A Fish Suq in the UAE Desert


by Philip Iddison

I had been making regular visits to the fish market in the centre of Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates for some time before I queried the origins of a well established fresh fish market in this small desert city.  My trips were both to purchase food and also to research what food was available.  The variety and abundance of fish throughout the year was striking and the vitality of the market confirmed a well established demand for fish from Al Ain residents.  Whilst this could be expected from those sections of the expatriate populace who had a strong seafood element in their own ethnic cooking, Filipinos and Keralans for example, the observed popularity of fish for the nationals of the UAE was more obscure.  Was it a development of recent years with improved transportation, relative abundance and low cost or was there a historical origin for this taste?  One clue was the existence of a few dried fish traders who seemed to do relatively little business.  Perhaps this indicated a redundant commodity whose taste was no longer appreciated.

Until the late 1960's, Al Ain was an isolated date palm oasis with a small resident population controlled by the semi-nomadic bedouin of the Beni Yas confederation. The leaders of these tribes had gained control of the oasis by steadily purchasing date palm gardens. The Beni Yas had their main seat of power in the coastal settlement at Abu Dhabi, west of Al Ain, and were the most important tribe in a group of oases in the Liwa area to the south west of Al Ain [1].  Adjacent to the five villages comprising Al Ain are four Omani villages forming the Buraimi part of the oasis.  In distance terms the Batinah coast of Oman is as near to Al Ain as the Gulf coast.  There are strong cultural ties between the two communities although the strength of tribal custom has ensured that they now belong to separate countries [2].

The journey of 160 kilometres from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi took a minimum of 3 days by camel and could take as long as 14 days for a caravan of goods. Even two days were required once the Landrover had become available.  The journey to Batinah is equally difficult involving passage through the Hajar mountains along Wadi Jizzi.  Until the construction of the modern road system in the late 1960’s fresh fish was out of the question in Al Ain [3].

Economic Basis of Life

Research into people’s past means of sustenance in the Trucial States [4] revealed that my conception of purely desert based nomads needed to be broadened and that the resources of the sea had a more important role in the national livelihood than I had expected.

The main economic activities to sustain the lives of the national population of the Trucial States in the early part of this century can be divided into two groups. On one hand there were subsistence occupations:-

  • nomadic camel herding;
  • tending date gardens and associated agriculture in the oases;
  • sheep and goat herding where pasture and water supplies permitted; and
  • fishing and fish drying.

Alternatively there were a limited number of trades:-

  • providing land transport by camel;
  • pearl diving and trading;
  • trading including overseas dhow journeys; and
  • activities such as charcoal burning, firewood collection, guarding and crafts such as blacksmith, dhow builder.

Many families used several of these means of support to provide a living for their family. Thus it was not unusual for a nomadic herdsman with a small palm garden in Liwa to leave his family during the date harvest whilst he spent part of the summer fishing on the coast [5].

With 540 kilometres of coastline and abundant fish resources, fishing provided a valuable subsistence resource with the potential to generate cash or barter benefits. In 1969 it was estimated that 17% of the population were wholly or partly dependent on fishing for their support and cash income [6].  During the 1950’s and 60’s annual production was estimated to be 10,000 tons of which 6,000 tons were exported.  The Gulf waters of the western UAE coast are rich in fish varieties [7] particularly during the winter months when shoals of pelagic fish such as tuna, sardine and anchovy enter from the Gulf of Oman to reinforce the resident fish populations.  The UAE has a shorter eastern coast bordering the Gulf of Oman which hosts an even richer sea fauna from the adjacent Indian Ocean.  Current production is about 90,000 tonnes per annum and a substantial proportion is consumed in the UAE.  There were 4,464 fishing boats in 1996 and there is a growing awareness of the value and potential fragility of this resource.

An account [8] of life in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi in the 1950's and 60's details a hardy lifestyle. Extended families usually had establishments in both towns with a corresponding split of economic support activities, pearl diving, fishing and trading in Abu Dhabi; herding, date gardens and seasonal cultivation in Al Ain.

Fishing along the Abu Dhabi coast was substantial and of prime economic importance [9]. The fishing rights were held by the ruling sheikh who usually licensed them out [10].  Fish was a dietary mainstay along the coast due to ready availability.  In Dubai rice and fish were the standard midday food, in the hot climate there was a traditional taboo against eating fresh fish later in the day [11].  Dried fish preparation was an important industry and supplied the inland areas with food and fertilizer as well as being an export commodity.  There was a separate dried fish suq in Dubai.

A variety of fishing techniques were used including traps, gargour and dubeyer, and lines and nets used either inshore or from small sailing boats, sambuk and jalbut (derived from the English naval term jolly boat).  The techniques were sophisticated, making good use of both fixed and cast nets.  Fixed nets exploited the natural topography, currents and fish migration routes.  Such nets, hadra and sakar are still in use along the gulf shoreline. They extend out from the shore and catch fish as they travel with the longshore drift, collecting the catch in a small trap at the end of the net which needs only to be attended at low tide to collect the catch.  Fish could be kept for short periods in the gargour traps if these were weighted down offshore, thus preserving the catch for later consumption.

The dried fish trade was also well developed in the Oman.  Exports are recorded to places such as Ceylon, one merchant handling 200 to 250 tons of fish monthly for ten months of the year with an annual value of £100,000 in the 1950's [12].  Dried sardines were an important item of trade in Oman as they were carried inland and used as camel fodder [13].

Sardines are still dried on the east coast of the UAE at Fujairah and Khalba.  They used to be dried by simply spreading them on the coastal mud flats and more recently I have seen them being dried on the asphalt surface of a redundant section of road, a resourceful idea.  These fish are caught by seine netting from the beaches, a four wheel drive vehicle has now replaced human muscles for the job of hauling in the net.  Silversides (Atherinidae) were also collected in significant numbers and dried but they were used as fertilizer [14].

