It is a complete change of pace and scenery to visit the dignified desert city of Al Ain. Al Ain, some 130 kilometers inland (about a two-hour minibus ride) from Dubai on the border with Oman. Al Ain, also known as “The City of The Garden” is characterized by its greenery, particularly with regard to its parks, tree-lined avenues, and decorative roundabouts.
It offers the most refreshing 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 dot the modern city.
The city served as an invaluable staging post on trading routes between Oman and the Gulf. A fact attested to by the plentiful forts that dot the area and by the rich archeological remains found in the vicinity. These remains are evidence of continuous settlement dating back to Neolithic times.
AL AIN OASIS
A dusty green wall of palms announces the beautiful Al Ain Oasis, with a mazy network of narrow lanes running between the densely planted thickets of trees including estimated 150,000-odd date palms. The oasis is known for its underground irrigation system, called Falaj, which supplies water from boreholes to farms and palm trees.
There are eight entrances dotted around the perimeter of the oasis because, given the disorienting tangle of roads within, you’re unlikely to end up back where you entered. The falaj irrigation system has been used for thousands of years in Oman, the UAE, India, Iran, and other countries.
AL AIN SOUK
Al Ain Souk is home to the city’s main meat, grocery, fruit, and vegetable market. Housed in a long, functional warehouse-style building, the souk is stocked with the usual picturesque piles of produce, prettiest at the structure’s west end, where Indian traders sit enthroned amid huge mounds of fruit and vegetables. A variety of foods and vegetables are available at a higher price. So, be smart when negotiating.
AL AIN PALACE MUSEUM
The Al Ain Palace Museum occupies one of the various forts around Al Ain owned by the ruling Nahyan family of Abu Dhabi. The sprawling complex is pleasant enough, with rambling, orangey-pink buildings arranged around a sequence of five courtyards and small gardens, although the palace’s thirty-odd rooms, including assorted bedrooms, majlis, and a small school, aren’t particularly interesting.
AL AIN NATIONAL MUSEUM
The old-fashioned Al Ain National Museum is well worth a look before diving into the rest of the city. The first section sports the usual dusty displays of local life and culture, while the second offers a comprehensive overview of the archeology of the UAE.
Right next to the museum, the Sultan bin Zayed Fort (or Eastern Fort) is one of the eighteen or so scattered around Al Ain including the Hafit-era ‘beehive’ tombs near Mezyad. The scenic three-towered structure is best known as the childhood home of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan (ruled from 1966 to 2004), who oversaw the transformation of the emirate from an impoverished Arabian backwater into today’s oil-rich contemporary city-state.
Al Ain National Museum is divided into two sections, ethnographic and archaeological, which include artifacts from Bronze Age tombs found in Mezyad and Hili Archaeological Parks outside the city.
Al Ain’s various mud-brick forts, Jahili Fort, built in 1898, is easily the most impressive, with a fine battlemented main tower and a spacious central courtyard. The fascinating-photographed circular tower on the northern side with four levels of diminishing size, each topped with a line of triangular battlements probably predates the rest of the fort. Jahili Fort is also home to the fascinating Mubarak bin London exhibition, devoted to the life of legendary explorer Wilfred Thesiger.
Thesiger (1910–2003) or Mubarak bin London (the Blessed Son of London) as he was known to his Arab friends – stayed at the fort in the late 1940s at the end of one of the two pioneering journeys across the deserts of the Empty Quarter which later formed the centerpiece of Arabian Sands, his classic narrative of Middle Eastern exploration. A replica of the Jahili fort built next to the Sheikh Zayed Bridge over the Swat River in the Swat Valley of Pakistan.
HILI GARDENS AND ARCHEOLOGICAL PARK
The Hili Gardens and Archeological Park is the site of one of the most prominent archeological sites in the UAE. Many finds from here are displayed in the Al Ain Museum, which also provides a thorough explanation of their significance.
The main surviving structure is the so-called “Hili Grand Tomb”, a circular mausoleum dating from the third century BC, made from large, finely cut and fitted slabs of stones. A quaint carving of two people framed by a pair of long-horned oryx decorates the rear entrance.
AL AIN ZOO
The excellent Al Ain Zoo is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser for both kids and adults. There are over four thousand animals here, humanely housed in large open pens spread around the very spacious grounds. Inmates include plenty of African fauna – big cats, giraffes, zebras, and rhinos (including rare South African white lions and Nubian giraffes) – monkeys, and alligators along with numerous Arabian animals and birds.
Jabel Hafeet is 30 kilometers south of Al Ain on the Omani border. The 1180-meter Jebel Hafeet, or Hafit, is the second-highest mountain in the UAE. This is a popular retreat for locals wanting to escape the heat of the desert plains.
You can drive to the top in half an hour or less along an excellent road, from where there are peerless views over the surrounding Hajar Mountains. At the Mercure Grand hotel, perched just below the summit, the outdoor terrace is a memorable – and often surprisingly cold – spot to enjoy a drink.
DUBAI DESERT CONSERVATION RESERVE
The desert is around 50km from Dubai and 75km from Al Ain. For a taste of the real, unadulterated UAE desert, it’s well worth a visit to the superb Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. The reserve is composed of 250 square kilometers of shifting dunes.
These serve as a refuge for over thirty local mammal and reptile species, including rare and endangered oryx and Arabian mountain gazelle. Tours can be arranged through Arabian Adventures, Lama, Travco, and Alpha. On the other hand, you can stay in the reserve at the idyllic but wickedly expensive Al Maha resort.
Al Ain old-fashioned Camel Souk (actually just a series of pens in the open desert) is really worth visiting, despite being a bit tricky to find, attracting a lively crowd of local camel fanciers haggling over dozens of dromedaries lined up for sale.
The souk is busiest in the mornings before around 10 am, due to heart in the middle of the day, though low-key trading may continue throughout the day. Be aware that there are some very pushy traders here who may demand massively inflated tips for showing you around or allowing you to take photographs of their animals. It is a smart idea to agree on a sum in advance.