Al Ain – Serene, Green Haven in the Desert

Al Ain – The Garden City of the Emirates

The word oasis evokes a lush, green, and cool haven amid harsh, dry surroundings. That is Al Ain in a nutshell!

Al Ain is built around and between seven oases. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on the Arabian Peninsula, with some settlements as old as 8000 years.

Al Ain is about as far off the beaten track as a tourist can get in the Emirates. Hence, what better pick for our 2018 family Christmas trip? The Grand Mercure Jebel Hafeet, located on top of a mountain above the city, features some splendid views and nice, kid-friendly swimming pools with slides and outdoor jacuzzis. Great for family vacations, in other words!

After some initial days of shopping in Abu Dhabi, along with visits to the Louvre (wife was thrilled!) and the Warner Bros. World (kids were thrilled!), we took a taxi through the desert for 1.5 hours, to get to what many Emiratis see as the hidden gem of their country.

Jebel Hafeet – Mountain with a Scenic Road

The Jebel Hafeet mountain is a signature feature of Al Ain and its surroundings. CNN ranks the Jebel Hafeet Road up the mountain as one of the top 10 road trips in the world. This spectacularly scenic road, with its 60+ curves, became our first encounter with Al Ain. As we were to find out later, not all drivers can even stomach that experience.

Jebel Hafeet and Green Mubazzarah
Al Ain: The Jebel Hafeet road features not less than 60 curves

On top of the road, Jebel Hafeet offers a splendid view of Al Ain and the neighboring town in Oman, as well as vast tracts of desert. The Grand Mercure Jebel Hafeet, lies close to the top, overlooking it all. The view is obviously a key attraction feature, but the hotel is also an ideal place for kids, with great swimming pools, mini golf, and a big indoor playroom. With friendly staff, ready to help at all times, it is easy to forgive the slight general disorganization one can’t help but notice. This place is an easy choice for anyone visiting Al Ain.

Night in Al Ain, from Jebel Hafeet
Night in Al Ain, from Jebel Hafeet

The Oasis – Historical City Center

The Al Ain Oasis is the biggest of the seven oases and the historical center of the city. On one end, there is the Al Ain Palace Museum, former residence of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nayhan, the founding father of the United Arab Emirates. On the other end lies the National Museum of Al Ain. Unfortunately, this was closed for renovations when we visited.

The oasis is a green, lush spot in the middle of the desert, densely covered with date palms. Needless to say, it is a sight to behold, and something you should not miss when in Al Ain. A few minutes from the entrance, there is an open-air café, specializing in hand-made ice cream rolls, mixed on the spot. A nice little treat on your stroll between the date palms!

Al Jahili Fortress – a Reminder of Tougher Times

Al Ain Fort
Al Jahili Fortress in Al Ain

The Al Jahili fortress is one of the biggest of its kind in the region. Surrounded by a vast, nicely manicured park, it ranks among the key attractions of Al Ain. An oasis is obviously a prized asset in a desert, so it should not surprise anyone that historically, Al Ain was a heavily fortified place, at the centre of many battles. For history buffs, there is also another major fort nearby, on the city outskirts.

Al Ain’s historical military importance has not diminished in recent times. On the contrary, the military presence is conspicuous, with vast areas fenced off for army installations. Amid souring diplomatic relations with neighboring Oman, a barbed fence running along the entire border is patrolled from both sides.

Green Mubazzarah – A Man-Made Oasis

Al Ain Green Mubazzarah
Al Ain Green Mubazzarah

The Green Mubazzarah is a national flagship project for the Emirates. This man-made oasis is bigger than the natural ones of Al Ain combined. Located at the foot of Jebel Hafeet, it is built around dozens of natural hot springs, and a lake with rental boats available.

This place is a popular attraction among locals, some of whom will even sit down in the hot springs fully dressed to enjoy the flowing water. Like with the rest of Al Ain, however, local authorities have done little to attract international tourists to this place.

Go exploring in Al Ain

Al Ain has the biggest zoo on the Arabian peninsula. This is considered one of the must-sees. My family and I live in Kenya, though, and we have some of the world’s top safari parks right outside our doorstep. Spending hundreds of dollars on a game drive to see animals mostly imported from Africa, was not our top priority.

It is hard to miss the fact that Al Ain has one of the top football teams in the region. A new stadium with a really eye-catching architecture stands out in the city. This was one of the things I didn’t manage to get a good picture of, though.

When I first visited the Emirates in 2009, the price level was quite pleasant. While it was not dirt cheap, you would get good value for the money when moving around or eating. In one decade, the whole place has turned ridiculously expensive, though. Massive public and private spending, fuelled by easy oil money, had already pushed the general price level up.

After the UAE introduced VAT and other taxes, while doubling their fuel prices in less than two years, the situation worsened further. The Dirham is pegged to the US Dollar, so the currency cannot depreciate. Hence, the relative price level remains in the international top league. If the Emirates would drop the pegging against the Dollar, and let the Central Bank follow an inflation target instead, the Dirham would probably depreciate instantly. That could bring the Emirates back to an internationally competitive price level. Both tourism and export industries would benefit. That is an entirely different discussion, though.

Jebel Hafeet Road at night
Jebel Hafeet Road at night – an incredibly scenic descent from the Jebel Hafeet Mountain

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