Arts & Culture The Expat Issue

Ali Al Saloom: Every expat’s guide to the UAE

Ali's platform is the go-to for expats for UAE cultural insights.

When you first walk into Ali Al Saloom’s office, you will see a quote plastered on the wall against the receptionist’s desk that reads: ‘I no longer work; I create’. This does not come as a surprise, as Ali proudly states that he has never taken a vacation from his business since he started 14 years ago. ‘When you love what you do, it’s no longer a job’, he explains.

Ali Al Saloom. Courtesy.

The Emirati from Abu Dhabi, most famous for his trademark brown kandoora (long, loose robe-like garment worn by Emirati men), is a cultural entrepreneur, author, media personality, keynote speaker, and self-appointed cultural ambassador of the Middle East.

When we meet in his office, Ali is in the middle of working on the fifth season of Duroob—a unique television show whose title translates to ‘paths’ in Arabic, in which he travels to unconventional destinations, such as Kurdistan and Panama, to introduce Khaleeji and Arab viewers to various tribes and cultures. He also speaks to the diverse people he meets in his travels around the United Arab Emirates and the wider Arabian region, bridging cultures along the way.

Duroob is one of the reasons why Ali is a famous and inspirational personality in the region today. However, it has not always been that way, and it did not come easy. Unlike many young Khaleejis, the 37-year-old had a very unconventional start to his career; he worked as a doorman at Abu Dhabi’s Beach Rotana Hotel, moved up to being a concierge, and then became a receptionist. He did all of this to gain deeper knowledge of the tourism industry.

His passion for improving the UAE’s tourism industry and his love for sharing his cultural insights and with acquainting outsiders with the region’s faith, traditions, and cultural practices led him to form his famous Ask Ali web portal in 2007, on which he personally answers foreigners’ inquiries regarding the UAE.

A while later, he established Embrace Arabia, an Abu Dhabi–based cultural consultancy consisting of professional Emirati consultants who provide cultural training courses and cultural tours of the UAE. His Emirati cultural experts speak many languages, including Japanese and Russian, with Ali himself fluent in English, German, and South Korean. To go hand-in-hand with that, he published Ask Ali—mini guidebooks to Dubai and Abu Dhabi in 2010, which have sold more than one million copies to date.

‘At the beginning of my career as a tour guide, I would charge less than AED 300 for a half-day tour’, says Ali. ‘Years after investing so much into my business, that price has more than quadrupled, and I now charge AED 5000 for a half-day tour’.

Today, Ali is the go-to tour guide for official delegations, VIPs, and renowned personalities.Though he dedicates time to empower and encourage young Emiratis to follow in his footsteps by speaking about his inspiring journey in different college and public events, the number of Emirati and Khaleeji cultural entrepreneurs is still fairly low.

“ Unlike many young Khaleejis, the 37-year-old had a very unconventional start to his career; he worked as a doorman at Abu Dhabi’s Beach Rotana Hotel, moved up to being a concierge, and then became a receptionist.

‘I believe that in general, there hasn’t been a strong focus on tourism or people venturing into it, because the UAE is doing really well and does not depend solely on tourism as a sole income generator, thus the lack of interest of Emiratis personally venturing into this’, states Ali.

Another reason, he says, is that managing a tourism business, just like any business, does not come easy and requires time and dedication for it to truly ripen.

‘It’s hard work, and you have to put 100% to it so that you can reap great results the way I have. I decided to give it all my time and not have a day job, and I believe that that is the main reason behind its success. If you want your business to succeed, you have to manage it yourself day and night’, he adds.

The culture entrepreneur encourages those who wish to embark on this field to be authentic in their voice and not to copy others’, as that is the shortest route to failure.

What’s next for Ali? He exclusively shares with us that his Ask Ali portal is undergoing a facelift and will be coming back stronger.

 ‘We will be sharing daily content about the UAE’s culture, our history, and teaching Arabic words and phrases to our audience on my social media pages’, he excitedly says.

 Expect daily videos and exciting content when following Ali on his social media pages, if you are willing to learn from the UAE’s number one cultural expert.

Manar Alhinai is the Storyteller-in-Chief at Sekka.