The city of Al Ain – where sweeping red desert meets tranquil oases – is Abu Dhabi’s best-kept secret. And it’s also fast becoming a popular travel destination.

Beige and black camels lazily grazing on tufts of grass; colossal sand dunes in shades of apricot, peach and tangerine; and herds of elegant Arabian sand gazelles… not what you’d expect a few short kilometres inland from the sprawling United Arab Emirates (UAE) capital Abu Dhabi. 

Once out of the city, where traffic is often gridlocked and driving is erratic at best, and cruising the UAE’s smooth wide highways through brilliant desert scenery, there are only two things you need to be concerned about – lane-changing locals zipping past at 140 kilometres an hour and camels taking their time to cross the road. 

One of the best things about Abu Dhabi is that the desert is on its doorstep. Emirates make an effort to get out of the city regularly — there’s nothing like the desert to clear the head, they say, be it for a weekend camping under the stars as their Bedouin ancestors did or enjoying an afternoon of falconry with friends. Just minutes from the city’s outskirts you’ll come across gently undulating sand dunes ad picture-postcard vistas of camels ambling the desert. And the place to find it all is the diminutive desert of Al Ain. 

Less than 10 kilometres out of the city, I see my first camel roaming towards a lush, palm-shaded oasis. The magnificent orange sand dunes in Shabat are some of the finest in the emirate, but taking a detour along the Al Ain-Hatta route towards Shwaib reveals enormous rust-coloured dunes dotted with Arabian sand gazelles, while dramatic rugged mountains tower opposite. 

In the pre-oil days, it took five days by camel to make the same trip across the dunes — there were no roads then — from the humid coastal village of Abu Dhabi to the cool, dry oases of Al Ain. The stories told by Emiratis of those seasonal journeys their Bedoui grandparents made from the sea to the desert are the stuff of One Thousand and One Nights tales. Many can still fondly recollect the camel treks they themselves use to make. “Each time I looked at Al Ain’s desert dunes, I see new beauty, new spirit,” writes Al Ain artist and poet Wasel Safwan, “and my heart goes along with their endless shapes.”

It’s been 50 years since the first oil exports left Abu Dhabi. An acute awareness that the black gold will run out is what has led to Dubai’s meteoric rise as a global transport hub and mega-tourist magnet, and Abu Dhabi’s positioning as a luxury destination and cultural capital. More recently, this development has extended to laidback Al Ain. 

Rather than construct another shiny, skyscraping city, Al Ain has focused on the things that have always appealed to its residents, and long drawn Emiratis and expats from Abu Dhabi and Dubai for weekend getaways. Tranquil date palm oases are watered by natural springs in a fine and dry climate that’s considerably more comfortable than the sticky, sweltering weather on the coast.

The area’s long history and unique culture have also recently been recognised by UNESCO with a World Heritage listing. Sites such as Jebel Hafeet, the monumental mountain that watches over Al Ain; Hili Archaeological Gardens (Mohammad Bin Khalifa St); and the round tombs of Bida Bint Saud, dating back to 3000 BCE, support the city’s status as a place of outstanding universal value.

Gardens in the Sand 

Al Ain’s locals like to boast that they live I the Garden City of the Arabian Gulf. And what’s most arresting about arriving here — especially after the drive through the arid red desert — is the greenery. Palm trees line the wide roads, decorative flowerbeds bloom at roundabouts and, where there aren’t verdant date plantations, landscaped parks flourish. Low-rise whitewashed villas, squat apartment and commercial buildings as well as ramshackle old souqs pop their heads up in between the foliage.

The source of all this greenery is a natural water supply, unlike Abu Dhabi and Dubai where recycled water is used to create artificial green spaces. Al Ain means ‘the spring’ in Arabic and the city possesses impressive underground water channels – the city’s falaj, or irrigation syste, dates back to 1000 BCE. 

You can see the falaj at work — still in use to feed more than 147,000 date palms across the city — by visiting one of Al Ain’s verdant oases (covering a total area of more than 1200 hectares). The largest is Al Ain Oasis with six other dotted around the city. 

