In Abu Dhabi, the perfect way to dive into the rich cultures of the emirate is to visit the traditional souks and markets.
Dates, gold and livestock have been traded from Abu Dhabi for generations, and local producers are passionate about preserving their artisanal traditions. Between Abu Dhabi city and the quiet oasis of Al Ain are some of the most skilfully produced souvenirs in the region – an insight into what life was like in the desert centuries ago. Watch traders haggle over camels, sample delicious chewy dates, and support female business owners in the best markets in the UAE capital.
The gold souks of the UAE are a dazzling sight. Shopfronts shine with extravagant displays – row upon row of bright-yellow gold bangles, trays of rings, and thick clusters of hanging necklaces. It feels a little like stumbling across El Dorado within a modest shopping mall. But showy shopfronts aside, Madinat Zayed Gold Souk is the place to pick up gold for bargain prices. The UAE is a global trading hub for gold, and the friendly shop traders – who have been in the business for decades – are happy to share their expertise.
The quality of rugs and carpets in the Middle East is second to none, and the Carpet Souk shows off the best. You can browse more than 100 shops stocking woven pieces from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond. Hanging outside shopfronts, plush carpets in rich shades of ruby and topaz will entice you; inside you’ll find woven Arabic-style cushions as seen in a traditional majlis – a seating area where guests are received and entertained. The exceptional quality of the rugs means you’ll spend a fair amount, but enough shopping around and haggling will ensure you strike an incredible deal.
Dates are a cornerstone of Arabian culture and hospitality, so much so that the date palm is included on the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Historically, they were an important source of nutrition for Bedouins; today they are gifts at times of celebration, such as Eid, and are used to break fast during the holy month of Ramadan. More than 100 date varieties grow in the UAE, all of which are artfully displayed on silver platters and in wooden barrels at Mina Date Market. They make perfect souvenirs – particularly those dipped in chocolate or stuffed with candied orange peel – as do the jars of treacly date syrup or the more unusual pickled dates.
It’s worth waking early to visit the last-remaining camel market in the UAE. Traders wrangle with animals for haggling customers, while pick-up trucks arrive periodically, full of livestock to be corralled into pens. It’s dusty, chaotic and loud, and offers a glimpse into a traditional way of life still thriving in the region. You can see camels from across the Gulf states – including black camels from Saudi – most of which are purchased for breeding and racing. There are often a few adorably clumsy babies in the fray too. Most handlers will allow you to take photos for a fee, and some offer tours, but make sure to agree to a price before committing.
Meet Abu Dhabi’s legendary producers for yourself. Check out Visit Abu Dhabi for more information and to book your adventure today.