Everyone has heard of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But challenge a friend to name the other five emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and they'll be lucky to come up with one name. Indeed, I struggled to do it myself. So I thought I'd better go and find out more. They're Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain, Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah. They're relatively small and accessible from Dubai, as they all lie to the north of this area of the Persian Gulf.
That doesn't mean to say it's easy. It's a complicated map. The different emirates are not content with strips of coast. They also (especially Sharjah) have enclaves and exclaves dotted around the other emirates. At times, I'm guessing which one I'm in. Driver-cum-guide Bilal tells me you can work it out from the street lamps.
First up, just north of Dubai, is Sharjah. It covers 1,000 square miles and has a population of over two million. It has been ruled by Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi since 1972, (except for a six-day period during an attempted coup d'état by his brother).
All the emirates are named after, and revolve around their capital cities. Sharjah comprises the city of Sharjah and other minor towns and exclaves distributed throughout the UAE. (Like I said above.) In 2022, Sharjah made history when its public sector adopted a four-day working week and a three-day weekend.
Sharjah city is the third-most populous city in the United Arab Emirates, and forms part of the ongoing urban strip. Similar to Abu Dhabi, in the sense that it is a mix of modern and older buildings. Quieter and less brash and futuristic than Dubai, it has a historic harbour/canal, lined with old dhows and services developing industries.
But it seems that Sharjah is also a tourist hub and the cultural capital of the UAE. The sale of alcohol is totally banned in Sharjah, making it an attractive proposition for Islamic tourists. This probably also explains why it's more peaceful here. There are plenty of hotels, attractive parks for strolling and fun, Kahlid Lagoon (home to a giant fountain and Al Noor Island) and a very pleasant corniche - Al Buheirah.
There are a plethora of museums: history/archaeology, natural history, science, arts, heritage, Islamic art and culture. At least two forts and numerous (over 600) elegant mosques.
I'm sure I've left something out. I haven't time to visit more - I wasn't, I confess, expecting such largesse. But I have to mention the shopping. There are several relatively modern covered souks, designed in Islamic style. There's the bustling fish and vegetable market and the more subdued (at least when I went, perhaps it was too early) gold souk. The gold souk sells other things too - there are a lot of clothes - and it's commonly known as The Blue Souk. There are also numerous malls - including the Mega Mall. It speaks for itself.
The Emirate of Ajman, a chunk adjoining the coast, but completely otherwise, surrounded by Sharjah, is the smallest of the emirates in terms of area. It's relatively densely populated though; the fourth most populous emirate in the UAE. It mainly consists of the city of Ajman, but it also also controls two small inland agricultural exclaves: Manama and Masfout. (I said the map of the UAE was complicated.) Ajman is ruled by Sheikh Humaid bin Rashid Al Nuaimi III of the Na'im tribe
The city of Ajman is the northern most section of the Dubai-Sharjah metropolitan area. So, it's mainly urban, industrial and residential, with a port based along a natural creek. But tourism is developing. There's a burgeoning corniche with a strip of decent beach alongside and several large expensive hotels, from well known chains. There are a couple of museums, one inside a fort and City Centre Ajman, the Emirate’s biggest mall. I also spot the Al Murabbaa Watchtower. It looks old, but nothing here is very ancient and it dates from the 1040s. It's the remains of the coastal defences and today it's forlorn in the middle of a roundabout. Further on, the Diwan, the Sheikh's Palace, with its gold domed roof.
There are also a range of restaurants and fast food outlets. So it seems like a good moment to sample Arabic KFC. The spicy option isn't bad at all. I'm happy to agree it's finger lickin' good.
The Emirate of Umm Al Quwain is mainly the city of Umm Al Quwain. It's built on the site of a fort built in 1768, by the founder of the modern Al Mualla dynasty, Sheikh Rashid bin Majid, of the Al Ali tribe. It's on a finger of land, pointing into the Persian Gulf and has 15 miles of coast, It was a key stop on the trade route between the Middle East and India. The other part of this, the least populated emirate, is the inland oasis town of Falaj Al Mualla, some 19 miles from the sea.
Sadly, there's no gas or oil in Umm Al Quwain and it depends on revenue from hotels, parks and tourism, fishing and general trading. (There's a Free Zone in the port.) And this is where, travelling further north, we suddenly hit desert proper, and camels. Even though we are shortly catapulted into the neighbouring emirate.
Night is falling, when we get to Umm al-Quwain City. The fort, on which it was founded was the site of a coup in 1929. when the incumbent Sheikh. Hamad Bin Ibrahim Al Mualla was assassinated by one of his blind uncle’s servants. The townsfolk, unhappy at the imposition, rose and set fire to the fort, killing the usurpers and putting the Al Mualla family back in power. The fort has since been restored and now houses the Umm Al Quwain National Museum. Or so I'm told. Bilal can't find it in the dark. We have to settle for some other government buildings.
Ras Al Khaimah is the most northerly of the emirates, but it doesn’t reach right to the tip of the Persian Gulf peninsula. That’s occupied by Musandam, an exclave of Oman, so it can control the Straits of Hormuz.
Ras Al Khaimah was a latecomer to the UAE (1972), after a spat with Iran (they seized Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs). Its name means ‘headland of the tent’. And the scenery is changing. There are mountains (the Hajar), villages and stretches of rocky desert here, and a large southerly inland exclave (near the Dubai exclave of Hatta), and a few small islands in the Persian Gulf. Ras Al Khaimah has the most fertile soil in the country, due to a larger share of rainfall and underground water streams from these mountains. It also has attractive beaches and good diving.