Al Ain Fish Market

The Al Ain fish market is housed in a number of sheds arranged around the open vegetable and food market in the heart of the city.  The whole market derives its popular name, suq as samak, from the fish sales.  The fish are brought overnight from the coastal landing areas by truck in large ice chests.  The trucks are driven into the sheds so that the fish can be heaped on benches for sale as the morning wears on and the stock diminishes.  One is confronted by mounds of multi-coloured fish backed up by fishmongers wielding sharp knives gutting two kilo trevally specimens whilst vying for your attention for the next sale.  The fish is invariably fresh and the customers are knowledgeable and discerning.

The choice is large and spectacular [15], heaps of silvery sardines, broomtail wrasse in exquisite colours, vicious barracuda and cutlass fish with bared fangs, lines of svelte tuna, a tangle of half-beaks, half a dozen varieties of grouper with bulging eyes, bowls of swimming crabs and prawns, rather evil looking sea catfish with poisonous spines, and a plethora of trevally and bream.  Individual fish weigh from a few grams, for instance anchovies, to kingfish and amberjack weighing 15-20 Kg. each. The appendix records the technical details of this visual treat and also records local fish names gathered from the other Gulf countries.

The market is well patronised by all nationalities with the exception of Europeans and North Americans.  They are perhaps too accustomed to the supermarket culture to cope with the vagaries of an open market and all its questionable characteristics; for instance the need to know about the different fish varieties; bargaining skills and the hygiene aspect.

Fish prices are low compared to the west, a kilo of sardines costs 5 Dirhams [16] and most large fish retail at 8 to 20 Dirhams a kilo.  Only premium fish such as silver pomfret and the excellent large prawns break this barrier, fetching 25 to 50 Dirhams a kilo for prawns of exceptional size.

Fish Butchery

The term butchery was chosen with care as there is minimal finesse displayed when it comes to cutting up the fish sold to a customer.  However the majority of fish sold in the suq are offered for sale intact.  In the case of large fish such as tuna, fresh sharks and kingfish, they are usually sliced transversely into steaks.  Some fish seem to be prepared as a matter of course, shaeri (emperors) are frequently displayed scaled, gutted, fins trimmed and the head removed.  If the vendor cleans a fish for a local he will offer to cut it up and this offer is usually taken up.  The fish is then butchered into chunks with no respect for bone structure and must be an alarming prospect to eat. However some local recipes call for the fish to be cooked and then de-boned before the flesh is incorporated into the final dish thus solving the problem.

Preserved Fish - Cheseef

A few stalls in the market sell a variety of preserved fish, called cheseef in the UAE and recalling the state of fish consumption prior to modern communications.  Mal-lah is another term for dried fish.

Two natural methods of food preservation have been available in the Emirates since prehistoric times.

Sun drying is still used to preserve prawns, anchovies, sardines and shark [17]. The process is simple, effective and preserves excess supplies.

Salting is used for a number of fish varieties and these are still available in the suq.  On the Gulf shore there are extensive salt flats where sea salt was naturally produced and I have seen it being collected on the sabkha salt flat between Dubai and Sharjah.  There were also inland sources of salt that were collected by the bedouin and taken to the regional markets.

The most common dried fish in the Al Ain suq are anchovies, gashr. Huge bowls are piled high at half a dozen stalls in the central open area.  These are sold by the kilo and are relatively cheap at 10 Dirhams. These fish do not seem to be salted and rely simply on the sun drying to preserve them.

Dried shark, awal, is the second most common dried fish and also unmistakable as the whole shark is cut longitudinally for the drying process like the structure of a giant net [18].  Apart from sale as whole pieces, a popular choice for travellers visiting the market, current practice is to cut the dried shark into pieces about 4 inches long, rejecting the less meaty portions and presenting the pieces in a plastic bag at a premium price (25 Dirhams a kilo).  It is readily recognisable due to its characteristic pungent smell of ammonia. I received some domestic aggravation for bringing home awal, as the aroma readily permeated our flat in Al Ain.  The ammonia smell is due to the presence of urea in the shark flesh. Sharks and rays do not have kidneys and are hence unable to dispose of urea which builds up in their flesh.

I have also found tuna, kingfish and queenfish, salted and dried for sale as whole split fish.  The tuna is also cut into smaller pieces for sale and there are whole small seabreams.  The dried shrimps are quite small specimens and are intact.  Dried shellfish are also on sale, khart, and were described to me as being dried oysters. I was unable to tell what species had been dried, shellfish are not common in the market despite their abundance in the marine environment.  There is a religious proscription against shellfish, however given the number of oysters that had to be processed in the pearling industry, it would seem logical for some use to have been made of this abundant food.

There are also shallow bowls displaying wet salted fish which I have not yet had the courage to try.

Studying this selection of dried fish reminded me that I had seen my first genuine red herring on sale in the Kuwait suq back in 1980, displayed in a wooden box emblazoned Great Yarmouth.  Herring preserved in brine in vacuum packs are a common commodity in the UAE supermarkets.

Fish Sauces - Meshawaa

Meshawaa (mehiawah in Qatar) is a product which I have not been able to track down in the UAE although I suspect that I have consumed it on bread, khamir or chebab, at a demonstration of traditional breads.  It certainly had the correct salty taste.  It was introduced from Iran [19] to the Gulf countries.  It has not entered commercial production.  Preparation is from pickled Indian oil sardines, oom, water, spices and salt.  These are mixed and left to ferment in a glass bottle in the sun for one to two weeks.  The contents are then mashed and mixed with roasted spices to undergo a further fermentation.  The sauce is spread on flatbreads and particularly eaten at breakfast with spring onions.

Tareeh is home prepared from dried oom, again fermented with salt, cummin and red chillies.  It is more concentrated than meshawaa and is diluted with water for consumption on bread with radish tops and spring onions [20].

These products bring to mind the fish sauces of eastern Asia.  Charles Perry in papers to the Symposium has identified the historic near eastern taste for salty liquid seasonings and fish preserves.

