Impact of the Indian Ocean on the United Arab Emirates

The history of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) development is linked to the political, economic, and social ties with other states that were enabled by the Indian Ocean. This ocean served as a link between the UAE’s and other parts of the globe. Initially used for trade purposes, the migration later led to a significant exchange of cultures. One example of this is the UAE’s cuisine, based on the traditional Bedouin diet with milk and meat. Later, through these trade connections with India, the people living near the Persian Gulf began integrating rice and spices into their diet, which they eat to this day. This paper will address the question of how the contemporary culture of the UAE was influenced by its connection to the Gulf’s Indian Ocean.

The Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean connects different states and parts of the world. Its surface accounts for 20% of Earth’s territory (“The Indian Ocean,” n.d., para. 1). It is also the third-largest ocean out of the five. Historically, the Indian Ocean played a role in facilitating trade for the people in the Arabic states. The Arabian Gulf connected to the ocean was once a river, which deepened and became larger with time, partially due to the melting of polar ice caps (“The Indian Ocean,” n.d.). Since the Gulf was easy to navigate, the merchants could travel through it using small boats. Moreover, the many settlements along the Gulf allowed them to collect more goods for trading. Hence, this region played an important role in developing the local trade in 3000 BCE (“The Indian Ocean,” n.d., para. 7). Since the Indian Ocean allowed people from different regions to connect and trade with each other, the migration allowed for cultural exchange as well. The biggest impact on the UAE’s cuisine was made by the Indian nation.

Migration to the Gulf

The people who have affected the Gulf’s culture and cuisine, in particular, have migrated through the Indian Ocean. To travel through the Gulf, these influencers have traveled to the Gulf since 5000 BC, as suggested by the archeological findings such as pottery or ceramics (Barendes, 2016). The Indian nation has traded with many others, such as the Europeans, through the Greco-Roman corridor, the Sumerians, and the Islam nations. In total, the ties between India and the UAE have existed for over 350 years (Barendes, 2016). The main reason for the establishment of the ties between the UAE and India was either trade or labor migration.

The nations that resided near the Persian Gulf engaged in trade with Indians and other states. Weeks (2016) reports that the travel through the Gulf can be traced back to the Bronze age when the copper production in the region was at a mass scale. The territory in question is now a part of the UAE and Oman. However, the author argues that the emergence of routes that connect the Arab states with other regions thought the Gulf is linked not only to the trade development but also to the establishment of political affiliations with other states. During this age, the main trade partner for the UAE region was Mesopotamia (Weeks, 2016). The researcher believes that the Persian Gulf played an important role in linking the Mesopotamian and Indus societies. Hence, the Persian Gulf has been an important element of the development of the connections between Mesopotamia and India, which affected the culture of the nations in the Gulf region as well.

The UAE’s location made it suitable for the development of trade and ties with other nations, such as India. Barendse (2016) refers to the Arabian sea as the world economy because it connects various trajectories, making it a perfect place for merchants. Due to this, the merchants would send products in bulk, both along the coastline and from one side of the sea to the other. (Barendes, 2016) notes that before the 17th century, the sea was a collection of interlocking networks, not restricted by any limitations or legal boundaries. Also, some researchers point to the connection of this region with Rajasthan, which is a state in India, and Malawi, a country located in Africa. However, apart from these far locations, the sea and the ocean allowed people in the area to connect with Europe and different parts of Asia and the North and South Americas. When summoning up the opportunities that the Indian ocean provided to the Arab nations, one can state that it allowed connecting with all parts of the world.

Cuisine and Adaptation of the Emirati Society

The cuisine is one of the factors that is a reflection of a nation’s cultural traditions, history of their development, and religious beliefs. The author of the article on the website the “Culture Mastery” defines the connection between the culture and food in the following manner: ” food and drink are as many representations of culture as are the arts, architecture, attire, or human behavior” (“How culture affects cuisine,” 2016, para. 1). Hence, a close examination of a nation’s cuisine can provide an understanding of its specifics similarly to an examination of arts.

Traditionally, the UAE’s cuisine consisted of vegetables, meat, and dairy. However, the trade exchanges through the Indian Ocean allowed merchants to bring rice to the state. Before the rice was introduced to the Emirati’s inhabitants, bread, such as traditional Khameer made from yeast and Chabab were popular (“Food,” 2019). Another example of the traditional Emirati diet is the bedouin diet, which consists mainly of milk and meat, mainly due to the bedouins’ conditions and lifestyle. Another integral part of the traditional diet is fish, especially along the coasts. The people living near the Gulf learned to dry the fish to ensure that it can be stored for prolonged periods (“Food,” 2019). Notably, the traditional food eaten by the Emirati society was a result of the state’s geographical location, while the trade with India allowed using spices and rice when cooking.

The multiculturality of the UAE’s society affected its cuisine. Mainly, the Islam religion and the presence of bedouins created the basis for it (Palit, 2017). The immigration and trade through the Indian Ocean allowed the state’s cuisine and culture to blend with others. Another part of the Emiraty cuisine, which was impacted by international trade via the Indian Ocean, was the spices. Initially imported from India, they now comprise an integral part of many dishes in the Emirates (“Food,” 2019). Khushi is an example of a dish that emerged as a result of trade and intercultural connections through the Indian Ocean. It is made out of rice and roasted lamb or goat (“Food,” 2019). Machboos is a similar dish, except it involves the addition of a variety of spices. Cinamon, saffron, and turmeric are the spices that are now an integral part of the Emirati cuisine.

