Abdullah Al Serkal, Founder of SMCCU (Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding) discusses the significance of educating residents and tourists on UAE’s culture and history

“Where are you from?” Mr. Abdullah Al Serkal, Founder of SMCCU (Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding) asked me when I arrived at his office nestled at the heart of Dubai’s cultural district and the oldest standing residential neighbourhood, Bastakiya. “Where do you tell people you’re from when you travel? Dubai, right? Because it is your home, you have lived here your whole life. You are from Dubai,” he went on to say. I was elated to hear these words of acceptance from an Emirati. The UAE truthfully is home. I’m a third-culture kid who grew up here, know the national anthem (mind you, I don’t know my home country’s anthem), and grew up studying the UAE’s history, food and culture. Mr. Al Serkal is well aware of this, of expat life in the country, and of tourists who visit with unanswered questions on their mind.  Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding_03“Our group of companies are most famously known for my brother’s venture Al Serkal avenue in Al Quoz, amongst others including the construction and real estate businesses,” says Mr. Al Serkal. “On my part, I wanted to give back to my country. Dubai is not only about buildings, the infrastructure, the tallest towers and beautiful resorts, it is also about us, Emiratis,” he says. With this in mind, Mr. Al Serkal created an inviting programme called “Open Doors, Open Minds” which has been operational since the conception of SMCCU in 1995. “This place has been the hub for cultural understanding. It is not a hotel room venue or a convention, it is not a place where you should be afraid to ask something. This is a very relaxed programme introducing our culture, meals, national clothing, religion and who we are,” he says.

The idea for a centre for cultural understanding came about when Mr. Al Serkal returned from Los Angeles, after graduating in Business Administration and Marketing. “Being born and raised in a business-minded family means you have to give as much time as possible as a teenager, a student in high school, and even in university, to your family businesses. I’ve been working in various departments since 1978,” he says. His travels, while studying, led him to realising that most countries have an information desk where you can find literally anything you want, from the landmarks to visit to the next train route. “Countries have that kind of desire to make it easy for a tourist, or even for the younger generation of the same community or country to introduce their culture to others,” he goes on to say. Since the UAE has always been a melting pot of nationalities, it only made sense to adapt the method and offer a programme where people are free to speak their minds. “No question is offensive or taboo here, and every question has an answer. By doing this, we are not only catering to the expatriates and travelers, but also educating the younger Emirati generation,” says Mr. Al Serkal.

His choice of venue is perhaps the crowning glory. Upon entering the premises in Al Fahidi, I noticed a group session taking place where questions of religion, marriage and culture were being answered. To make the experience all the more authentic, a spread of Emirati dishes were laid out in front of the guests as they sat at the courtyard majlis and relished a new cuisine. This is the oldest part of Dubai. An area rooted in history “Every window, door and alley reveal a story, as this area is over 300 years old. It is historic and untouched,” he says. It’s true. I noticed this as I walked up the age-old staircase to the roof of SMCCU, to find Mr. Al Serkal’s office that boasts views of old Dubai. “This place is groovy, it has depth, history and I love it,” he says.Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding_04UAE attracts the world. When people visit the country, they are here to soak in the culture, and they need answers. “For the past two years, over 130 Emirati students have been trained on cultural intelligence. Some of them have come on-board to become presenters at SMCCU. “I trained Emiratis back in 2002 who went onto becoming CEOs of their companies. They pass on their culture and understanding to their staff and in turn, spread the value of our Emirati heritage.

Since Emiratis make up just 11.8 per cent of the UAE’s population (9.54 million), it is important for them to understand the value of their heritage. “The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s portrayal of this country to the world is a great message. He said that our oil is God’s oil, the wealth is God’s wealth, and the opportunity, the ability to earn money, is a blessing from God. We will never close the door to anyone who wants to come, share and build a life for themselves, and this country with us,” says Mr. Al Serkal with pride. By now he makes it clear that the newer generation need to understand this message and may have forgotten that the country was built on hardships, perseverance and failures through which success has risen.

“Dubai speaks for the Middle-East, for Arabs, peace, and open-mindedness. Dubai speaks the language of tolerance. What we do is a message to the world that peace, tolerance and accepting others can happen if we try to do it, and this is an integral part of SMCCU,” he says. To further educate Emiratis and other nationalities, they work with government bodies, Culture Authority, Tourism Police, and Ministry of Education. Certain universities also have a mandatory internship at SMCCU as part of their graduation programme. “They have to intern at the centre for two months, and we welcome all nationalities, not only Emiratis.”Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding_02In addition to the programme, the SMCCU also offer educational cultural tours. “Mosque visits are very important for a lot of people. Muslims and non-muslims from different cultures like to see the architecture here, have queries about the praying positions and want to learn about everything that happens at a mosque,” he says. These visits are held at Jumeirah mosque, Diwan mosque and the Rashidiya mosque next to the Dubai Airport.

Going forward, Mr. Al Serkal tells me he’d love to expand to the other emirates, open cultural villages and enhance the older parts of each city. Currently, they are preparing to train Emiratis working closely with Expo 2020. In the meantime, those who haven’t had a chance to mingle with Emiratis and have their questions unanswered, even after spending years in the country, can attend programmes at SMCCU from 8am to 9pm daily, or book a private session that can be held at the company’s premises.

Visit cultures.ae for more information