Little-known Ras Al Khaimah has plans as grand as Dubai. Catch it now, while it remains the most traditional emirate in the UAE
Dubai receives so much attention these days I suspect the other six emirates comprising the UAE are heartily fed up with the largesse of their über-loaded neighbour. Not least the smallest and least known of them all, Ras Al Khaimah, simply shortened to RAK.
Poor little RAK has been left trailing in Dubai’s prodigious wake: mainly because of its complete lack of the black stuff…that’s oil not Guinness. Yet as I was to discover during a short break from Dubai, its ambition, driven by ruler Sheikh Saud, is every bit as grand. And tourism is very much part of the bigger picture.
RAK is situated a smooth 90km desert drive northwards of Dubai International Airport. In Arabic Ras Al Khaimah translates roughly to ‘head of the tent’. So called because it’s the UAE’s most northerly federate wedged between the weather-beaten Hajjar Mountains bordering Oman and the Arabian Gulf.
The first thing that struck me arriving in RAK, after leaving behind Dubai’s chronic traffic jams, is the sense of space. As camels moseyed across the road I really felt I was in the desert as opposed to Dubai-Disneyland. Searing temperatures, nudging 50C, reinforced this sensation. My advice would be to stick to September-May when the heat abates somewhat.
In a hired vehicle it’s possible to scoot around the tiny emirate in a morning. By the UAE’s parched standards, it’s relatively green. I saw groves of date palms and irrigated fields of fodder for livestock. Herders nudge sheep or goats along to fresher pasture.
RAK also possesses the Emirate’s best-preserved historical sites. Little calamine-bleached forts, as at Dayah, and circular defensive watchtowers, are everywhere, and I enjoyed visiting an old abandoned town called Jazirat al-Hamra. The locals call it a ‘ghost town’ because of its empty streets. Some of the houses are elegant two-tiered coral-stone designs built by once wealthy merchants. Best of all is the national museum – a fabulous cannon-lined 19th-century fort. Inside, intricately carved wooden doors lead to an exotic palm fringed courtyard. On its second-floor is UAE’s only working example of an Arabian wind tower: a primitive form of air-conditioning that draws hot air through slits and cools the interior.
Modern Ras Al Khaimah City by comparison is fairly unremarkable and virtually deserted during daytime’s heat. But don’t miss the morning fish-market near the port where it’s also possible to see the odd traditional sailing dhow. And I’d definitely advise a city stroll after dusk when the streets and souqs throng with shoppers busying between the mosques, neon-lit shops, gold-jewellers, and restaurants. Try traditional foods like lamb and fish eaten with leavened flat breads called khameer, and of course the abundant dates.
But in such billowing heat and with a coastline ripe for water sports, it’s inevitable all tourists end up on the beaches. The beach holiday sector is mushrooming at an astonishing rate with many stunning new properties appearing by the coast such as Rotana’s The Cove with its attractive Nubian-style villas and also the new Hilton Resort & Spa. I stayed at the grand Al-Hambra Fort Hotel. It possesses a touch of 1,001 Arabian Nights, with domed roofs and faux wind towers amid lush irrigated gardens. Best of all its just a 50m dash to the Arabian Gulf which is like a hot bath. The hotel also possesses a new 18-hole golf course and marina.
RAK’s ambition, however, certainly isn’t confined to holidaymakers. The current Sheik, who took over in 2003, plans to transform this tiny emirate’s economy. His development plans are so spectacular they will one day create the buzz of Dubai. The cranes are just beginning to pepper RAK’s skyline but I saw models for some of the incredible proposed developments: a new financial city with 12 sci-fi looking skyscrapers, a monorail system, a mountain ski-resort (with imported snow), and Al-Marjan Island reclaimed from the sea just like Dubai’s famous Palm development. Plans are to power this by giant floating solar islands utilizing RAK’s 350 days of sunshine per year.
One absolute must is to get a bird’s eye view of some of these embryonic developments by taking a 30minute micro-light flight (that cost around £52) from the local Jazirah Air Club. Wobbling away on the thermals I was first awestruck by the coast’s natural beauty from above. Turquoise and azure-blue currents mixed with swirling white blobs of sediments. We swooped above incoming pink flamingos. Yet even nature took a backseat to the emerging Al-Marjan Island - due to be completed by 2012. This new residential and villa development was being built by dredging and breakwaters and was already unfurling like some octopus’ tentacle some 4.5km out to sea.
Change is coming fast. But for now RAK is definitely worth a few days rest and relaxation in a setting of how Dubai probably looked a few decades ago.