Few things are as common to the country's many nationalities as the act of cooking over an open flame, a tradition that's less about the food and more about the gathering.
Barbecue nation: the cooking style that unites the UAE
As the shadows lengthen in the desert west of Sweihan, the occupants of half a dozen four-wheel drives have parked after an afternoon of dune bashing. The group includes Emiratis, Egyptians, Swedes, New Zealanders, a Kenyan and an Italian-American, and almost without exception they've opted to fire up barbecues for a meal before rejoining the tarmac to head home. Back in Abu Dhabi, several silver taxis are parked beside one of the roadside barbecues near the women's park in al Mushrif as a group of Pakistani drivers gather after the dhuhr, or midday prayers, to spend their only afternoon off each week chatting while kebabs sizzle.
Nearby is an extended family of around 20 Palestinians who gather here every week. They ended up in the UAE via a circuitous route that involved living in Lebanon, Canada and the United States. To them, the barbecue is primarily a way to meet as a group, with the food secondary to the gathering. In a compound in midtown, a group of expat Australians have also gathered around a barbecue, although with a dozen ethnicities represented in their ancestry, it looks more like an international food fair than a traditional barbecue.
At a large villa outside of Al Ain, South Africans gather around a braai - the Afrikaans word for their variation of the barbecue - and providing an authentic version of it has become a full-time business for a family of expats living in Abu Dhabi. There are few common threads that weave through all of the nearly 200 nationalities in the UAE, but the simple act of grilling meat over an open flame is one, whether you call it a barbecue, a shewa - the Emirati word - a braai, a shashlyk or any one of dozens of regional synonyms.
On the dune-top in the Abu Sallaf area west of Sweihan, Ahmed Fouad is about to reap the benefits of a barbecue he started preparing the previous day. "I've left lamb marinating for 24 hours in yoghurt and lemon and salt and pepper, some chilli, some olive oil and four onions," he says. "This is the first time I've made it. I tried it when I was at a wedding and it changed my life. I said: 'I have to make this.'"
The only trouble is that he has left at home the lighter fluid to start the barbecue, but another member of the Abu Dhabi 4x4 Club with whom he's been dune bashing has some to spare. After relocating the barbecue to the top of the dune and heaping the briquettes on the downwind side of the small metal cradle to maximise the effect of the gentle evening breeze, the coals are soon glowing red. Ideally, he says, it would be cooked over a fire of ghaf wood to add a traditional woody flavour, but these commercial briquettes will do the job.
Some of the charcoal is moved into a small indentation they've dug in the sand, ready to brew the traditional Arabic coffee to round out the evening. As Ahmed sees it, the barbecue reflects the mix of influences that stem from the UAE's position near the nexus of Asia, Africa and Europe. "It's common now, but before what did we have to barbecue? We only had the sea and fish," he says. "All these barbecues come from roots in the mediterranean.
"It's an adopted cooking style and we've added our own herbs and flavours." That mix of cultures is demonstrated by Nivin Mina, who has set up a couple of disposable foil barbecues a few metres away. Originally from Egypt, she works as an administrative assistant at the Japanese consul general and she's cooking a traditional Arabic snack but with Lebanese spices. Arayess is pita bread split in two and sandwiching a savoury mix thin enough that it will be cooked before the outside of the pita begins to char.
"It's mince, onion, salt, pepper and some Arabic spices. These are Lebanese ones," she explains. Later they put marinated chicken and skewers on the barbecue. Cherif Hemaya, a civil engineer from Egypt who has been in the UAE for nearly three years, said the kebab was a meal that transcends social boundaries in his homeland. "It's really common. We have kebab everywhere," he says. "Rich people, poor people - all categories are eating kebab."
Sweden might not seem like the kind of country to have a barbecue culture, but Eric Fogelstrom says that during the brief summer, when the high latitude means daylight lasts until 10pm, they take advantage of every opportunity they get. Since arriving in the Middle East, living in Oman and then Abu Dhabi for the past two years, the communications engineer has adjusted to having barbecues nearly all year round as an adjunct to his hobby of dune bashing.
"The barbecue season isn't that long in Sweden, but in the UAE we have barbecues even in the summer. "If we're in the desert, it's still OK because there's no humidity. When you get away from the coast, it's hot but it's dry." He has a Weber kettle barbecue at his villa in Abu Dhabi, but in the desert he uses briquettes in a small portable barbecue, opting for traditional fare of skewers, lamb chops and sausages.
"Not all the people end up staying for the BBQ, but it's a nice way to end a trip with a social setting," he adds. "When we have a big party we usually have a campfire." In Australia, barbecue culture thrives on warm sunny afternoons so it was no surprise that "barbies" - as the term is inevitably shortened in the Aussie vernacular - are a mainstay of the social scene for most of the 25,000 Australians resident in the UAE.
But for Pete Chadwick, a member of the Abu Dhabi-based expat group Aussies Abroad, the nature of modern Australian culture means that when he organised a barbecue in his cluster of villas, the result was more like an international food court. "At the barbecue, Australia is represented by people who can trace their ethnic backgrounds to Ireland, Brazil, Vietnam, China, Bosnia, Croatia, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Tonga and New Zealand, to name just a few.
"We might have fun with background stereotypes, but we believe Aussies are distinguished not by their birthplace but by their loyalty to the place they call home - a very different approach. "This has influenced the Australian barbecue so that it has evolved from sausage sizzles with potato salad to a much more multicultural flavour that reflects the traditional foods many Australians have connections with through their family roots."
The food that appeared at this barbecue reflected that, with everything from traditional huge Aussie steaks to stir-fry noodles. "Over the last 40 years, Aussie palates have been spoiled and sometimes our barbecue now resemble an international food fair." Barbecues play an equally central role in South African culture, where the braai - short for the braaivleis, which means "roasted meat" in Afrikaans - is a matter of both pride and tradition.
Creating an authentic braai began as a hobby for Brian Ridley, a paramedic based at Mafraq, because he could not find real boerewors (a chunky spiral-shaped sausage used on South African barbecues) or biltong (cured meat), so he started making them in his home kitchen. Every time he made a batch, his friends would buy some and as word spread in the South African community and beyond, his orders became so big that he ended up setting up a specialist shop in the butchers market at Abu Dhabi's Zayed port, employing his brother Trevor. He then bought a mechanical spit roast capable of cooking an entire lamb, for South Africans and others hankering for an authentic taste of home. Now he faces a struggle to avoid it dominating his spare time.
At the public barbecues near the Ladies Park at Mushrif, among some of the most regular users is the extended family of Hassan Atwani, who have been gathering here every Friday for nearly a decade. "Originally we're Palestinians and we used to live in Lebanon, but in the end of the 1980s, most of us left to Canada," he says. "My first brother came 18 years ago to Abu Dhabi and actually most of my family lives here now, for a minimum of 10 years. I joined the rest of the family here after 17 years in Canada.
"Usually we're not less than 20 people with Americans - some of my nephews and neices - and Canadians - more nephews and nieces and my kids. Sometimes we invite friends and vice versa." The food is standard fare, with kebabs and onions and tomatoes. "The barbecuing is not that important - it's the family that will be there to enjoy the company." Hassan neatly encapsulates why every Friday in the UAE, the waft of meat being cooked on an open flame spreads its way across the country.