The Other Side of the UAE

Ras Al Khaimah may not have the pizzazz of Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but there’s plenty to appreciate in this lesser-known sheikhdom.

On board a vintage sama’a pearling dhow at the Suwaidi Pearls farm off Al Rams. (Photo Courtesy of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority)

Hessa Al Ali hops out of her Jeep and greets me with a big smile. Sporting a black abaya and aviator sunglasses, a wisp of dyed-blond hair peeping out from under her headscarf, she tells me her name means “unique pearl,” which is apt, considering that she’s the first female tour guide in Ras Al Khaimah. We are here to explore Al Jazirah Al Hamra, the last surviving pearling village in the Arabian Gulf and the ancestral home of Hessa’s grandmother.

RAK, as it’s known locally, is the northernmost of the seven United Arab Emirates. Just an hour up the road from Dubai, the territory shares part of the rugged Musandam Peninsula with the sultanate of Oman, yet encompasses its own unique swath of coast, desert, and mountains. Settled continuously for 7,000 years, this is a land shrouded in ancient history and celebrated as the birthplace of one of the Arab world’s greatest navigators and cartographers, Ahmed Ibn Majid, known to his 15th-century contemporaries as the “Lion of the Sea.”

The emirate is also slowly coming into its own in terms of tourism. These days, it’s all too easy for visitors to plant themselves poolside at one of a growing number of luxury beach hotels. I feel the tug of indulgent indolence myself at the brand-new InterContinental Ras Al Khaimah Mina Al Arab (doubles from US$230), where the palm-shaded sun loungers around the adults-only pool prove just as seductive as the Club InterContinental’s Arabic take on the piña colada. Yet the true beauty of RAK lies in its cultural heritage, dramatic landscapes, and many opportunities for adventure, all of which sit side by side across 1,700 square kilometers of territory.

As Hessa and I walk on the soft sands of Al Jazirah Al Hamra, she explains that the village was once a thriving settlement centered on pearl diving and trading. But the development of cheaper cultured pearls in Japan and decreasing global demand due to World War I and the Great Depression led to the collapse of the local industry. With the discovery of oil in the UAE from the late 1950s, the village’s residents moved away in search of new opportunities. The last inhabitants left in 1971, leaving a ghost town behind them.

Left to right: Oryx in the nature reserve surrounding Ritz-Carlton’s Al Wadi Desert resort; Hessa Al Ali at the former pearling village of Al Jazirah Al Hamra. (Photos: Nicola Chilton)

Archaeologists are currently at work to discover what else lies beneath the sands, and the abandoned buildings — more than 400 of them, made from coral stone, fossilized beach rock, and the trunks of date palms — are slowly being restored. As we step into the former residence of a wealthy pearl merchant, Hessa tells me that when a man from outside the family came to visit, he would announce his presence by calling out “Houd, houd,” giving the women inside time to cover their hair. When they were ready for him to enter, they responded with a cry of “Hidda.” I ask if this still happens today.

“Now they just ring the doorbell,” she laughs, “or they WhatsApp me.”

Just up the coast in Ras Al Khaimah City, the emirate’s capital, more local history awaits at the National Museum of Ras Al Khaimah. Guiding me through the converted 19th-century fort is Nawfal Saeed Ahmed, an Iraqi-born gentleman who walks and talks with the soothing, unhurried calm that feels like an innate part of the character here. We look at shards of bright-colored glass bangles, Neolithic flint blades, pottery from Thailand and China, and a 16th-century headstone engraved in Hebrew, likely a memorial to a Jewish merchant who died while on a trading venture.

Ras Al Khaimah’s rich maritime heritage isn’t just relegated to museums and archaeological sites, though. The warm waters off RAK have been a source of pearls for thousands of years, and today are home to the region’s first and only pearl farm.

An arcade at the recently restored Mohammed Bin Salem Al-Qasimi Mosque in Ras Al Khaimah City. (Photo: Nicola Chilton)

As a dhow takes us across a mangrove-fringed lagoon off the town of Al Rams, Abdulla Al Suwaidi, the founder of Suwaidi Pearls, tells me about his grandfather, who was one of the last pearl divers in Ras Al Khaimah.