But, as with the other emirates, the majority of the population lives in the city, after which the emirate is named. The city of Ras Al Khaimah has two main areas - the Old Town and Nakheel - on either side of a creek. It has engulfed the medieval Islamic port of Julfar.
Today, Ras Al Khaimah is ruled by Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi. (The same dynasty that runs Sharjah). Their tribe were a frequent thorn in the flesh for British shipping in the early eighteenth century (both here and in Sharjah). There's some debate about the level of so called piracy on this coast, but the Qawasim, were eventually 'subdued'.
Ras Al Khaimah has been the site of continuous human habitation for 7,000 years. The village of Shimal (and around) is an important archaeological site, containing numerous graves (at least 250) and barrow tombs with fine bronze arrowheads, beads and pottery. dating back to the Umm Al Nar culture (2,500–2,000 BC).
Then came a medieval palace, on the ridge above the village. It is the only ancient Islamic palace known in the UAE and dates back to the Julfar period (13th-16th century AD). It was most probably the residence of the ruler of Julfar, once the most famous and prosperous trading town in the whole lower Gulf, built for cooling breezes at altitude and its strategic defensive position.
After the sixteenth century, the palace became a fort or 'sur', a retreat for all the villagers operating the palmeries below. The town wall ran some seven kilometres from the port lagoon to the south of present-day Ras Al Khaimah and to the mountains here. It was four to five metres wide, with watchtowers placed every 150 metres. There’s a restored watchtower behind a wire fence at the bottom.
The remains of the fort are reached via a long flight of stairs, that peter out, to deliver a steep scramble through shale. The fort (I’m told) was a long rectangular structure. It’s difficult to discern much other than a piece of pitched roof (it's surrounded by barbed wire) and some walls. The palace remains have been excavated by German archaeologists, who restored the water cistern under the pitched roof.
For some reason it’s known locally as The Queen of Sheba's Palace, although no-one has any idea why. But there are lovely views, overlooking the plain, to the sea, from our plateau. Even if it isn't very cool, after my climb.
The Hajar Range is home to the highest mountains in the UAE. The tallest is Jebel Jais, at 1,934 metres, but there's some debate as to whether it counts. It's on the border with Musandam and the summit is located on the Omani side. A high point west of this peak is considered the highest point in the United Arab Emirates, at 1,892 metres. The highest peak in the UAE is Jabal ar Raḩraḩ (1,691 metres).
And now we're driving west, through the dramatic, starkly brown mountains, to Fujairah, the only emirate wholly on the east coast of the peninsula.
The Sharqiyin tribe, are in charge of the Emirate of Fujairah, controlling old trade routes via Wadi Ham and Wadi Abadilah. The modern roads we’re driving today follow these routes, through the mountains.
The east coast of what is now the UAE used to be known as the Shamaliyah, and was part of Muscat until it was annexed by Al Qasimi of Sharjah, in 1850. (Apparently Oman agreed). In 1901, when the emirate consisted of some 150 houses, 3,000 date palms and some pearling businesses, Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Sharqi, chief of the Sharqiyin, declared independence from Sharjah. The declaration was recognised by most of the Trucial Sheikhs and also by Muscat, but not by the British, who found the new ruler 'antagonistic'.
The British gave in, in 1952, in order to facilitate the signing of oil treaties At the same time, Sharjah took control of the southerly city of Kalba, forming an exclave (and other areas too it transpires). But we're right in the north. Past Dibbah, another exclave belonging to Sharjah and south beside the sea, alongside the many popular beaches. Like most Arab states, Fujairah likes its roundabout decoration.
Now we're in yet another enclave of Sharjah. I'm totally bemused and glad I'm not the cartographer - or the navigator. This one is called Khor Fakkan. It lays claim to golden beaches edged with walkways, an ugly concrete like waterfall and, a natural deep sea port, very handy to maintain Sharjah's access to the eastern seaboard. The Khorfakken Monument, on a roundabout, here depicts an incense burner (mabkhara) - as these are strongly embedded in Arab hospitality. This one even has fog machines, to produce the incense effect. Low level only - we don't want to cause accidents.
Nipping back into the Hajar Mountains, there's a fort or two and a restful park with a lake, created by a dam at Al Rafisa. It's a gorgeous spot, and no doubt the water is a necessity in such an arid country. But they sacrificed a village to create it. I'm told you can see the rooftops when the water recdes.
Back in Fujairah again (I think). The tiny Al-Bidya (or Ottoman) Mosque claims that it's the oldest known mosque in the country, perhaps dating back to 1446. It's quaintly built of mud and stone, with nipple like domes. It was thought to have had watchtowers, (there's a fort above), but no minaret.
However, I've read that, in 2018, the ruins of a 1000-year-old mosque (dating back to the Islamic Golden Age), were discovered, near the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Mosque in Al Ain, in Abu Dhabi.
South, another 25 miles, to Fujairah City. This has a huge and important port and Free Zone. It provides direct access to the Indian Ocean for the United Arab Emirates, avoiding use of the Persian Gulf, which requires access via the Strait of Hormuz. The northern part of the waterfront is lined, endlessly (it seems), with cylindrical tanks for oil storage.
The main sight here is the restored Fujairah Fort and the nearby Fujairah Museum. (It boasts its home to an ostrich egg 2,500 years old.) The main mosque is the large white Sheikh Zayed Mosque, the second largest in the UAE, with the same name, as the largest, in Abu Dhabi, This one can hold around 28,000 worshippers. It's a landmark, visible from a very long way away.
Finally, the highway back to Dubai. Through still more bits of Sharjah, with some impressively huge educational and government buildings.
The UAE is a an arid and mountainous country. Tourism offers desert experiences and beach activities for the most part, But Dubai in particular, with its upmarket hotels and malls, is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
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