The United Arab Emirates, and the wider Gulf as a whole, is well known for its contrasting differences, both geographically and socially. On a recent visit to Ras Al Khaimah, the most northerly Emirate in the UAE, I was struck by the sheer juxtaposition of the Emirate. Before I travelled there, via Dubai, I was expecting to see lots of migrant workers and extreme wealth standing side-by-side, but what I discovered was so much more than I had previously thought.
Locals are hard to come by in Ras Al Khaimah. Their perfectly clean villas and mansions are neatly laid out in rows amongst the date trees around the Jebel Jais mountains. There are mirrored windows on most of the mansions, luxurious sports cars and SUVs parked in the driveways, and countless security cameras glaring down onto the thick metal gates. It’s understandable why the local Emiratis have chosen to live around the mountains or along the coast in Ras Al Khaimah, the views are stunning, but arguably very disconnected from reality in the UAE.
I did meet one local man, Mr Nasser, a man who had studied in Kuwait in the 1960s, but who now curates his very own museum of Ras Al Khaimah history. Room after room filled with all kinds of locally recovered artefacts, from traditional wooden dhows, to old sun dials and documents donated by the President of the UAE make this a unique offering in the Emirate. Mr Nasser had a unique ability to avoid answering questions about the British Protectorate era, but there was an “interesting” mural painted on the wall which highlighted the exact date and time of Britain’s bombardment of the Ras Al Khaimah coastline in December 1819 that created conversation.
As we drove down the sand covered highways (on the opposite side of the road to the UK, which was a surprise given that the UAE was a protectorate of the UK until 1971) there were huge ceramics factories on the right of us, and towering dirty white tenement blocks with a sign saying “Labour Housing” on the left. This was a world away from the luxurious seclusion of the Emirati compounds at the other side of the Emirate. The area here was quite run-down, full of south Asian migrant workers, and the cars were more Toyota than Jaguar. This was the side of UAE society that I was previously expecting.
Socially, Ras Al Khaimah was a land of contrasts, but more-so geographically. To the north of the Emirate are the Jebel Jais mountains, separating the UAE from Oman. Endless mountains for as far as the eye could see symbolised the UAE’s northern frontier. After over an hour driving to the top of the mountains we arrived into an area filled with migrant workers enjoying their free time. This just goes to show that low wages and the thousands of miles from home don’t mean that you can’t enjoy life.
At the east of the Emirate there is endless desert. Orange sand dunes roll on creating shadows as the sun sets over the sandy horizon. I stayed in a Bedouin camp for a night in the middle of the desert; red and white striped goat skin walls blow in the breeze and the calls of birds in the distance call out, wild camels wander by, and 4x4s roar by as they jump up and down over the towering dunes.
On the opposite side of Ras Al Khaimah is the coast, and the luxury hotels that are bringing wealthy tourists to this part of the Gulf. Smooth white sandy beaches brushed by white foamy waves filled with Russian and German tourists separate the land from the sea. The ultra-luxurious Waldorf Astoria hotel, with its own swimming pools, private beach, tennis courts, and tranquil fountains sits opposite Marjan Island, a reclaimed sandy island in the shape of a dolphin, and filled with more luxurious hotels. The views from my balcony looked out to sea, which is not surprising given the migrant housing eyesores at the other side of the hotel.
So, Ras Al Khaimah is a land of contrasts. It has coastal beaches, towering mountains, and endless deserts. But, the predominant migrant worker population definitely don’t enjoy the same luxuries that their Emirati counterparts do. Still, RAK, as it’s known by the locals, is well worth a visit, if only for a luxurious escape from everyday life.
Ras Al Khaimah – Beyond a Journey (https://en.rasalkhaimah.ae).