Venture north for a taste of the real Arabia
Marcella Nethersole takes a tour of discovery to find why route developers are eyeing the northern emirates for a piece of the UAE's tourism spend.
When people think of the United Arab Emirates they tend to just think of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
We all know of the glitz Dubai has to offer. It’s the party-loving emirate, with fancy hotels and restaurants, white sandy beaches and huge shopping malls.
Abu Dhabi is painted more as the ‘cultural’ emirate with its museums, galleries, heritage village, and the stunning Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. It offers luxury hotels, within the city and out on the islands on the Arabian Gulf, like the wildlife reserve of Sir Bani Yas Island.
Both emirates offer something for everyone. Or do they?
The United Arab Emirates is actually made up of seven emirates, and while Dubai and Abu Dhabi have lots to shout about, the other five are now starting to make a bit of noise in their own right too.
The infrastructure across the northern emirates is under way and, while the sandy towns are getting a face-lift, already tourists and business travellers are heading out of Dubai and into these quieter emirates which beginning to offer a great selection luxury hotels, great restaurants, beaches, desert safaris, and, more importantly, a real taste of the UAE. What’s more, they’re more affordable.
If you’re driving around the UAE you will find it very easy to get to each emirate as there is a four-lane highway connecting them all.
Just a 20-minute drive from Dubai Airport is Sharjah, the gateway to the northern emirates of Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Umm Al Quwain and Ajman. It offers lots of culture with a theatre, museums and galleries. It also offers a more authentic shopping experience and is probably the best of all the emirates in which to buy a souvenir, particularly at the Blue Souq – a great place if you’re after a cheapish Persian carpet. The Souq also becomes alive at night and is a good place to grab a tasty shawarma.
Sharjah has a few luxury hotels and resorts, such as the Radisson Blue Resort, Corniche Al Buhaira Hotel, and the Holiday Inn Sharjah, as well cheaper hotels and apartments.
Travelling north beyond Sharjah, you will come to the four other emirates of Ajman, Umm Al Qaiwain, Ras al Khaimah, and Fujairah.
Ajman is 10km from Sharjah and is one of the smaller emirates. It is a developing business centre and a number of local and international companies are making Ajman their UAE base. It offers competitive freezone rates and has good access to the nearby Sharjah International Airport and Dubai.
For visitors, there is also a white sandy beach lined with palm trees that is well worth a visit and you can enjoy a walk along the Corniche, or to the main square with restaurants and a museum. The town of Ajman itself comprises the ruler’s office, banks and a few companies, with the port close by. The emirate has around 30 hotels, from the Kempinski Hotel Ajman located at the end of the Corniche, to four-star hotels such as the Crown Palace, as well as budget ones.
Still on the west coast, the next emirate, Umm Al Qaiwain is the quietest of all of the emirates. No longer with an airport of its own, it has a sleepy fishing port, and agriculture also plays a significant role in the economy. It has clean beaches and a lagoon, and bird watchers might be interested in a visit to near-by Al-Sinniyah Island, which is home to the UAE’s largest Socotra cormorant, with more than 15,000 pairs making it the third largest colony in the world.
Umm Al Qaiwain really is a quiet emirate, though, with around 15 hotels, one of the best being Umm Al Qaiwain Beach Hotel.
But if you’re looking for a more dynamic emirate, Ras Al Khaimah is a great choice. Known simply as RAK, this is the emirate that is still a hidden gem. With many single-language (Arabic) signposts the international business visitor or tourist really does feel as if they are in the heart of Arabia, especially when you see the roadside stalls with locals selling fruit and vegetables, carpets, and lamps.
Located furthest north in the UAE, RAK is also the most fertile of the emirates. A drive across the stunning Hajar Mountains, or even the ride to the emirate’s rapidly expanding airport takes you past farms and old oasis stops.
RAK has a deep history. It was once the centre of the naval strength of the southern Gulf states. Today, the economy relies on its port with the fishing industry, trading and agriculture – and at the heart of the emirate is its world famous ceramic business and the supply of aggregates and cement to other parts of the UAE.
This emirate is also the emerging tourist hotspot in the UAE.
It offers an unspoiled natural beauty from the dusty town to the long pristine beaches and clear blue waters, which gives it a reputation as one of the best diving spots in the Middle East. This is the emirate that you can see slowly changing – with new hotels popping up along the beach and in the town – including a massive investment from the Waldorf Astoria with a resort hotel on the seafront.
