Before being offered a job at Al Ain, my wife had visited Dubai and I had read extensively about the many five star hotels, tax free zone, gold market, frenetic construction and development programs and many high capital cost, leading edge programs being carried out at Dubai. I heard very little of the UAE’s capital city Abu Dhabi and absolutely nothing about Al Ain, which is less than 200km from Dubai … the UAE’s, if not the world’s best kept secret.
When first offered a contract to teach in the Faculty of Business at Al Ain Women’s College I looked at a map of the UAE and was astonished that Al Ain was near the border of Oman and appeared a long way from Dubai. Thinking in Australian terms I immediately thought it was at least a thousand kilometres from Dubai … an outpost desert village with dirt roads, few shops and nothing much to do after hours. It didn’t seem all that enticing at first, but when I realised how very small the UAE is in comparison with Australia and entered “Al Ain, UAE” in Google, things started to fall into place.
Al Ain was less than 200 km from Dubai and was a modern city of 400,000 people. A tad larger than my home town in Central Australia with a paltry 25,000 people. Photographs I saw were of a clean, well laid out city with wide streets, plenty of greenery and a pseudonym “Garden of the Gulf”. When I arrived here I was both surprised and pleased.
Here was a delightful city in which it was obvious that the municipality and people had a great sense of civic pride. The many arterial roads are divided and well constructed with green, cast iron fences running along raised, grass median strips. The Arabian style architecture was vastly different from that I had experienced anywhere in Australia … palatial buildings with vast window spaces, flat roofs and huge, ornately decorated fences. Many of the fences would have cost more to build than my whole house at Alice Springs. Everywhere I looked there were signs of vast wealth.
Al Ain has 400 round-abouts, many of which are ornately decorated with animals, an Arabian coffee pot, or a world atlas to name a few. Thus, we locals refer to a location as being near to a certain round-about eg, the zoo roundabout or the camel round-about. The street names tend to be long and confusing for us Westerners, so round-about language is easier.
Al Ain, literally translates as “The Oasis” and the original oases can be seen nestled among parts of the city which is spread over a vast, flat plain. With their jam-packed date palms and open concrete waterways, they are still producing dates as they have done for thousands of years. So too, the souks, or markets are open for business. They are divided by product eg, the Camel Souk, Vegetable Souk, the Animal Souk etc.
In the souks you can bargain for the best price for anything and usually get a much lower price. This is not possible in the malls, but is sometimes possible within the smaller businesses about the city.
There are two large malls at Al Ain, Al Jimi and Al Ain Malls and there are literally thousands of small shops spread from one end of the city to the other, usually grouped by product type. Interestingly, the word Saloon has been mistakenly adopted from the English Salon so that one sees signs for Saloons everywhere and initial thoughts are that there must be a huge number of people imbibing on alcoholic beverages. Alas, that is definitely not the case. But you can get your hair cut at any number of saloons with varying results, especially if the employees don’t speak your native tongue.
As the UAE is an Islamic country, there are limits on where and when you can buy or drink alcoholic beverages. Al Ain has three suburban hotels that serve alcohol and at the top of beautiful Jebel Hafit (Jebel Mountain) which divides Oman and Al Ain, there is the Mercure Inn which also serves alcohol. Apart from that, sadly, you can’t enjoy a meal at any of the inner city restaurants and knock back a glass of wine. Those with liquor licences can buy bulk liquor at several “hole-in-the-wall” outlets.
If you stay at Al Ain, it’s much more relaxed and a good deal cheaper than Dubai and there are buses leaving frequently between the two cities and the cost of travel is also ridiculously cheap. There are many sights to be seen at Al Ain. Apart from the two oases, there is Al Ain Museum with artifacts extending back thousands of years before the Islamic period, the Palace Museum, Green Mubazzareh (an expansive picnic area at the base of Jebel Hafit which is green and beautiful), and it’s always interesting to visit the industrial area at Sanaiya. Sanaiya has the distinct claim to fame of having 38,000 males and 365 women in it’s statistical district. But more interesting are the thousands of little businesses that do anything anyone could possibly want done, usually quickly and inexpensively. Most labour is expatriate labour with Indians and Asians being predominant among the populous. There are only around 2,500 Caucasian expats in Al Ain, most other UAE Caucasians living in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
The United Arab Emirates is a lovely, progressive country despite the fact that it is mostly sand. The people are nice, friendly people who welcome visitors with open arms and make every effort to make one feel welcome. Their version of Islam is tolerant of other religions and accommodates our need for pork and alcohol although they are foreign to the culture.
If you visit Dubai, do yourself a favour and hop on a bus to Al Ain. You could easily spend three or four delightful days here and it will greatly add to your experience of the Middle East and its people.
As our Arab friends say, “salam alaykom” (Peace be with you).
Copyright 2007 Robin Henry | Published 8 March 2007