“The Shady oases walkways transport you from the heat of the city to a tranquil haven,” says Lama El Khalil of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage. Indeed, a saunter along the labyrinth of dirt paths that wind through the palm plantations of Al Ain Oasis, in the centre of town, should top your list of things to do here. While tourists are allowed to drive along the lanes, it seems a crime to bring vehicle noise here as disrupt the tranquillity.

Getting lost in the maze-like plantation is a lesson in opposites — the temperature seems several degrees lower under the shade of the towering palms, and the fragrant scent of palm oil is a far cry from the dusty streets. Peek over the mud-baked walls or peer through an open wooden gate and you will see the simple yet ingenious falaj that runs water from the foothills of Jebel Hafeet throughout the city via channels of ancient stone. It is a carefully calculated engineering feat and an understanding of subterranean geology: the gradient must be precisely controlled – too shallow ad it yields no flow; too steep and excessive erosion ensues, collapsing the channel. 

Al Ain has the falaj to thank for its flourishing date industry. Visit the modest Al Mina fruit and vegetable souq and you will see more stalls selling dates than any other produce. Ask a stallholder ad they will tell you that dates are more important to Emiratis than oil. Emiratis find any excuse to give dates as gifts in much the same way we would a box of chocolates or bunch of flowers. Locals maintain Al Ain’s fates are even more delicious than those from Saudi Arabia, the largest date grower on the Arabian Peninsula. Al Ain produces more than 100 varieties, in about as many forms – jam, chocolate-covered, soft drink and even date-flavoured milk. 

To Market

The souq may not be as large or as frenetic as Dubai’s, but it’s still worth a wander, especially on a busy Saturday morning. Vendors sit cross-legged on the ground selling their produce, most of which is locally grown. Some are even hidden by their large pyramid-shaped displays. 

Meanwhile in a dusty lot just outside the walls of Al Ain Oasis, craggy-faced old men in long dishdasha robes, with khanjars daggers) hanging from their belts and checked ghutras and agals flowing from their heads, walk about nonchalanty, a goat or sheep slung over their shoulders. This is the livestock souq, where, on weekends, Bedouin farmers come to buy and sell livestock from the backs of their pick-up vehicles. A visit here can be a little intimidating for female travellers, so it’s best to dress modestly in long shirt it dress and to cover your hair with a think scarf or shawl. 

Just behind Bawadi Mall is the camel souq, where assertive Pakistani and Afghani handlers in their checked salwar kameez (tunic-style top and pyjama-style pants) often take you by the hand to show you around the camel pens. The handsome long-lashed beasts are loved by Emiratis to this day, despite bitumen highways now connecting Al Ain with the coastal cities. 

The handlers will tell you that the leggy taupe camels with big hips are best for racing, while the big-bellied camels are expecting. If you’re lucky, you might even see one just a few days old, still wobbly on its feet and keeping close to its mother’s legs. The breeding bulls are enormous and worth a small fortune. 

No matter what time of year you visit, you’ll need to cool off after a morning market visit. At the foot of Jebel Hafeet are the hot springs of the Green Mubazzarah oasis (Jabel Al Hafeet St), where streams, swimming pools, Jacuzzis and even a lake await. Families like to picnic and barbecue here on weekends, and you are welcome to join them for a swim in one of the pools or a splash under a fountain, but you’ll have to do as the locals do and stay clothed.

From here, drive up to the top of Jebel Hafeet. Formed some 25 million years ago — although marine fossils found on the mountain are far older, dating back to 70 to 135 million years — the limestone monolith is 1240 metres high, stretches 13 kilometres from north to south and is honeycombed with ancient cave passages. While the mountain looks barren, it’s teeming with life, with 118 plant varieties; 18 species of mammals, including the threatened Egyptian vulture; and 10 different reptiles. 

Relics found at some 500 Bronze Age tomb on the foothills of Jebel Hafeet revel Al Ain’s significant position on the crossroads of Mesopotamian trade routes. Al Ain was the main supplier of copper to Mesopotamia and it’s the iron-oxide deposits that give the surrounding desert its breathtaking rust-red colour. It was during the Iron Age that followed that Al Ain’s inhabitants introduced the falaj. Enabling water to be transported from the mountain to the plains.

These days, a smooth three-lane road snakes to the very top of Jebel Hafeet. Head there at dusk, when the endless red sands turn almost purple, the desert cradling its evergreen heart as the sun dips over the horizon.