“He was a quiet man,” Al Suwaidi recounts. “But when he sat with his friends and started talking about the adversity and prosperity that came with pearl diving, that’s when the magic started.”

The divers led a tough life, spending months at sea during the hottest time of the year. They would dive down to 20 meters or more at least 50 times a day. Historians estimate that at the industry’s peak in the early 20th century, more than a quarter of the region’s coastal population was involved in pearling. “I feel that I have a historical, cultural, and social responsibility falling on my shoulders,” Al Suwaidi tells me. “This legacy is not meant to end.”

At his floating visitors’ center, Al Suwaidi invites me to pick out an oyster from a tank to try my luck. There’s only a 1 percent chance of finding a natural pearl in a wild oyster, but Al Suwaidi’s oysters are seeded, increasing the odds to 60 percent. And I did get lucky, feeling a thrill of discovery as a lustrous orb emerged from within the oyster flesh.

The following day I wake at the crack of dawn and drive 45 minutes to the base of Jebel Jais, the tallest mountain in the UAE, to join Fadi Hachicho on a hike. Hachicho knows this terrain inside and out, having stepped away from a career in advertising and events to launch a trekking company called Adventurati Outdoor.

In the White Wadi, we clamber over boulders smoothed by centuries of flash floods that course through the ravine during the infrequent rains. Walls of rock tower above us, and it’s absolutely silent, save for the clatter of stones under our feet. Hachicho and his team have developed more than 100 kilometers of trails here, from short and easy walks to more challenging hikes. But these are not mountains to be trifled with. Unless you know the area intimately, it’s unwise to set off without a guide; RAK police carried out 78 air rescues in 2021 alone.

In need of some serious refreshment after our adventure, Hachicho and I drive up the road that hairpins its way to the top of Jebel Jais for a late breakfast at 1484 by Puro, the country’s highest restaurant. It’s a spectacular spot, with far-stretching views and the occasional squeal carried on the breeze as brave souls launch themselves on the world’s longest zipline. Not fancying a face-down 160 kph journey straight after breakfast, I opt instead for a spin on the summit’s newest attraction, the Jais Sledder, a toboggan on rails that, when the Englishman in charge tells me to “Give it some welly!”, zooms me down the mountain at a more sedate 40 kph.

The restaurant terrace at 1484 by Puro overlooks the Hajar Mountains from its 1,484-meter perch on Jebel Jais. (Photo: Murrindie Frew)

I still have one side of RAK left to experience — the desert — and there’s no better base for that than The Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah, Al Wadi Desert (doubles from US$545), a collection of villas and palatial tented suites tucked among dunes where sand gazelles and Arabian oryx roam free. I watch some of them from a cooling, post-adventure soak in my pool.

The highlight of my stay is a bird-watching tour with Ernest Opare, an activities guide who moved here from Ghana five years ago. At sunrise, the dawn chorus is a cacophony of birdsong, the cooing of collared doves layering with the sharp cries of grey francolins and the chatter of sparrows. Opare and I spot iridescent purple sunbirds sipping nectar from the tiny yellow flowers of the native ghaf tree. We watch green bee-eaters catch insects on the wing and white-eared bulbuls calling to each other in the shade of the trees. A baby gazelle wanders by, its mother keeping a watchful eye from a safe distance.

It’s surprising to see so much life in the desert, but then, Ras Al Khaimah is a surprising place. That night, as the sun sinks behind the dunes, I think back to something Al Suwaidi said about his pearl-diving grandfather. “He used to tell me this is one of the richest places, and I would say, ‘No, Abu Dhabi is very rich because of the oil they have.’ My grandfather would then say, ‘Yes, but how do you think they survived before oil? If you have the blessing of the sea, the blessing of the land, and the blessing of the mountains in one single place, would not this be the richest place ever?’”

I, for one, can’t argue with that.

 

This article originally appeared in the June/August 2022 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“An Emirate Awaits”).

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