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Between the sea, the mountains and the desert, the small emirate located to the north of Dubai, has started to develop tourism to attract travellers searching for charm, authenticity, nature and entertainment.


Between the sea, the mountains and the desert, the small emirate located to the north of Dubai, has started to develop tourism to attract travellers searching for charm, authenticity, nature and entertainment.

Category: Middle East - United Arab Emirates - Industry economy - Tourism
Article written by Guillaume Chollier on 2023-05-22

In the shadow of the immense Burj Khalifa, the highest skyscraper in the world at 828 metres, stands an emirate that does not yet have the notoriety of its big sister Dubai. Less glitzy, more focused on nature, discovery and authenticity, Ras al-Khaimah nevertheless attracts many travellers from all over the world. Although it has no oil or gas deposits, the smallest emirate in the United Arab Emirates, with around 400,000 inhabitants, is not lacking in assets.

A crossroads of the pearl trade

This territory, formerly called Julfar – thepearl in Arabic – was, for 2,000 years, the crossroads of the pearl trade. Al-Jazirah al-Hamra – theRed Island – is the symbol of this. This ancient pearl fishing village dating from the 17th century, which is currently being restored, was home to up to 3,000 inhabitants within its shell walls.

A short-distance away, in Al Rams, the tradition of pearl farms continues, notably with Suwaidi Pearls. A former diplomat, Abdulla Rashed al-Suwaidi, in his fifties, has definitively dropped his suit to get back in touch with the family history and take over from his grandfather. In his traditional boat, on the way to the platform that serves as the operational base for the harvesting of the precious pearly gem, Abdulla Rashed, draped in his immaculate white traditional garb, tells his family story and details to an attentive audience the process of making a pearl.

“When a foreign body penetrates the shell, the mollusc reacts, in a process of self-defence, by surrounding the object with thousands of layers of mother-of-pearl, until it is enclosed in a completely smooth ball,” he explains. If, in nature, one shellfish in 10,000 produces a pearl, this ratio falls to 40 pearls for every 100 shellfish in a farm, explains the fisherman, who, after picking up an oyster in a tank, opens it and extracts a pearl, hidden under the flesh of the mollusc. Wow effect guaranteed!

A growing cultural proposal

Higher up, at exactly 63 metres above sea level, stands Dhayah Fort. This 18th century fortification is the highest perched fort in the United Arab Emirates and was the scene of a battle during the Persian Gulf campaign of 1816, when after a brief siege it was taken by the British army. After clearing the 239 steps that allow access to its summit, the horizon opens up onto the Persian-Arabian Gulf and, on a clear day, allows us to contemplate the Iranian coast.

If the history of this emirate is rich of more than two millennia, it is however poor in vestiges, like the fort of Dhayah, victim of the destructions meticulously orchestrated by the successive occupants, whether Persian, Portuguese, or British. However, the Ras al-Khaimah Museum, located in the former palace of the Sheikh, who occupied it until the mid-1960s, exhibits pottery dating from the 16th century, silver jewellery, period muskets and other swords and daggers.

At 160 mph over the void in Jebel Jais

Further away, on the border with the Sultanate of Oman, and above all higher up, at an altitude of nearly 2,000 metres, Ras al-Khaimah plays the sports card harmonizing with a wild, mineral, almost inhospitable nature. On the road that curves through the mountains and leads to Jebel Jais, there are quarries from which an ore is extracted that is the pride of the locals and of RAK Ceramics (RAK, as in Ras al-Khaimah), the world leader in ceramics and porcelain, whose 30 million pieces produced each year – tableware, bathtubs, washbasins – are shipped to the five continents.

