antonie Robertson / The National

As my mother will attest, Somalis like the Gold Souq because of the easy access to Somali shops and restaurants. We have lived in the Deira district of Dubai for more than 20 years and I have witnessed its evolution over that time.

Here are a few other things to know about the Somali community in the UAE.

We have an entrepreneurial spirit

According to my father, the UAE was brimming with potential in the early 1990s and has opened up many doors for members of the Somali community, including my parents. This is particularly true in Dubai, where there are more than 100 Somali businesses, including gold and textile shops, hotels and money exchange facilities.

Cargo shipment operations between Dubai and Somalia are also strong. From excess baggage to air cargo and sea freight, Somalis contribute to Dubai's busy commercial corridors, with the geographical proximity of the two countries playing a vital role in boosting trade.

As well as facilitating trade between countries, these businesses have also become a social hub, where women and men stop to chat with friends about recent events. So be prepared to wait a while if you are visiting these establishments, or pull up a chair and involve yourself in a lengthy debate.

We are committed to preserving our culture

Culture has a robust social element in our community. Somali men are a common sight in coffee shops on popular streets in the UAE, where they watch sport and chat with passers-by. My father is no different, often frequenting Al Ghurair Centre in Dubai for an evening's discussion with his friends, where topics range from their children to the job market and inevitable disagreements over politics.

Al Ghurair Centre in Deira is a popular hang-out place for Somalis. Photo: Al Ghurair Centre

There is a strong sense of family in Somali culture and that is no different in the UAE. We place a lot of importance on helping each other and protecting and sustaining our traditions, often relying on each other for financial assistance or advice.

Somali culture and traditions are celebrated with parties and Somali dances on July 1 to mark the country’s independence, as Somalia became a republic in the 1960s. In addition to independence celebrations, I recall visiting Somali festivals several times with my family, where I was introduced to the country’s rich musical heritage and poetry. Because of our storytelling traditions, my country is often called The Nation of Poets.

Somalia is a Muslim country, so many of its social norms are influenced by Islamic traditions. For example, children regularly attend Quranic recitations. When I was young, I was sent to my cousin's house to learn and memorise the Quran. In addition to having great discussions about Islamic practices, we also celebrated when one of us was successful in memorising the Quran. These memories are still a topic of discussion.

These classes are now conducted in community mosques, where Somali mothers gather and guide their children to keep our traditions and values alive.

Our Arabic accents sound Emirati

Having been born in the UAE, many of us have adopted the Khaleeji dialect via our schooling and local friends. While I am guilty of preferring to speak English, my Arabic sounds very Emirati.

In particular, when I speak to family and friends from different parts of the Middle East, my tendency to favour Emirati terms, including the word asoolaf, which means speaking, can cause confusion.

Somalia joined the Arab League in 1974, but my parents tell me stories of a time when Somalia used to write in Arabic script, before adopting Latin characters. There are certain letters still pronounced in the Arabic way, however. For example, the letter C is pronounced as the Arabic letter "Ain", and X is pronounced as "Hhaa".

Delicious Somali food is easy to come by

Somali restaurants in the UAE make an important contribution to keeping Somali food and traditions alive. Whether for special occasions such as Eid, birthdays and family reunions, we often gather around a hot Somali meal, complemented by a side of banana with our rice.

Especially in the evenings, my mother would often visit Dubai's Gold Souq to pick up fresh samosas, traditional pastries and Somali shah, a tea that is similar to karak, to help us create memories that are long-lasting and delicious.

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Updated: July 01, 2022, 6:02 PM