A shared heritage

During Dubai Week in China, Vision caught up with Nasif Kayed, Managing Director of the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, for his insights into Dubai and China’s shared cultural heritage

Q: In what ways is this event important in terms of cultural exchange between China and Dubai?

A: Very important. In times gone by Chinese people knew who we were as Arabs, as Emiratis and as Muslims. Today the younger generation is more influenced by the Western media and Hollywood. So this is a great opportunity for us to say, ‘Come and see us and let’s have the opportunity to talk.’

Q: In bygone times the Old Silk Road merchants from China would meet and exchange goods and ideas with Arab traders. What is the legacy of this historic interaction in 21st-century Arabic culture?

A: We knew China’s traders before China became the exporter and manufacturer for the world. In the old days we got our wood from China, our spices from China, even the vermicelli noodles that we eat for our breakfast, Balaleet, from China. Equally, the Chinese bought dates from us and many other items because we were a trading hub for the Arabian peninsula and beyond. Fast forward to today’s Dubai and there are a lot of Chinese living in the emirate. And a lot of Emiratis actually speak Chinese because of those historic trade ties with China. It’s something we are passing on, too. There was a time when Emiratis used to send their children to China to learn Chinese because they realised it was so important.

Dubai Week in China
Nasif Kayed of the Sheikh Zayed Centre for Cultural Understanding held a session with Chinese media exploring Emirati culture

Q: Is there anything about Emirati food that might surprise Chinese visitors to Dubai?

A: Probably our extensive use of dates. We make them into so many different things, from drinks to syrup to cakes. And, of course, rice is an interesting one. We took it from the Chinese but then adapted it with Indian spices and flavours.

Q: As an organisation, what is the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding doing to make Chinese visitors to Dubai feel welcome?

A: First and foremost we want to cater to their culture and make them feel comfortable. And for that reason we have translators and interpreters and use Chinese signage. We want them to feel welcomed and safe, and for them to recognise that Dubai is beautiful, peaceful and secure.
We also want to highlight the commonalities of our two cultures and discuss them openly and freely. For us to be able to answer any questions they might have is very important. We don’t just want them to see our famous monuments such as Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall and then leave without having learned about our culture and our people.

Q: What do both cultures share in common?

A: Family is very important to both of our cultures, so I think the key thing is the family values and principles that we share.

Q: How is the SMCCU working with fellow Dubai entities to tailor experiences for Chinese visitors to Dubai?

A: We entertain many guests, from VIPs to students and interns, and introduce them to our culture. We are finding that many businesses approach us for these kinds of activities when, for example, they invite high-level Chinese executives over to Dubai. These executives love being able to ask more in-depth and personal questions about Dubai and to really scratch beneath the surface.

Q: What makes you most proud about Emirati culture?

A: Our inclusivity and acceptance. We went from very little interaction with just one or two or three cultures, to today being exposed to people from all walks of life and from all corners of the world. We are very tolerant, accepting and open.