Local Recipes

There are few accounts of local food published in English.  Reviewing recipes that are available for traditional food in the UAE and neighbouring countries reveals several categories of fish dishes.

My definition of traditional food is the food endemic in the UAE before the advent of oil wealth and the social changes which ensued.  This was already a cultural mix with Iranian, sub-continental, Iraqi and north Arabian influences [21].  It had however developed a distinctive character which is evident in the fish dishes, particularly those requiring preserved products.

Given the good quality of fish, the simple methods of frying and grilling fish, samak maqli and meshwi, are understandably popular.  The ready availability of cooking oils is relatively recent and the frying medium was probably clarified butter, samn. Ovens were the clay tanoor type and do not seem to have been used for cooking fish dishes.  Fish stews are well represented with spices being an essential component.  The local spice mix, bezar [22], was used for meat and fish dishes.

Dried anchovies or sardines were ground with roasted fennel seeds to make a garnish called sahnah for rice [23]Gashr are also cooked with egg and cheese and eaten with bread.  In Oman red pepper and garlic were pounded with the anchovies to make a similar condiment.  Awal was used for a range of dishes including stews and salads.  It was prepared by soaking and boiling before being incorporated into the dish.  The recipes for this product are almost all Omani and this reinforces my view that these products are falling out of favour in the UAE.  Local advice is to avoid drinking milk after eating awal and other dried fish as it is likely to upset the stomach.  Oman also has many recipes for salted fish, malih, and a keen general appreciation of its broadly based and historic culture.

Matharubah originates from Kuwait and is made from fish and rice which are reduced to a paste after the first stage of cooking.  There are recipes for fish kebabs and fishcakes and many recipes include a stage where the fish skin and bones are removed and the fish is flaked into the dish.  This could explain the fish butchery in the suq.

Some Omani recipes call for the dish to be smoked as a final cooking stage.  This is achieved by placing half a lime rind on the surface of the dish, placing a little samn in it, adding a piece of burning charcoal and sealing the lid so that the charcoal smolders and flavours the food.  This seems to be a particular taste of Oman.

Crustaceans were also popular food and the Gulf prawns have a well deserved culinary reputation. Swimming crabs are a common market item, the remaining coastal mangroves providing the necessary breeding environment.  A national told me that they were one of his children’s favourite foods, simply cooked on the barbecue. Dugong meat was also eaten when these mammals were caught in the fishing nets and was considered a delicacy [24].  These mammals may weigh up to 500 Kg. and the flesh is like very tender beef.

Food on the pearling expeditions was dependent on fish as a source of protein to sustain the arduous work.  Rice was the staple accompaniment and with dates and coffee completed the bill of fare on these voyages which lasted up to two months.


The diversity of fish dishes reflects the important role that food from the sea played in traditional life in the Trucial States as one of the main economic resources.  The taste for fish has not diminished and is well served by the modern fish markets such as the Al Ain fish suq where a large variety of seafood is available.  The fish market in the desert is not an anomaly.


Al-Fahim, Mohamed, From Rags to Riches - A Story of Abu Dhabi, The London Centre of Arab Studies, London, 1995

Al-Ghais, Saif Mohamed, Fishes from UAE (coloured wall poster), UAE University, UAE, 1995?

Al Taie, Lamees Abdullah, Al Azaf, The Omani Cookbook, Oman Bookshop, Muscat, 1995

Al Zayani, Afnan Rashid, A Taste of the Arabian Gulf, Ministry of Information, Bahrain, 1988

Brock-Al Ansari, Celia, The Complete United Arab Emirates Cookbook, Emirates, Dubai, 1994

Carpenter, Kent E et al., Living Marine Resources of Kuwait, Eastern Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, FAO, Rome, 1997

Codrai, Ronald, The Seven Sheikdoms - Life in the Trucial States before the federation of the United Arab Emirates, Stacey International, London, 1990

Coles, Anne and Peter Jackson, A Windtower House in Dubai, Art and Archaeology Research Papers, London, 1975

Dagher, Shawky M, Traditional Foods in the Near East, FAO, Rome, 1991

Davidson, Alan, Mediterranean Seafood, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1981

Davidson, Alan, Seafood of South-East Asia, Federal Publications, Singapore, 1976

Dorr, Marcia Stegath, A Taste of Oman, Traditional Omani Food, Muscat?, 1994?

Friends of the Oman Aquarium, Fishes of the Souk (fish identification card), Oman, 1988?

Gross, Christian & Marijcke Jongbloed, Traditions and Wildlife chapter in Natural Emirates - Wildlife and Environment of the United Arab Emirates, Trident Press, London, 1996

Heard-Bey, Frauke, From Trucial States to United Arab Emirates, Longman, London, 1996

Kuronuma, Katsuzo & Yoshitaka Abe, Fishes of Kuwait, Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, Kuwait, 1972

Macdonald, Rosemary, Arabic Cookery, Foulsham, Cippenham, England, 1996

Mallos, Tess, The Complete Middle East Cookbook, Lansdowne Publishing, Sydney, 1979

Musaiger, A O, Traditional Dishes of Bahrain (Method of preparation and its nutritive value), Al Yamani Commercial and Management Services Bureau, Manama, Bahrain, 1988

Perry. Charles, Medieval Arab Fish - Fresh, Dried and Died, Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, Prospect Books, 1998

Perry. Charles, Medieval Near Eastern Rotted Condiments, Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, Prospect Books, 1988

Randall, John E, Coastal Fishes of Oman, The Complete Diver's & Fisherman's Guide, Crawford House, Bathurst, NSW, Australia, 1995

Shepley, Mike, Marine Fish chapter in Natural Emirates - Wildlife and Environment of the United Arab Emirates, Trident Press, London, 1996

Skeet, Ian, Muscat & Oman - the end of an era, [resident 1966-8], Faber and Faber, London, 1974

Skipwith, Ashkain, Ashkain's Saudi Cooking, Stacey International, London,1986

Thomas, Bertram, Arabia Felix, Reader's Union, London, 1938

Vine, Peter, Pearls in Arabian Waters - The Heritage of Bahrain, Immel, London, 1986

Appendix - Seafood in Gulf Markets

jash: published/recorded name

jash: identified as a market fish and hence assumed to be eaten

jash: seen in market or name confirmed

kingfish*: sampled from Al Ain suk as samak

(juv) = juvenile specimens;  (ad) = adult specimens

? - indicates some doubt on local or scientific name

?? - indicates questionable edibility, e.g. many puffers are fatally toxic!

