Open doors, open minds: Building cultural bridges

At the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, no question is ever too trivial as it bids to foster understanding between Dubai Emiratis and the city’s expat community and help smooth the path for international corporations setting up in the region

An elegant wind tower house in the old Emirati neighbourhood of Bastakiya is home to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) and its services. It is here that people are welcomed to join locals for breakfast on Mondays or Wednesdays; lunch on Sundays or Tuesdays. It’s a rare opportunity to taste genuine regional cuisine, but it’s also a chance to meet local Emiratis, to ask questions and exchange views.

“The role of the Centre is really twofold,” says Nasif Kayed, SMCCU’s General Manager. “One is to help break down the barriers to allow a greater understanding of our country, its culture and religion. But another is to educate Emiratis as to how to live with foreigners and understand them. We are asked lots of questions from social through political to religious, so we have to be able to multitask.”

Abdallah bin Eisa Al Serkal, Director and founder of the SMCCU, explains the importance of the work done at the centre by the local volunteers. “We have a unique situation in the UAE where the locals are a minority and the majority are expats. It is our duty as the minority to introduce the majority to our culture; build bridges and introduce our culture to the foreigners who know nothing about our life, our culture, language or history.”

Sharing breakfast or lunch at the Centre is only one of several ways used by the SMCCU to build bridges and enable greater understanding. Walking tours around the Bastakiya area allow visitors to learn more about the heritage of the Emiratis. Presentations in the simple but beautiful Jumeirah mosque provide visitors with a specific opportunity to learn more about Islam, preparation for prayers, the five pillars of the faith and Muslim beliefs. During Ramadan, there’s a chance to attend public, and sometimes private, Iftar dinners. For expatriates who want to learn spoken Gulf Arabic, there are 12- and 18-week courses available.

These activities are supplemented by special events during the year, such as setting up a traditional Emirati tent in Ibn Batutta Mall during Ramadan, traditional dancing performances, and educational seminars. And the excellent services provided by the SMCCU are being constantly expanded.

“Last year the Centre introduced Cultural Partnerships, which provide companies with a programme to complement their induction process for new arrivals to the UAE,” explains Kayed. “And then we have Cultural Awareness Programmes (CAPs) for companies, which create greater understanding.”

In 2011, the SMCCU launched a Policy Advisory Service to further cultural awareness among international corporations’ employees, to answer questions on regional policies, and to help companies settle in, or even set up, more easily. Foreigners at all levels are realising the importance of taking part in Centre activities and the list of companies attending is impressive: Adidas, GEMS World Academy, Nestle ME and many more.

“It is merely a dream now, to seed the world with the thought of unity between races, religions and people in general,” says Al Serkal. “Open doors, open minds is the perfect message that should (and will) go round the world. That small sentence conveys the whole ethos of the Centre.”