Here, the mercury is much lower than at the seaside. Besides the wild goats that leap from rock to rock with the grace of a ballerina and the precision of a metronome, a toboggan run, the longest in the world, winds its way along the foot of a high-altitude restaurant where locals, tourists, and expatriates relax in the sun. Thrill-seekers will climb a little higher still, to launch themselves, flat on their stomachs, suspended from a cable, 1,000 metres above the ground, on the world's longest zip line: 2,831 metres swallowed up at a speed of between 120 and 160 km per hour. A great thrill guaranteed.

Even higher, at an altitude of almost 2,000 metres, the emirate attracts hikers thanks to its s85 kilometres of tracks and trails. “Soon, we will even reach 100 kilometres,” promises Fadi, who created Adventurati Outdoors, a company in which a dozen guides bring hikers to the highest point of the country, Jebel Jais, at an altitude of 1934 metres. There, a white milestone, which can be crossed with a single step, symbolises the border with Oman. Thepanorama, unique on the mountains, also allows observing the sun from its rise on the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman, to its set on the Persian-Arabic Gulf. It's magnificent!

A little lower down, at an altitude of 1770 metres, Fadi has set up a comfortable camp, sheltered from the winds, the cold, and the snow that sometimes fall on this territory, which can then become hostile. Inside, traditional dishes prepared by local people will satisfy the hikers. Special mention should be made of the luqaimat, small round fritters, copiously sprinkled with date syrup, which can be eaten without moderation.

The destination, located only 45 minutes drive from Dubai airport, is served by Emirates and Air France. Next November, Ras al-Khaimah International Airport will welcome flights from Paris, operated by Qatar Airways, with a stopover in Doha, which opens up new prospects for the small emirate with great potential.

A booming offer of luxury hotels in Ras al-Khaimah

When it comes to accommodation, Ras al-Khaimah offers five-star solutions of the highest standard. The Waldorf Astoria Ras al-Khaimah, with its thousand-and-one-night architecture, sits on the white sandy beach of Al Hamra, where its 356 rooms and suites, along with seven restaurants, swimming pools, a spa, tennis courts and two golf courses, offer the ultimate in comfort.

The Mövenpick Resort Al Marjan Island offers quality service in a modern design. The 418 rooms, suites and private villas each offer a view of the sea. The resort also offers six bars and restaurants, three outdoor pools, a wellness centre and gym, four treatment rooms, water sports and a kids' club.

On the man-made Hayat Island, the InterContinental Ras al-Khaimah Resort & Spa has 351 rooms, suites and private villas with pools, six restaurants and bars, a top-class spa and a kids' club.

Ras al-Khaimah is also home to two Ritz-Carlton with diametrically opposed atmospheres. The first, The Ritz-Carlton al-Khaimah Al Hamra Beach, is located on the beach front. It offers 32 private Arabian-style tented villas, all with swimming pools, and a seafood restaurant. The second, The Ritz-Carlton Ras al-Khaimah Al Wadi Desert, is set in a 100,000-hectare nature reserve in the desert. From its 100 villas equipped with private pools, it is possible to go on a 4x4 safari in the dunes to discover oryx, gazelles, and other desert foxes. Camel rides, horse riding and falconry shows are also on the programme.

Finally, several luxury hotel complexes are under construction. The first, owned by the Anantara group, with 174 rooms, suites and water villas, will welcome its first visitors at the end of 2023, on Hayat Island. Nobu Hotels will soon open a 300-key address on Marjan Island. In addition, the 300 rooms of the Sofitel Al Hamra Beach Resort should be able to welcome visitors from 2024. The Wynn Al Marjan Island, a luxurious hotel-casino complex of the Wynn group and its 1,500 rooms and suites, is scheduled to in 2027.

Le Méridien Hotels & Resorts will also be located on Al Marjan Island and will have 350 rooms with ocean views, seven restaurants, a fitness centre, a spa and a kids' club. Opening expected in 2026.

About the author

A journalist for 20 years, Guillaume is a fan of exclusive places where comfort, quality of service and gastronomy are combined. All this, tinged with a simplicity and a smile that are the prerogative of the ultimate luxury.

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