United Arab Emirates Oman Bahrain North Gulf Scientific English
Cartilaginous Fishes
- - - hayyasa Chiloscyllium sp.,
Stegostoma varium
bamboo sharks,
zebra shark
yaruor, amat jarjur jerjoor jarjur
Triakidae fam.
Carcharhinidae fam.
houndshark & requiem shark families
- jarjur abu al graram - aqrun Sphyrnidae fam. hammerhead sharks
suss, sous barbar, fanto - hariri
Rhinobatidae fam. guitarfish family
fitr-lakhmah, ruget - lokhma lukhma Dasyatidae fam. stingrays & whiprays
tais gharabi ?? - - thuwar ‘amir
Myliobatidae fam. eagle rays
Bony Fishes
bonouk ?? far al bahar ?? - - Albula sp. bonefish
- - - nashuj Muraenesox cinereus, Conger cinereus daggertooth pike conger, longfin African conger
ooma uma, abed o'om um Sardinella longiceps,
Sardinella albella, S. gibbosa,
S. sindensis, Amblygaster sirm
Indian oil sardinella*
white sardinella*
spotted sardinella,
Sind sardinella
goldstripe sardinella
- - - suboor
Tenualosa ilisha hilsa shad, river shad
- - - sawayah ?
Ilisha compressa,
Ilisha sirishai
compressed ilisha,
lobejaw ilisha
- - - sabur Anodontostoma chacunda Chacunda gizzard shad
yuwaf - jawaf juwwaf Nematalosa nasus Bloch's gizzard shad
- - o'om um Dussumieria acuta,
D. elopsoides
rainbow sardine,
slender rainbow sardine
gashr(dried) - - - Encrasicholina devisi, E. punctifer de vis' anchovy* bucaneer anchovy
jashr - o'om um Stolephorus indicus Indian anchovy*
- - - usbur Thryssa hamiltonii Hamilton’s thryssa
- - - boefchach Thryssa whiteheadii Whitehead's thryssa
in market sail, sulfak hiff huff hiff Chirocentrus dorab,
C. nudus
wolf herrings*
in market baiher - sheem Chanos chanos milkfish*
khin jam, khen chim shim Arius thalassinus,
A. bilineatus,
A. dussumieri,
A. tenuispinis
giant sea catfish, roundsnout sea catfish, blacktip sea catfish, thinspine sea catfish
sannuoh, ter, macarona hasum, poleen kassor kasur Saurida undosquamis, Saurida sp. brushtooth lizardfish*, lizardfish
- - - naghaga Austrobatrachus dussumieri flat toadfish
- - manchos manshus, manchoos Atherinomorus lacunosus hardyhead silverside
hagoul, kharam kharkhur alafa hagool musaffaha, hakool Ablennes hians flat needlefish*
- - - hakul Strongylura sp. needlefish
hagoul kharam kharkhur alafa hagool dawalmi,
Tylosurus crocodilus crocodilus, T. sp. hound needlefish
sils, sil's - sils sils Rhynchorhamphus georgii,
Hemiramphus marginatus
George's halfbeak*
'yellowtip halfbeak
yaradah maran, sils jaradeh jarada
Cypserulus oligolepis,
Parexocoetus mento
largescale flying fish,
'African sailfin flying fish
- - - firyala Lepidotrigla bispinosa bullhorn gurnard
wahar - wahar wahara
Grammoplites suppositus, Platycephalus indicus spotfin flathead,
Indian flathead
- - - najil Aethaloperca rogaa redmouth grouper
hammor, hammour hamur hamour hamoor (balool (juv) Epinephelus coioides orangespot grouper*
summan ? - - qutwa
Epinephelus areolatus, E. bleekeri areolate grouper*
duskytail grouper
in market - burtam burtam Epinephelus multinotatus, E. latifasciatus whiteblotched grouper, striped grouper
- - summan summan Epinephelus polylepis smallscale grouper
arus, hummara hamur - shenainow Cephapholis miniata blue spot rock grouper, coral hind
- - - ishnainuwa Cephapholis hemistiktos yellowfin hind, halfspotted hind
naser - - - Cockeolus japonicus bulleye*
hamra deek? - hamra Priacanthus tayenus, P. hamrur purplespotted bigeye, moontail bullseye
- - zamroor qaradhi Pelates quadrilineatus fourline terapon
baam, yali baam, sarour zamroor dheeb zamrool
Terapon jarbua, Terapon puta, Terapon theraps tigerfish, jarbua,
smallscale terapon, largescale terapon
- - hassom hasum, hasum arabi Sillago sihama, S. attenuata, S. arabica silver sillago
slender sillago
Arabian sillago
sichil sikel, goada sikin sikn Rachycentron canadum cobia
la-zag lazzag - lazzag Echeneis naucrates sharksucker, remora
in market - - - Remora remora remora
anfulus anfalus - - Coryphaena hippurus common dolphinfish mahi mahi
numar ? - - khait Alectis ciliaris threadfin jack
numar ? - - khait, othaimy Alectis indicus Indian threadfish
- - jinees hammam, jinnees, jarnees Alepes djedaba,
A. melanoptera,
A. vari
shrimp scad,
blackfin scad
herring scad
- - - jash Atropus atropos cleftbelly trevally
jush, jesh butikha - hammam Carangoides bajad orangespotted jack/trevally*
- - - hammam Carangoides chrysophrys longnose trevally
- - - jash Carangoides ferdau 'blue trevally
tanna - - jash
Carangoides malabaricus Malabar trevally
- sall - - Carangoides praeustus blacktip jack, brownback trevally
dardaman? - - hammam Atule mate yellowtail scad*
yarwah - - hammam kabir Caranx ignobilis giant trevally
- haima - jash Caranx sexfasciatus bigeye trevally
simah, baleg - khedra - Decapterus russelli Indian scad*
- sagla, gazala - musallaba Elagatis bipinnulata rainbow runner
keft, kegdar, bakes rabeeb, kefdar rabeeb, kefdar Gnathanodon speciosus golden trevally*
dee ai yoo - - teeti Megalaspis cordyla torpedo scad*
halwayoh aredah halwaya imad halwayuh Parastromateus niger black pomfret*
habes, zareb, bashke lehlah dhal’a Scomberoides sp. queenfish*
- - baleg balij Selar crumenophthalmus bigeye scad
- - seniee seena, garfah Selaroides leptolepis yellowstripe scad
- hamam jibb Seriola dumerili great amberjack
halwayo gazala hamam arabi dibsa, dabsah Seriolina nigrofasciata blackbanded jack, blackbanded trevally
zubaity talah, raheesa - - Trachinotus africanus African pompano*
- talah, raheesa - bu sulbukh Trachinotus blochii snubnose pompano
- - - tala’ Trachinotus mookalee Indian pompano
- - khedra khadra Trachurus indicus Arabian scad
- - - diyayuh Uraspis helvola whitetongue jack
in market - - - Mene maculata moonfish
in market
- - tarashi
rayasha ‘aridha
Leiognathus bindus, L. equulus orangefin ponyfish, common ponyfish
badha - musallakh
musallakh (juv) badh-ar rayash (ad) Gerres oyena common silver-biddy, blacktip mojarra
- - - rayasha, badah Gerres filamentosus whipfin silver-biddy, whipfin mojarra
- - - badh ar-rayash Pentaprion longimanus longfin silver-biddy, longfin mojarra
- - - shiqra Lutjanus argentimaculatus mangrove red snapper
- - - naisara Lutjanus ehrenbergii blackspot snapper
aglaah - - naisara Lutjanus fulviflamma dory snapper, one spot golden snapper
- - - naisara Lutjanus johnii John's snapper
