The east coast of the UAE is almost the exact opposite of the west. Compared to the country’s heavily developed Arabian Gulf seaboard, the Indian Ocean-facing east is only thinly settled and still relatively untouched. Somnolent and scenic, the east is a popular weekend destination, just two hours’ drive away, for visitors from Dubai, who come to loll around on the largely deserted beaches dotting the coast.
Much of the east is dominated by the magnificent Hajar Mountains, which bisect the region and run on into Oman. The UAE section of the Hajar rise to a highest point of 1527m at Jebel Yibir, inland from Dibba in the far north of the country, and provide a scenic backdrop to the length of the eastern coast, metamorphosing from slate grey to deep red as the light changes through the course of the day.
There are a number of low-key sights scattered around the east coast, including the old fort at Fujairah and the UAE’s oldest mosque at Bidiya, although for many visitors the main attraction is the trio of attractive beachside resorts which dot the beautiful Al Aqah Beach.
Around two and a half hours’ drive north of Dubai lies Oman’s Musandam Peninsula, perhaps the most scenically spectacular area in the entire Gulf, as the towering red-rock Hajar mountains fall precipitously into the blue waters of the Arabian Gulf, creating a labyrinthine system of steep-sided fjords (khors), channels and islands. This is one of the region’s most pristine natural wildernesses, thinly populated and boasting a magically unspoilt marine environment, including pods of frolicking humpback dolphins and the occasional basking shark. The contrast with Dubai could hardly be greater.
Until the last few decades this was one of the least accessible places in Arabia, and even now there are few roads into or around the peninsula. The easiest way to explore is by boat, offering superlative views of the surrounding khors. Various boat trips, usually aboard a traditional wooden dhow, start from Khasab, the peninsula’s main town, most of them heading up into Khor Ash Sham, the largest of Musandam’s many khors, ringed with remote fishing villages. Alternatively, local operators also offer dramatic trips into Musandam’s mountainous interior, following the rough road (4WD only) which climbs dramatically up the towering Jebel Harim (“Mountain of Women”), the peninsula’s highest peak.
The peninsula is separated from the rest of Oman by a large stretch of UAE territory, and is actually a lot easier to visit from Dubai than from Muscat. Musandam is just about possible as a day-trip from Dubai, if you make a very early start. Leaving at around 6am, you’ll have time for a five-hour boat ride or mountain safari before heading back, although you probably won’t be back in Dubai anytime much before 10pm. It usually takes about half an hour each way to clear the UAE–Oman border post and you should be able to get an Omani visa on the spot. The peninsula also makes a good destination for a longer two- or three-night stay.
About halfway between Khor Fakkan and Fujairah lies the curious Omani exclave of Madha – a tiny dot of Omani territory (comprising just 75 square kilometres) completely surrounded by the UAE. The area is reached via a single surfaced road off the main coastal highway between Khor Fakkan and Fujairah city near the district of Qurayya.
There’s nothing particular to see here, beyond the unremarkable modern town of Madha itself, surrounded by mountains. The enclave is notable mainly for one geopolitical oddity: the village of Nahwa (a few kilometres further along the road past Madha town, at the end of the tarmac). Bizarrely, this village actually belongs to the UAE emirate of Sharjah, creating a Russian-doll effect whereby the UAE territory of Nahwa is enclosed within the Omani district of Madha, which is enclosed by the UAE emirates of Fujairah and Sharjah – which are themselves bookended by Omani territory on either side.
The division of the tip of the Arabian peninsula between the seven emirates of the UAE and Oman is a complicated little jigsaw puzzle. The borders were formalized by British colonial officials who simply wandered around the peninsula for months asking the inhabitants of every village which sheikh they owed allegiance to, drawing up the boundaries accordingly. Most of the area covered here falls within the Emirate of Fujairah, though Masafi belongs to Ras Al Khaimah and Khor Fakkan to Sharjah, while Dibba is divided into three districts: Dibba Muhallab, ruled by Fujairah; Dibba al Hisn, ruled by Sharjah; and Dibba Bayah, which belongs to Oman.