Cooling Down In Al Ain

31 May 2007 by business traveller

Drive away from the coast towards Oman and you'll find the oasis town of Al Ain, perfect for a break from the heat. Tom Otley takes in the view.

The more times you visit one of the United Arab Emirates, the more you wish you could find a heart to it. The friendliness of the welcome is genuine enough, and there’s a real pride in the culture of the region, but discovering more is difficult. As has often been remarked, there are very few historical traces of the generations who have lived here before, and those relics which were in existence until only a few years ago are quickly disappearing as the 21st century is built upon their ruins.

There is a place where you can get some glimpses of the past, however. Al Ain is on the border of Abu Dhabi and Oman, about two hours’ drive from Abu Dhabi city. For a day out, or better still a weekend break, it is a popular choice for those seeking to flee the heat, or just craving something that in Abu Dhabi you can normally only get from high-rise buildings or a plane – a view.

Al Ain was once an oasis on the caravan route to Oman and it is the Omani mountain range which provides a backdrop to the town as you approach from Abu Dhabi, rising slowly from the desert to provide some perspective to the scenery. This Eastern Region is more fertile than the coast, with farms and public parks, and because of the climate people have settled here for longer periods and so there is more history.

Al Ain (“The Spring”) is known as the garden city, although for the modern visitor it is more likely to be thought of as the city of roundabouts. Inevitably, we took a wrong turn at one of these and ended up in a large estate of giant whitewashed houses, many of which seemed to be empty, and most of which were on roads quickly tailing off to a dead end. Despite having the mountains as a point of reference, we had to double back and return to the main road. Normal progress being resumed, we were quickly powering up Jebel Hafeet with the desert, seemingly as flat as a table, gradually spreading out below us.

Close to the top is the Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet, and from inside the hotel feels like a coastal resort – you almost expect views of the ocean from the windows, but instead you look down into the misty depths of the desert floor. The facilities here are enough to keep you occupied for a long weekend (and it is popular with families) with two restaurants, a health club, three swimming pools with water slides, mini golf, a children’s playground and tennis courts. The climate is kinder here, the dry air being less humid than on the coast, and the height (915m) giving a much-needed respite from the summer heat.

Down in the town, Al Ain has benefited from being the birthplace of Sheikh Zayed, ruler of the Abu Dhabi emirate until his death in 2004, and being home to the first university in the UAE. There are several sites here, including the Eastern Fort and Al Ain National Museum (www.aam.gov.ae) where a Majlis meeting room shows the reception area of a traditional Bedouin tent and fascinating photos from the 1960s demonstrate just how quickly Abu Dhabi has changed. Displays include jewellery, weapons, decorations and recreations of life before the discovery of oil.

The fertility of the region is on view in the palm plantations around the fort, although some have been abandoned recently, the irrigation channels no longer carefully tended as they have been for centuries. Instead, the city’s main parks are good for a stroll – early morning or evening are the best times, although some are reserved for women and children only.

Abu Dhabi is set for a huge change over the next five years, with the fabulous architectural projects being planned set to alter its public face forever. In Al Ain, the change is far more gradual and, for that reason, it’s a relaxing place for a break.


  • Gulf Ventures (tel 971 4 404 5880; www.gulfventures.ae) has a half-day tour of Al Ain from Abu Dhabi from US$75 per person excluding lunch, minimum of two people. 
  • Mecure Grand Jebel Hafeet, Al Ain, tel 971 3 783 8888; mecure.com
  • For further information, visit www.alain.ae
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