nasarah, nisar hamra - naisara Lutjanus quinquelineatus fivelined snapper, bluestriped snapper
hamra hamra - hamra Lutjanus malabaricus Malabar snapper, red snapper
hummarah - hamrah hamra Lutjanus sanguineus humphead snapper
- - naiser naisara Lutjanus russelli Russell’s snapper
fadha - - na’imee Pinjalo pinjalo pinjalo, pink snapper
- andag - - Pristipomoides sp. Jobfish
- lama - khattaf Caesio varilineata
C. lunaris
yellowstriped fusilier, lunar fusilier
- - - subaiti Lobotes surinamensis tripletail
- - - khubur Diagramma pictum painted sweetlips
hilaly nagroor - zeena Plectorhinchus gaterinus blackspotted thicklip
khuber - khubor
fursh Plectorhinchus pictus painted grunt, trout sweetlips
- - - janam Plectorhinchus sordidus sordid sweetlip
yanam - janam yanam Plectorhinchus schotaf minstrel, grayish grunt
- naqrur - naqrur,
Pomadasys argenteus silver grunt
- - - naqrur Pomadasys kaakan javelin grunt
yimyam'h - jimjam imyam Pomadasys stridens striped piggy
- gazwan, andaq - basij Nemipterus bipunctatus Delagoa threadfin bream
sultan ebraheem
- - basij
Nemipterus japonicus
N. peronii
japanese threadfin bream*
notched threadfin bream
- - ebzaimee ibzaimi Scolopsis bimaculatus,
S. taeniatus
thumbprint monocle bream, blackstreaked monocle bream
ain-shimaloh - - zarra’ Scolopsis ghanam Arabian monocle bream, dotted bream
bzemiy - - hassayya Scolopsis vosmeri whitecheek bream
- - - jima Lethrinus borbonicus snubnose emperor
shekhabi sha'ri, khodair sharee baksheena Lethrinus lentjan redspot emperor
suli sha'ri, khutam soly suli Lethrinus microdon smalltooth emperor
shaeri - soly sha’ri
Lethrinus nebulosus spangled emperor*
starry pigface bream
shaam aswad - - sha’um’ mozaizy? Acanthopagrus berda picnic seabream
faskarah, bint al nokhatha rababa, bint nakhza faskar faskar Acanthopagrus bifasciatus doublebar seabream*
kabtah - she'em sha’m
Acanthopagrus latus yellowfin seabream
- - subaity mozaizy (juv)
sobaity (ad)
Acanthopagrus cuvieri silvery black porgy
kawfar, da'ara - kufar
Argyrops spinifer king soldierbream*
- - andag nahash Cheimerius nufar. seabream
- - - battan Crenidens crenidens karanteen seabream
- kofer muchawah imshawah Diplodus sargus kotschyi onespot porgy/seabream
- - - andak Pagellus affinis Arabian pandora
- - - qurqufan Rhabdosargus haffara haffara seabream
- - gorgofan - Rhabdosargus sarba goldstriped seabream
- - - imzaizi (juv)
subaiti (ad)
Sparidentex hasta sobaity seabream
- - - nuwaibi
Otolithes ruber tigertooth croaker
- - - eshmahy Pennahia anea greyfin croaker
- - - nuwaibi saghir Protonibea diacantha spotted croaker
- - - sheem Eleutheronema tetradactylum fourfinger threadfin
- - - ghazal Polydactylus sextarius blackspot threadfin
biyah - - biah Liza subviridis, Mugil cephalus, Valamugil pederaki greenback mullet, flathead mullet, longfin mullet
be-yah gawafa, guturana maid
Chelon macrolepis, Valamugil seheli,
Liza persicus,
largescale mullet, bluespot mullet, Persian mullet
- - - maid Liza abu, L. klunzingeri abu mullet
Klunzinger’s mullet
- kasarmala, sultan ibrahim, hidi - - Mulloidichthys vanicolensis yellowfin goatfish
- - hamer hummar Parupeneus heptacanthus. cinnabar goatfish
- kasarmala, sultan ibrahim, hidi - - Parupeneus macronemus longbarbel goatfish
- - - sultan ibrahim Parupeneus margaritatus pearly goatfish
hediy abu uwashih - raee ra’I
Upeneus tragula freckled goatfish
hediy - basej hamer Upeneus doriae gilded goatfish
- aum alshaba - - Kyphosus sp. blue sea chub
mushat - - - Chaetodon nigropunctatus blackspotted butterflyfish
- misht - in market Heniochus acuminatus longfin bannerfish, pennant butterfly fish
anfuz arabi - - - Pomocanthus asfur Arabian angelfish
anfuz farsi - - - Pomocanthus imperator emperor angelfish
anfus - anfooz anfuz
Pomocanthus maculosus yellowbar angelfish
in market ega'aisse - - Abudefduf vaigiensis sergeant major damselfish
yirab mailag - - Cheilinus lunulatus broomtail wrasse
- - gain - Choerodon robustus robust tuskfish
missan - - - Thalasomma lunare moon wrasse
gin baraya, humara, jinn gain gain
gain masdi
Scarus sp. parrotfish*
- - - wazagh
Parapercis robisoni,
P. alboguttata
smallscale sandperch, bluenose sandperch
- - - rumramai Uranoscopus dollfusi Dollfus’ stargazer
in market kelb al bahr, khubs - khaufa
Psettodes erumei Indian spiny turbot
samakat mousa - - hairazan Bothus pantherinus leopard flounder
- - - khaufa
Pseudorhombus arsius argetooth flounder
- - - khaufa
Pardachirus marmoratus finless sole,Moses sole
- - - lisan, lessan, althor Cynoglossus arel, C. bilineatus, C. carpentieri, C.kopsii, C.puncticeps largescale/fourlined/
speckled tonguesoles
mizliganih - - lisan Euryglossa orientalis oriental sole
- - bangara banqara Ariomma indica Indian driftfish
zu-bedi - zebaidy zobaidy Pampus argenteus silver pomfret*
gid aqam, qadad, gaila dwailmee (s)
jidd (l)
Sphyraena jello pickhandle barracuda*
ghily, jid aqam, qadad, gaila dwailmee (s)
jidd (l)
Sphyraena obtusata obtuse barracuda
- - - qid Sphyraena putnamiae sawtooth barracuda
saifaram-do saflac, fafdo, kharodail - i’saba
Trichiurus sp. cutlassfish*
sadah, gubab haida, sharwa jibab jibab
Euthynnus affinis kawakawa, mackerel tuna, little tunny*
sa'ha-wa - - - Katsuwonis pelamis skipjack tuna
gar-fa, gurfa dhala'a, karuga khedra khadhra
Rastrelliger kanagurta indian mackerel*
- sagtana, marmara - - Sarda orientalis striped bonito
kan'ad khubbat (s)
chana'ad (l)
Scomberomorus commerson narrow-barred spanish mackerel, kingfish*
khabat, qabed - - khubbat Scomberomorus
spotted Spanish mackerel
jodar, gobab
gaydher, sahwa - qibab Thunnus albacares yellowfin tuna
- - jibab - Thunnus obesus bigeye tuna
in market - - - Thunnus tongol longtail tuna*
khail al bahr sansul faras faras Istiophorus platypterus sailfish
- misht - mishit Drepane longimana barred sicklefish
in market - - imad Drepane punctata spotted sicklefish*
in market - - thuwar’
Ephippus orbis orbfish, golden spadefish
emad - - imad Platax orbicularis, P. teira circular platax
- - - shing Scatophagus argus spotted scat
safy - saffee safi Siganus canaliculatus pearlspotted rabbitfish
safysanefi safi, seeseege saffee senniffee safi Siganus javus streaked rabbitfish
- - - sunaifi Siganus luridus dusky rabbitfish
in market faridh - jarah al-maliki, jarah az-zarqa Acanthurus sohal

