For a complete change of pace and scenery, a day-trip out to the sedate desert city of AL AIN, some 130km inland from Dubai on the border with Oman, offers the perfect antidote to the rip-roaring pace of life on the coast. The UAE’s fourth largest city and only major inland settlement, Al Ain – and the twin city of BURAIMI, on the Omani side of the border – grew up around the string of six oases whose densely packed swathes of palms still provide the modern city with one of its most attractive features. The city served as an important staging post on trading routes between Oman and the Gulf, a fact attested to by the numerous forts that dot the area and by the rich archeological remains found in the vicinity, evidence of continuous settlement dating back to Neolithic times. In 2011 Al Ain was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site – the first in the UAE – on account of the historical and cultural significance of its oases, ancient falaj irrigation systems and archeological remnants.
Al Ain is actually part of Abu Dhabi emirate and is also celebrated as the birthplace of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s revered former ruler and first president of the UAE, who served as the city’s governor before taking over the reins of power in Abu Dhabi in 1966. Al Ain’s verdant, tree-lined streets are evidence of Sheikh Zayed’s obsession with “greening” the desert, while the string of shady oases which dot the area has led to its popular moniker as the Gulf’s Garden City. Al Ain’s slightly elevated position also makes it a popular summer retreat for wealthy Emiratis on account of the less humid air, although in truth you’re unlikely to notice much difference.
There are plenty of low-key attractions here to fill up a day or overnight trip including the old-fashioned Al Ain National Museum, the idyllic Al Ain Oasis and a string of mud-brick forts including the beautifully restored Al Jahili Fort. The largely unspoilt desert scenery surrounding Al Ain is home to a further smattering of sights, including the Hili Archeological Park, the state-of-the-art Al Ain Zoo and the craggy summit of Jebel Hafeet. It’s also reasonably straightforward to hop across the border to visit the Omani city of Buraimi, home to a pair of fine forts and a bustling string of souks.
South of the centre, spreading west from the National Museum, a dusty green wall of palms announces the presence of the beautiful Al Ain Oasis, the largest of the various oases scattered across the city (the name Al Ain, means, literally, “The Spring”). This is easily the most idyllic spot in the city, with a mazy network of little walled lanes running between densely planted thickets of trees. There are an estimated 150,000-odd date palms here, along with mango, fig, banana and orange trees, their roots watered in the summer months using traditional falaj irrigation channels, which bring water down from the mountains over a distance of some 30km. It’s a wonderfully peaceful spot, the silence only broken by the calls to prayer from the two mosques nestled among the palms, and pleasantly cool as well. There are eight entrances dotted around the perimeter of the oasis, although given the disorienting tangle of roads within you’re unlikely to end up coming out where you entered.
Historically, Al Ain was an oasis rather than a city – and the place you see today has formed as a result of scattered villages slowly growing together, rather than a single settlement growing outwards from a central core. All of this explains Al Ain’s otherwise bafflingly spread-out city plan, with endless grids of identikit streets and roundabouts sprawling across the desert for well over 20km in every direction. The fact that every main road looks exactly like every other main road can lead to intense confusion if you get lost, although the many helpful brown tourist signs are a life-saver if you’re driving yourself.
A sleepy backwater for much of its history, Al Ain and Buraimi briefly captured the world’s attention in the early 1950s as a result of the so-called Buraimi Dispute – one of the defining events in the twentieth-century history of Abu Dhabi and Oman, and one which neatly encapsulates the Wild West atmosphere of the early days of oil prospecting in the Gulf. The origin of the dispute lay in Saudi Arabia’s claim in 1949 to sovereignty over large parts of what was traditionally considered territory belonging to Abu Dhabi and Oman, including the Buraimi Oasis. The Saudis (supported by the US Aramco oil company) backed up their claim by referring to previous periods of Saudi occupation dating back to the early nineteenth century, although their real interest in Buraimi stemmed from the belief that large amounts of oil lay buried in the region.
In 1952 a small group of Saudi Arabian soldiers occupied Hamasa, one of three Omani villages in the oasis, claiming it for Saudi Arabia and embarking on a campaign of bribery in an attempt to obtain professions of loyalty from local villagers. They also attempted to bribe Sheikh Zayed, then governor of Al Ain, tempting him with the huge sum of US$42 million – an offer which Sheikh Zayed pointedly refused. The affair was debated in both the UK Parliament and at the United Nations, although attempts at international arbitration finally broke down in 1955. Shortly afterwards the Saudis were driven out of Hamasa by the Trucial Oman Levies, a British-backed force based in Sharjah (for an eyewitness account of this action, read Edward Henderson’s Arabian Destiny). The dispute wasn’t fully resolved until 1974, when an agreement was reached between King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and Sheikh Zayed (who had subsequently become ruler of Abu Dhabi and first president of the newly independent UAE). Ironically, after all the fuss, the area proved singularly lacking in oil.
The dispute gave Buraimi its proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, even inspiring an episode of The Goon Show entitled “The Nasty Affair at the Buraimi Oasis”. More importantly, it put a final end to centuries of Saudi incursions into Abu Dhabi and Oman, as well as establishing the legendary reputation of Sheikh Zayed, who succeeded in repulsing the oil-rich Saudis and their American cronies long before Abu Dhabi had found its own huge oil reserves. As one foreign observer put it, “He [Zayed] was very proud that, when he had nothing, he told them to get stuffed.”