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Dialogue and Decisions

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A traditional forum that provides Emiratis an opportunity to debate, deliberate and share information about the issues of the day

The Majlis (council) has traditionally been an essential part of Emirati social and political life, serving as a forum for members of the community to discuss issues among themselves and to raise important matters with elders and Sheikhs. Merchants and legal experts also held Majalis (the plural of Majlis).


Traditionally, elders and Sheikhs would host Majlis to discuss daily affairs, relay news and tell stories. All members of the community are entitled to attend these forums to offer their opinions on topics of the day.


Majalis run by elders, chieftains and Sheikhs are called barza, and the Majlis host is said to be ‘barez’ (prominent) when he is presiding at his Majlis. During such Majalis, the host hears complaints, demands and other issues of the people and seeks to resolves them. The atmosphere is one of constructive dialogue, defined by honesty, openness, freedom and ingenuity.


The Bedouin call these gatherings Bayt Al-She`r (house of hair), a reference to the goat-hair tents in which they are held. Barza Majalis also are called Al Marms, or Al Mayles.


Because of the significance of the Majlis, the UAE, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia inscribed it in 2015 on the UNESCO ‘Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’.

Other majalis

In addition to the barza Majlis, there traditionally were two other types of Majalis in the UAE: the Majlis of the Merchants and the Majlis of Justice.

Merchant Majalis were open to all, but especially pearl divers, as it provided a way to raise funds for their journeys and to see that their families would receive basic foodstuffs, such as rice, flour and coffee. These Majalis were particularly busy during the pearling season, especially near the end, when pearl prices were negotiated.

During the diving season, the Majlis would address disputes among divers or between divers and traders, as well as to share stories about incidents at sea. Storytelling, poetry recitals and other forms of entertainment also happened during these sessions.

These Majalis also would host negotiations during the Holy Month of Ramadan and after Friday prayers throughout the year, when traders would gather to discuss business.

The Majlis of Justice specialised in dispensing Shari’a judgements and often dealt with cases passed up from barza and Merchants Majlis. Justice Majalis were recognised not only for settling disputes, but also for providing education on religious topics to attendees.

These Majalis traditionally opened from early morning until noon prayer, and then again between the afternoon prayer and sunset prayer.

The term ‘Majlis’ has been adopted by modern governments to refer to both elected and unelected advisory and decision-making bodies, including legislatures and councils of ministers.

 

Locations

Majalis in cities and towns along the coast are often constructed of plaster and mud, arbour and bower, or simple canvas to provide shade. Majalis were held either in a bayt al-she'r, or in open-air settings called 'Barns'; around fires, with coffee served to attendees. Majlis in mountain areas were held in special guesthouses or other gathering places. Topics included beekeeping, goat herding and the location of antelope herds, hyenas and wolves.

Did You Know?

For pearl divers and sailors at sea, a boat could serve as a location for a Majlis, where they would discuss topics such as ships, fishing, diving and hardships at sea.  

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