Zebrasoma xanthurum
sohal, surgeonfish’
yellowtail surgeonfish
- - - shalaib ad-dau Triacanthus biaculeatus shortnose tripodfish
gargumbah - - humara
Abalistes stellatus starry triggerfish
gargumbah - - - Sufflamen fraenatus bridled triggerfish
chelebidow?? - - buqumi Stephanolepis diaspros lozenge filefish
beq-mah?? - - fuqul Lagocephalus lunaris lunartail puffer
rubeyan shubas, rubyan - - Penaeus indicus Indian white shrimp*
in market - rubian rubiyan Penaeus semisulcatus,
P. latisulcatus,
Metapenaeus sp.
green tiger prawn
- sharukh - umm ar-rubian Panulirus sp. spiny lobster
- - umm al rubian umm ar-rubian Thenus orientalis shovel lobster, flathead lobster
gabgoob - gubgub saratan sabih Portunus pelagicus blue swimming crab*
- - - howait Monodonta nebulosa -
Bivalve Molluscs
- - - sadafi
qhurut (dried)
Pinctada margaritifera, P. radiata black-lip pearl oyster, rayed pearl oyster
- - - sughoa Circentia callipyga,
Marcia flammea
Venus clam, ovate clam
habar habar khathag subaidaj
Sepia sp. cuttlefish
naggar habar, nager, anter, dagit - habbar Loligo sp. ? squid*
akhkaboot al bahar - - habbar akhtabuti Octopus cyaneus octopus
dowl - - - - jellyfish
Mammals & Reptiles
anfulus - - - Delphinidae fam. dolphin
baghr al bahr - arus al bahar - Dugong dugon dugong, sea cow
- - - sulhafa khadra Chelonia midas green turtle
- - - sulhafa dhat manqar as-saqr Eretmochelys imbricata hawksbill turtle
- - - - Dermochelys coriacea leathery turtle
- - - - Caretta caretta loggerhead turtle

