Al Seef: ‘Old’ Dubai

Al SeefAl Seef runs for well over a mile along the south bank of Dubai’s Creek and back into the 20th Century. This is how Dubai looked before the oil, before the malls, before the soaring skyscape of glass and steel. This was Dubai when it was just a distant dusty scrap of the British Empire, sometime before 1971.

With traditional cross-timbered cooling towers and roughly plastered walls, low-rise and car-free cobbled alleys, the new development of Al Seef is so authentic that it could be straight out a biblical illustration. This is a recreation of the past rendered in a palette of sands and beiges: it is if the gaudy neon colours of 21st century branding had never been invented.

Al Seef is Dubai reconnecting with a history and a heritage that it was in danger of losing. Amongst the sand-blasted doors there are the artefacts of the past: triangular fisherman’s nets, rickety hand-carts and the splintered wooden packing cases that record Dubai’s history as a trading post.

Al SeefTake an abra, a traditional wooden boat, across the creek to visit the Dhow harbour where ships are unloaded after their voyages along the African coast to the south and the Indian Ocean to the east.

A walking tour, crossing to the north bank of the Creek, orientates visitors to the original heart of Dubai as they head for the hundreds of small shops that make up the Gold Souk. Competition is intense, so shoppers barter keenly to get a necklace, ring or watch down to around a third of the asking price.

The Emirati are enjoying the opportunity to relive their heritage. In the evenings, families stroll through the souk-style shops browsing for abayas, antiques, spices, jewellery and soaps. One pearl jeweller recalls the origins of Dubai’s wealth when divers descended through the Creek’s waters seeking their fortune. Meanwhile the shoppers stroll on, listening to the musicians playing their guitar-shaped ouds and watching the swirling feet of the dancers.

Al Seef Hotel by JumeirahThe Al Seef Hotel by Jumeirah provides the opportunity to stay at the heart of the action, it’s modelled on the concept of Arabic family hospitality. Guests stay in ten small bayts, traditional houses, which are dotted through Al Seef.

The bayts’ decor is from a page of Old Dubai’s history: black rotary-dial telephones, wooden-styled wirelesses, roughly hewn wooden shutters and retro bath fittings. It is the sort of place where Lawrence of Arabia would have recuperated between escapades. Contemporary touches, such as coffee-maker and safe, are subtly camouflaged behind the dark wood finish as is the air-conditioning.

Saba’a, the hotel’s restaurant, continues the Arabic theme. Before you ask, Saba’a translates as seven. It is the current ruling Sheikh’s favourite number as it celebrates the unity of the seven Emirates which make up the UAE.

A glass of camel’s milk sprinkled with turmeric makes for a fine start to breakfast at Saba’a but there are plenty of western options available for guests not wishing to fully immerse themselves in the full Arabic experience.

Al Seef Hotel by JumeirahIn the evening the restaurant offers a full Arabic banquet. Quite simply there is a choice between an Arab (meat) Meshawi and a Seafood Meshawi, though it may be an hour or two before you see either your lamb or fish.

For the Arabs, a banquet is a chance for family and friends to sit together and enjoy leisurely conversation as olives, stuffed vine leaves, hummus, flat-breads, tabouleh, delicate filled pastries and many more small dishes are placed before them.

At its western end, Al Seef leads into the area by the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. The tours and Arabic meals offered provide fascinating insights into traditional life.

Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural UnderstandingIf a guest asked for a fourth refill of their small handleless coffee cup it was a sign that he or she sought a private conversation with their host. Visitors can try on Arabic dress. Traditionally a wife dipped her husband’s tie into her perfume: not just to remind him of her throughout the day, but also to mask the stench of the camels as he walked behind them.

Just a fifteen-minute taxi-ride from the airport, Al Seef will be a game-changer for those visiting Dubai. Increasingly visitors will have two or three nights in Al Seef to enjoy the heritage, then head out into the sands for the isolated beauty of a desert resort before finally relaxing at one of Dubai’s many beach resorts.

More information

Learn more about the Al Seef Hotel by Jumeirah and its restaurant Saba’a at

Visit www.dubaibyfoot.com/beta for interesting walking itineraries.

Visit cultures.ae for details of the Sheik Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding

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Michael Edwards

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