One man who knows a lot about the emirate and hotels is Dr Ali Kasapbashi, general manager of Bin Majid Group, which has four hotels in RAK alone.
“The Bin Majid Group started in 1978 and its first hotel was the Majid Hotel in RAK in 1987,” said Kasapbashi. “In 1998 we started the Majid Beach Resort, which today is one of the best resorts in RAK, the perfect place to enjoy the sun, sea, and sand, as well as great food.”
The Bin Majid Group also owns the Acacia Hotel, which is government invested, and the Mangrove Hotel, which opened in March this year.
“RAK is a growing emirate that has a lot of potential, which is why we have built four hotels here,” said Kasapbashi. “Our government has been investing in RAK for a good six years now; they started the Ras Al Khaimah tourism authority here just last year. Together with the government the tourism authority has a great plan and we have been promised in the near future it will be successful.
“There are already three or four charter operations coming to RAK and new hotels opening, including the Waldorf Astoria and The Doubletree by Hilton.”
Kasapbashi said that RAK is a “virgin” emirate compared to Dubai and Abu Dhabi and offers exactly the same but on a quieter scale.
He said: “We, too, have great hotels, beaches, water sports and a water park, as well as organised desert safaris, dhow cruises and shopping. People have been recognising this emirate as a place to visit for some years now. Our two beach hotels had 83% capacity last year and this year we expect more.
“We do well with European and Asian visitors. In terms of business visitors, we are still weak with the GCC market compared to Dubai, but we are planning to attract this market. To have four hotels in one emirate is a great advantage for us, especially as they are all quite different to the other.”
Business in RAK is already prosperous. With Oman just down the road, this emirate is seen as a gateway.
The new Mangrove Hotel makes an excellent city hotel for business travellers.
“We offer a great four-star service in this brand new hotel to fulfil the needs of business travellers, as well as tourists,” said Kostas Drosos, director of operations. “I am already making some changes within the hotel just to really step-up the interior, such as a themed swimming pool area and an authentic café. Our bedrooms were designed by Italian interior-designers, so they are modern and luxurious.”
The UAE is known to have fantastic restaurants, which includes the Mangrove Hotel’s excellent Chinese restaurant, Noodles Corner.
It’s time to travel over the Hajar Mountains, which separate this final northern emirate from the rest of the country, to Fujairah.
Located on the east coast, this emirate is as equally exciting in its development as RAK, and is rich in history.
Fujairah surrounds and serves the UAE’s busiest shipping port for container liners at the Sharjah owned Khor Fakkan. A massive oil bunkerage and storage terminal is being developed by Fujairah city itself with both ports benefiting from being outside of the Gulf with direct access to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean and ths avoiding the nearby Straits of Hormuz. This emirate welcomes the world’s largest livestock shipping companies, which have set up their main holding station for sheep and cattle for the entire Arabian Peninsula. The infrastructure around the ports are now expanding as business booms.
The Fujairah Tourism Bureau has the specific task of promoting the in-bound tourism, which includes business travellers. And it’s working, as people are now flocking to the emirate to enjoy its beautiful stretch of clean beach by the Indian Ocean and a wealth of watersports. While new hotels are being built, it’s already home to some stunning hotels, including Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach, where you can enjoy one of the nine bars and restaurants. Next door is the impressive Rotana Resort and Spa.
The emirate also stakes a claim for the best diving in the UAE. The crystal waters are known for pearls, and visitors can arrange pearl diving with tour operators and are told that if they find a pearl, they can keep it.
Fujairah has a lot of cultural attractions: You could start at Fujairah Museum, which takes visitors on a journey from 3,000 years ago.
Other attractions and sites include Fujairah Fort. Located on the top of a hill this mud brick structure that was built in 1670 is the oldest fort in the UAE.
The Fujairah Heritage Village depicts the traditional way of life for residents, with houses, farming tools, and cooking utensils. The village also contains Fujairah Fortress and other ancient buildings.
Visitors can also visit Al Bidyah Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in the UAE, and Al Hayl Castle, which was built 250 years ago and is home to the ruling family.
If you’re all dried out, Fujairah is renowned for its wadis and visitors can enjoy wadi bashing.
Who said the northern emirates have nothing to shout about? Maybe next time you might think twice about staying in Dubai or Abu Dhabi and venture out into real Arab