Sequence of listing follows Randall, also using his scientific names, updates from Carpenter et al.

Scientific synonyms omitted.

Randall’s and Carpenter’s English names used, other common names in use follow.

Some members of families marketed but with no Arabic name have not been included, for example Carangoides.


Brock Al-Ansari, Al Ghais' fish poster, personal observations 1994-8

Friends of Oman Aquarium, Randall, Al Taie, personal observations 1996-7

Vine, Al Zayani

North Gulf Carpenter et al., Kuronuma for Kuwait, personal observations in Kuwait 1980-3

Fish Sampled From the Al Ain Souk

Date Fish Weight gm. Length cm. Cost Dh. Taste/Texture/Ease Recipe
- kawakawa 1500 50 10 fillets baked, dry texture, good flavour and good cold
3/1/97 Indian oil sardine? 1000, 16 no. 18-20 5 headed, gutted and de-boned, stuffed and baked, good strong flavour
3/1/97 'milkfish 500 35 - cooked but not eaten apart from a taste, too boney
3/1/97 black pomfret 400 26 - baked, tastey but not as good as silver pomfret
3/1/97 Indian mackerel gurfa Oman
200 + 125 24 + 20 - good flavour, manageable bones, baked
3/1/97 jash - trevally 175 21 - good flavour, no lateral bones, baked
3/1/97 queenfish 'na steak free firm texture, average taste, easy to eat
3/1/97 kingfish na steaks 15/Kg few bones, strong flavour, baked/fried/fish pie/etc.
10/1/97 shaeri
spangled emperor
1700 45 10/Kg steamed Chinese style, excellent succulent flesh in large flakes. Often sold headed gutted and scaled in market
10/1/97 kofar, merjan, faridaking soldierbream 500
15/Kg baked, good firm white flesh, bones very manageable
10/1/97 gashr, De Vis' anchovy - dried - 5-7 10/Kg -
17/1/97 jash, large 1900 50 10/Kg 850 gm. fillets, baked plain, darkish flesh, good flavour, also good cold
17/1/97 j(g)ashr, Indian anchovy '9 each 9-10 5/Kg cleaned very easily, also easy to fillet, baked, flesh didi not have as full an anchovy taste as hamsi but good and not oily
17/1/97 no name, George's halfbeak, one specimen ? ?photo - baked with anchovies, similar flavour, backbone almost black
24/1/97 meyval, Indian scad 80-90 19-21 5/Kg -
2/5/97 zubaidi 500 27 '25/20 Kg 2 good sized specimens
2/5/97 kingfish - - 20 Kg steaks as usual
8/5/97 black tuna, gubab 1650 50 10 Dh. for one Yielded 800 gm. of fillets for a tomato sauce dish.
16/5/97 squid (frozen) 1 Kg 10-15 7 Dh Squid Provencale
ditto awa l '0.4 Kg pieces 10 Dh -
ditto dried shrimp 0.2 Kg small 5 Dh. -
23/5/97 'cutlass fish, saifaramdo 1 Kg + 2 no. 80/85 8 Dh in roe, cut into 3 pieces and baked, easy to eat, average taste, good cold
ditto lizardfish, macarona ? 600 gm. 40 2 Dh. for one, nominal boiled and defleshed, flesh dry but tasty, made into fish cakes
6/6/97 jid, pickhandle barracuda 1.2 Kg +1 Kg 65/60 8/15 Dh for 1/2 Kg in roe, one male one female, yielded 1 Kg. Fillets, cooked in tahina sauce, the dark meat turned a rather visually unappetizing black colour
6/6/97 orange spotted jack, jash (small specimen) 100 gm 19 free baked, adequate flavour
13/6/97 dee-ai-yoo, torpedo scad 700 + 850 gm. 40/42 7 Dh for 1.5 Kg. filleted with difficulty yielded 500 gm. of dark red flesh, skin very tough with scutes, baked with lime and coriander
13/6/97 galaya, young yellow tail barracuda 70 gm. average 20-25 cm. nominal headed and gutted and baked
13/6/97 gubgub, swimming crabs small - nominal not meaty enough to warrant eating
4/7/97 dardaman ?, yellowtail scad 250/450/475 gm. 26/34/36 cm. 12 Dh for 1 Kg. filleted yielded 500 gm., meat quite dark, grilled with coriander salsa, good flavour
11/7/97 gin/gun, blue barred parrotfish 250/650 gm. 24/34 cm. 10 Dh. per Kg. Massive liver, filleted, white fleshed, smaller specimen a juvenile, steamed with ginger and coriander, flesh very tender and tasty.
11/7/97 naser ?, bulleye 900 gm. 40 cm. 8 Dh per Kg. Headed and gutted, small roes, white flesh, baked plain, very firm flesh, succulent and good flavour.
1/8/97 zredi, golden trevally 1450 gm. 48 cm. 20 Dh/Kg. Filleted for pudina maach, 600 gm. of light and dark flesh.
5/9/97 shaeri, spangled emperor 1500 gm. 45 cm. 10 Dh/kg. Filleted, 600 gm.


Market Notes

dried sardines = ooma, dried shark = awal

24/1/97 my helpful dealer    tuna, large = suda, small = thibban

large 'black' tuna = gubab

given small Indian scad? = meyval

large rounded fish, uniform grey/brown/green = thaqu(v)a

hammour, bright red/blue spots + one with even golden spots

rainbow runner hammam??? dolphin fish, barracuda

zubaidi, black pomfret, hamam (rainbow runner?),quite large (25 cm.) halfbeaks - shils, barracuda - jid/jit, medium sized tuna - gubab, lots of trevally, hammour etc., kingfish prices high.

broomtail wrasse, two flatfish, barracuda, black tuna, huge meagres?, good selection of large trevallies including a silvery black one, halfbeaks, largish anchovies, sardines, hammour varieties, zubaidi, barracuda, spotted shark, mahi-mahi (1), catfish, mercan, one skate, shaeri,  few prawns and crabs.