Notably, the Arab nations traded with many other states, but the Indians had a particularly serious impact on the UAE’s cuisine. As a result of foreign trade in this region, “in the 19th century, every kind of merchandise could be found, silk and linen, spices, dates, coffee brought across the desert by caravans, pearls, grapes, bananas, figs, butter, fowl, and the list goes on” (“Indian Ocean,” n.d., para. 15). Hence, foreign trade allowed the inhabitants of the Gulf to gain access to different types of food. According to Rao (Palit, 2017), the Emiraty merchants exchanged pearls and dates for the spices from India, which established a cultural exchange between the two nations. Hence, the long-term merchant relationship between the UAE and India resulted in the adoption of rice and spices as part of the cuisine for the former.

The modern-day Emirati society’s cuisine comprises of a mix of traditional dishes and those prepared as a result of India’s influence. The information in the previous sections discloses that trade was the main factor that motivated the intercultural exchange and which affected the cuisine in the UAE. Rayn (2018) notes that “reciprocal cross-cultural exchanges of arts, crafts, and technologies along with the vast network of maritime trade routes traversing the Indian Ocean linking East and West prior to European colonization, contributed to the aesthetic evolution of Islamic art” (p. 1967). Many of the families in the Emirates maintain a connection with the Indian nation, either mainly through cooperation, such as trade or other business relationships. As a result, some UAE citizens speak Urdu or Hindi. Since the cooperation between the two nations continues to this day, it is not surprising that many dishes that are traditionally Indian were adopted by the UAE’s citizens.

Notably, the influence of the Indian culture is not limited to ancient times and can be seen in the recent migrations and cooperation between the two nations. According to Barendse (2016), the UAE’s society is culturally diverse and consists of several nations. Many ethnic groups arrived in the 1990s, including the Iranians, Indians, and Pakistanis. Hence, the nation has been influenced by many cultures and adopted practices, including culinary preferences, such as spices and eating rice. However, these practices were adopted to the specifics of the UAE’s culture.

Role of Cuisine to the Modern UAE

The cuisine is an important part of the modern-day Emirati culture, since the everyday dishes that the Emirati families cook have a hint of an Indian origin. The official website of the UAE’s government notes that the state’s cuisine has a “hint of Arabian, Indian, Iranian, Mediterranean, and Turkish influences” (“Food,” 2019). Most of the traditional dishes are a variation of Indian cuisine, which means that the two cultures are deeply integrated into the other.

Today, the role of these ancient connections through the Indian Ocean has resulted in the integration of some non-traditional elements for Arab culture elements into the local cuisine. This includes rice, which is now commonly cooked with meat and spices (“Food,” 2019). Another example is coffee, as well as spices that were imported mainly from India. Since the UAE’s society is multicultural in its nature, this integration was seamless and now comprises an integral part of the state’s cuisine.

Since historically, India was famous for its spices, the impact of this culture can be seen in the flavors of dishes cooked in the UAE. Palits (2017) claims that the modern Emirati meal has at least some Indian origin hint. For example, matchbooks made out of chicken, common in the Emirates, are a variation of the Indian dish biryani. The salon is another example of a meal that the Emiraty family cooks, which originated in India. Therefore, the Indian migration and influence that was enabled by the Indian Ocean had an immense impact on the UAE’s culture, which can be seen through the state’s cuisine, where many of the modern-day dishes include species and are cooked similarly to traditional Indian food.


Overall, this paper explores the role of the Indian Ocean in the formation of the UAE’s cuisine as one of the examples of how this marine connection affected the state’s culture. Evidently, the trade and political connection between this state that others have led to cultural exchange as well, which impacted the local cuisine. The traditional food for the Emirati society included bread, meat, and milk. After the initiation of the trade through the Gulf, rice and spices became more common. Through the Indian Ocean, the Arab merchants could connect with all parts of the world, including Asia, Europe, and the Americas, which resulted in an integration of different traditions into the UAE’s culture. Hence, modern-day cuisine of the UAE includes many dishes that have Indian analogs and that are unlike the traditional food of the Arab nations.


Barendes, R. J. (2016). The Arabian Seas. Routledge.

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Palits, A. (2017). China-India economics: Challenges, competition and collaboration. Routledge.

Ryan, L. (2018). Reconsidering Islamic art and Muslim heritage : Migration, cultural exchange and the dominance of the Arab-centric aesthetic. Heritage 2018: Proceedings Of The 6Th International Conference On Heritage And Sustainable Development. Volume 2: Granada, Spain, 2018, 1967-1982.

Weeks, L. (2016). Iran and the Bronze Age metals trade in the Persian Gulf. International Journal of the Society of Iranian Archaeologists, 2(3), 13-27.

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DemoEssays. 2023. "Impact of the Indian Ocean on the United Arab Emirates." January 4, 2023.

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DemoEssays. "Impact of the Indian Ocean on the United Arab Emirates." January 4, 2023.