When you’re in the heart of Dubai it’s easy to forget that you are standing in the middle of a huge desert, and that it’s truly quite remarkable that anything survives, let alone thrives, in such a harsh environment.
Driving out of the city you quickly start to see how Bedouin Emiratis lived before oil money brought in 7-star hotels, Lamborghinis and 24kt gold flaked cappuccinos. Camels replace sports cars and untouched dunes takeover from the sprawling cityscape. Six-lane freeways narrow into dual carriageways, and shopping centres are replaced with locals selling fruit out of the boot of their cars.
In late December, we drove to Al Ain, an oasis city 1.5 hours southeast of Dubai on the eastern border of Oman. Originally, we headed that way to visit a falcon market we heard was held every second Saturday, but it turned out we had picked the wrong Saturday. In the end, we left only touching the surface of what this authentic and historic city had to offer.
Qasr Al Muwaiji
Our first stop was Qasr Al Muwaiji — where we were hoping to find the fortnightly falcon market. However, once the lady at reception told us this wasn’t on we decided to explore the palace. She even gave us some dates and local Arabic coffee.
The restored palace, which is around 100 years old, was beautifully simple, with lots of open space and an interesting photo exhibit. There was nothing palatial about this palace, but that was what made it so charming.
It was there that the current president of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was born, and you can learn more about his life growing up as you walk around his former home and relax in his old entertaining room. We had the whole place to ourselves, which was quite the luxury after the crowds of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
You don’t need to spend a lot of time there, but it’s a nice little stop off if you’re in the area… and the staff are super friendly and gave us lots of tips for what to visit in Al Ain and the rest of Abu Dhabi 🙂
Entry is free and it is open every day except Monday, with shorter hours on a Friday.
Al Ain Oasis
The sprawling Al Ain Oasis sits in the heart of the city and provides a welcome relief from the harsh, but beautiful, sandy surrounds. The moment you enter you are surrounded by acres of lush palms and perfectly manicured pathways.
Over 147,000 date palms make up the oasis, along with 100+ types of vegetation. These are working farms, with individual farmers owning small plantations within the walls. As you walk through, you can see the complex irrigation system that has kept things alive for nearly 4,000 years despite being one of the driest regions of the world.
The historic oasis has recently been renovated to make it extra tourist-friendly, with a welcome eco-centre and facilities. On the day we were there, there was a market and festival happening in the evening. It started at 4pm, just as we were leaving, but food trucks and local entertainment had sprung up along the entrance to the oasis and the car park was already bursting at the seams.
As we quickly learnt, this place is huge — 3,000 acres, in fact. While you probably don’t want to cover it all by foot, there are a range of fun vehicles you can hire, including two-person bikes and horses, to take you around. There are also guided golf-buggy tours that cost 20 AED for 20 minutes.
I didn’t know what to expect when we read about the local camel market, but it ended up being a highlight of the entire trip. Hidden behind a large market area, with souks selling all sorts of treasures, the camel market was what you imagine life was like back before the more glamorous days of the UAE. But in fact, this is reality still today. People do actually buy camels.
We went at a relatively quiet time, in the early afternoon, but business was still going strong. We witnessed just-purchased camels being prodded into the back of purpose-built vans and rare, prized camels being proudly paraded around the parking lot.
Shortly after parking our car, a local in an official yellow vest approached us and followed us around as we checked out the camels on offer. He was incredibly helpful and we later discovered his job was to keep tourists safe and to stop us being hassled for money.
So, how much does a camel cost? About €1,100 for a ‘standard’ camel, we were told. The ultimate purchase? A female camel and her calf.
The market is definitely worth a visit, and it’s just a 15-20 minutes drive from central Al Ain. It’s open every day.
Planning your visit
Sadly, we didn’t have time to see everything that Al Ain had to offer, but we definitely would have been happy to stay an extra day there and take things a little slower, especially with the driving time back to Dubai.
However, if you leave early in the morning you can easily fit in the highlights before the sun sets. And don’t forget, you are just minutes from the border of Oman, if you fancy popping in. You will need to get a visa online at least 24 hours before you go, so plan ahead if you think you might want to go.
Have you been to Al Ain? What do you recommend seeing?