16/5/97   lots of gubab, zubaidi, halfbeak, shaeri, oom, hammour; small soles/mousa, striped tuna, cutlass fish (saifaramdo), barracuda, kingfish,

dried fish  kingfish, queenfish, striped tuna all whole salted split fish

shrimp, small seabream, tuna pieces, awal pieces

triggerfish? sobaity?, needlefish/houndfish hagoul

kofer/mercan, anfalus - common dolphinfish, young queenfish, safee - dark coloured skin, gilded goatfish, sohal/surgeonfish, black spotted thicklip (nagroor?), shaeri - lots of young and redspot and spangled, khart said to be dried oyster, obviously dried shellfish

11/7/97 more than thirty varieties counted, takua large fleshy lipped greyish fish seen before, meagre/croaker??, girfa Indian mackerel with a rosey hue on the flank

10 Kg. hammam, lot of catfish, streaked rabbitfish (safi), orbfish, lot of emperor, tunas, barracuda, grouper, snapper

Additional Books

Al-Baharna, W S, Fishes of Bahrain, Directorate of Fisheries, Ministry of commerce and Agriculture, Bahrain, 1986

Khalaf, K T, The Marine and Fresh Water Fishes of Iraq, Ar-Rabitta Press, Baghdad, 1961

Kuronuma, K and Y. Abe, Fishes of the Arabian Gulf, Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, Kuwait City, 1986

Randall, J E, G R Allen and W F Smith-Vaniz, Illustrated Identification Guide to Commercial Fishes (of Arabian Gulf and Gulf of Oman), Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, 1978

Sivasubramaniam, K and M A Ibrahim, Common Fishes of Qatar, University of Qatar, Doha, 1982

White, A W and M A Barwani, Common Sea Fishes of the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, Trucial States Council, Dubai, 1971

shekaily large emperors labeled in Continent, smaller specimens were labeled as usual shaeri


Fisher W & G


awal: dried shark

rubiyan: dried shrimp

gashr: dried anchovy

[1] The Liwa oasis is a true sand desert oasis and was the first economic power base of the Beni Yas which augmented their nomadic camel herding.  Practically the only vegetation is the gardens of date palm which are able to survive due to deep root systems.  There are a few wells but the water tends to be brackish and does not support subsidiary agriculture. In contrast the plantations of the Al Ain/Buraimi area have the benefit of continuous running water from several ancient falaj, comprising underground water collection channels which tap the ground water flows from the adjacent Hajar mountain range.  This readily explains the attraction of the Al Ain date gardens when they came on the market.  Not only was the date crop approximately doubled, (acknowledged by the fact that it was taxed at twice the rate for the Liwa plantations), but substantial planting could be undertaken in the shade of the date palms to provide fresh vegetables and fodder to help support sheep and goat herds.

[2] The political separation of the oasis between the two countries was quite recent, the border was agreed in the 1950’s and there are still no restrictions on movement between the two countries in the immediate area around the oasis.

[3] There are fish living in Al Ain in the falaj channels which convey water to the oases, species unknown but hardly of a substantial enough size or population to provide a source of nutrition.  Conditions may have been different in the past, Gross quotes local people's claim that twigs of the mountain shrub Taverniera glabra were used to beat the surface of wadi pools thereby stunning the fish with toxic compounds in the plant.  This enabled any fish to be caught readily by hand, presumably for consumption.

[4] Seven of the trucial states became the federation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971.

[5] Or more likely pearl diving during the boom period in pearl trading up to 1929.

[6] Thirty thousand out of the 180,000 population - Heard-Bey.

[7]  See the appendix for a listing of the recorded seafood resources in the UAE.

[8]  Mohammed Al-Fahim's account of life in the UAE when it was still called the Trucial Coast is one of the few written records by a national of life during this period and contains incidental detail on food.

[9] Shaeri, common in the market, also appear on the 5 fil coin indicating their cultural and economic importance.

[10] For instance the fishing rights from Khor Udaid to Al Hamra, a distance of 100 kilometres, were rented to Darwish bin Haddad of the Rumaithat for 350 rupees per annum in 1940.  Fishermen who were not of the Rumaithat tribe traditionally paid a tax of one fifth of their catch to the holder of the fishing rights.

[11] Coles

[12] Skeet

[13] Thomas

[14] Shepley

[15] One Friday morning in July, I counted 30 different species for sale and cannot be sure that I had seen the complete range available.

[16] The Dirham is worth 17 pence or 27 cents.

[17]  As well as dates and limes.

[18] There have been reports in the local press of a thriving industry collecting and drying sharks fins for export, only the fins are removed and the shark carcass is dumped at sea.

[19] Dagher and Al Zayani.

[20] Dagher

[21] The impact of trade and travel on the local food culture cannot be underestimated and has recently developed to worldwide influences with the influx of expatriates and their varied food cultures.  Non-Arab food cultures with a significant market presence are Indian, Filipino and Western, although the latter is most characterised by fast foods and international hotel cuisine.

[22] Called baharat in other Gulf countries, the mix is black pepper, cummin, coriander, cinnamon/cassia, cloves, dried ginger, cardamom, chilli/dried red pepper, nutmeg and occasionally turmeric or fennel.

[23] Cross reference Charles Perry’s paper to the Symposium.

[24] In the 1970’s between 60 and 70 dugong were sold in the Abu Dhabi market each year.  Occasional specimens were still being reported in the early 90’s , Heard-Bey and Emirates Natural History Group.



Patron: H.E. Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahayan