The UAE's unofficial national pastime: rounding
In celebration of the UAE's 48th National Day, we look at a popular evening activity in all seven emirates
It is mid-afternoon in Ras Al Khaimah’s old town and the streets are empty, the doors to its sword shops and henna parlours closed tight against the heat and dust.
As the sun lowers over the sea, a few cars pull into vacant parking spaces. A few minutes later, others park beside them.
By the time darkness falls, the old town’s streets and car parks are filled with the sounds of music and poetry emanating from car windows.
The drivers and their passengers have come for tea. They have come for rounding.
It’s a craze for the public. People need to relax in the open air by looking at the sky, looking far away while drinking tea. Not in a closed room
Rounding is the Khaleeji art of cruising in cars and sipping tea with friends, a pastime practised by people of all ages and nationalities in the Gulf.
It is the product of good infrastructure, cheap petrol and a proliferation of tea shops.
In the hours before and after sunset, thousands of people cross the city to park outside hole-in-the-wall cafes famous for tea. Usually, it’s karak, cardamom-spiced milk tea that sells for a dirham or two.
Drivers and passengers follow a set social etiquette, chatting to people in other vehicles from car windows, even communicating wordlessly through music.
Romances are started, old friendships rekindled. It is a time to see and be seen. The ritual is repeated at every sunset and goes on late into the night.
The phenomenon has transformed neighbourhoods, created a billion-dirham licence plate industry and incorporated karak tea into UAE identity.
Above all, it is about coming together. People know if they head to the right tea shop at twilight, they are likely to meet friends.
“In our house, we say if you lost someone, you’ll find them here,” says Athari Al Hayyas, an Emirati parked outside Ras Al Khaimah’s fish market.
Although she is from Sharjah, Ms Al Hayyas says she knows she is in the perfect place for food and friendship.
Karak cafes are plentiful and the best have national reputations.
A decade earlier, rounding mostly involved young men. But as women got behind the wheel, they staked their places.
“Social media changed everything,” says Ms Al Hayyas, 31. “It opened all the windows, it opened all the doors. This was like a closed area for us before and now it’s open, mashallah.”
Some say rounding originated decades ago, when power cuts caused people to seek refuge from stifling homes in air-conditioned cars.
The practice has remained popular, in part because it is cheap. An expensive karak is Dh5. This means anyone can idle with friends in the car park of a mosque, fish market or the Corniche, content to let time pass.
You’re all there for the same thing, no matter what you’re driving, and you’re all treated the same. There’s no wasta in karak
Abdulla Moaswes, 'Karak Mufti'
“When we went rounding we would buy what we wanted, but we would never just buy something to stake our claim to be there,” says Abdulla Moaswes, a Palestinian raised in Sharjah, who is known as the Karak Mufti for his academic research on karak tea.
“If you want to go to a mall, you have to at least buy a bottle of water.”
With city spaces often commercial areas or reserved for families, Mr Moaswes says the dirt car park on Sharjah’s Karak Road was a welcoming space for young men.
“The thing I enjoyed was the fact that we could just go and take up space and nobody would hound us for being there,” Mr Moaswes says.
“One of the things for young men is if you go somewhere and hang out, people will tell you to go away.
“You’re all there for the same thing, no matter what you’re driving, and you’re all treated the same. There’s no wasta in karak.”
That equality does not always apply to staff, however. Mohamad Mehdi, a Moroccan waiter at a popular Abu Dhabi cafe, says customers will often be kinder to him than his Asian colleagues because he is Arab.
“If there is no mind, no education, you will find his mind is like a jungle,” Mr Mehdi says.
Rounding is at once a private and public act. The car can be an expression of individual identity.
In the UAE, licence plates carry symbolism according to where the plate is issued and the symmetry of the number. Abu Dhabi plates are equated to nationalism and power, while a Dubai plate might denote glamour or fun.
Vicky Tadros, a PhD student at the School of African and Oriental Studies, University of London, who studies Emirati listening practices, considers cars to be a place where people can experiment with ethical ideals by playing music that their parents might not approve of, such as death metal or gangsta rap.
“Unlike earphone listening it enables you to play that sound out loud, which is quite empowering,” says Ms Tadros, a British-Egyptian raised in Sharjah.
Musical tastes and values are shared with different audiences on social media while people are rounding.
Where to go rounding and find good karak
“By playing with the privacy of the car and the somewhat public nature of social media, you have the opportunity to show different sides by actively selecting which song gets played to which people,” Ms Tadros says.
“It can be as specific as sharing one rap song with one follower, or sharing an Ahlam song with your close friends, to sharing a Mehad Hamed song with the public.”
In 2015, rounding was given a revival. The country underwent a surge of nationalism after the introduction of mandatory national service in 2014.
Suddenly, karak was claimed as a UAE drink, available everywhere and in every form. Entire neighbourhoods were transformed by dozens of new cafes.
“It’s very good business, actually,” says Abdul Basit Basheer, whose father built his family business on tea. “After water, people drink tea the most.
“My father says. ‘A father cannot take the mother’s place’. In the UAE, tea is the mother and coffee cannot take tea’s place.”
His father, Basheer Changoth, was a coconut kernel merchant in Kerala but invested in a Sharjah cafe when he came to the Emirates in 1994, on the advice of friends who assured him they were a sound investment.
They were right. Today, Mr Changoth co-owns several, including the famed Dubai cafe, Al Rabbash.
“No drink can get replaced by tea,” says Mr Changoth, 58. “Tea is tea, and tea is not for our stomachs. Tea is for our heads.
"Tea is something for our brain and minds. What we serve is for the people to relax from their pressure and tension.”
The popularity of rounding could prove to be its undoing. With so many cafes, the certainty of meeting friends has diminished, while paid parking, traffic junctions and paved roads are at odds with a past time built on fluidity.
But the combination of tea, friendship and the open road is still a potent brew, Mr Changoth says.
“It’s a craze for the public," he says. "People need to relax in the open air by looking at the sky, looking far away while drinking tea. Not in a closed room.”
Updated: December 2, 2019 10:33 AM