Although Saadiyat Island is likely to be one of the headline-grabbing developments of Abu Dhabi’s cultural sector, the rest of the emirate is also seeing a wave of new culture- and history-related projects.
Perhaps the most highly regarded globally of these currently is Al Ain Oasis. Located in the heart of the emirate’s second city, 160 km and just under two hours’ drive east of the capital, the Oasis attraction was launched in late 2016 and is the centrepiece of the UAE’s first curated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Containing 147,000 date palms over 1200 ha, the oasis is the largest of the seven in Al Ain City. The heritage site provides an opportunity for visitors to wander through a living and functioning oasis landscape, being introduced to its unique culture and technologies. The oasis’ ancient system of aflaj – irrigation channels and reservoirs – continues to be fully functioning and is explained at a purpose-built eco-centre at the site entrance. Similar systems remained in use in the emirates and throughout the Gulf region into the 20th century, and rely on gravity and natural pressure to propel water around their channels.
At Al Ain Oasis, mobile apps guide visitors around narrated trails, introducing them to the flora and fauna, as well as the delicate environmental balancing act that allowed the oasis’ farmers and inhabitants to survive and flourish over the centuries. The architecture and traditional practices of the oasis are also highlighted, offering visitors a deeper understanding of Al Ain’s key role in the culture and history of the region. The site connects easily to several other neighbouring attractions, all included under the UNESCO umbrella. Indeed, the heritage site includes six oases within Al Ain, as well as three nearby archaeological sites: Hili Archaeological Park, Bronze Age tombs centred around the 2000-BCE Hili Grand Tomb; Jebel Hafeet Tombs, a series of 5000-year-old single-chamber burial sites; and Bida Bint Saud, which, while also including millennia-old tombs, features a 3000-year-old falaj (the singular of aflaj), one of the oldest ever discovered.
Al Ain Oasis is also located adjacent to the city’s two museums; Al Ain National Museum to the east and Al Ain Palace Museum to the west. Qasr al Muwaiji, the former home of the UAE’s founding president, the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, is nearby and has recently been renovated.
More To Come
Al Ain Oasis is just one of 25 heritage sites that the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi) plans to open over the next five years around the emirate. The authority is working on restoring and opening a number of historic buildings, while weaving festivals and other cultural events into and around these activities.
Al Ain, for example, now has a year-long programme of cultural events for 2017. This includes arts and handicraft workshops, outdoor film shows, traditional Emirati performances and a bus tour that enables tourists to visit traditional homes. Local museums, artists, poets and performers will be joined by international orchestras and media exhibitions, along with a food festival and displays by France’s Versailles Academy of Equestrian Arts.
Under TCA Abu Dhabi’s tourism and culture development plans, Al Ain forms the centre of the historical heritage arm of a three-pillar strategy. The other two arms are urban culture, centred on Abu Dhabi City and its surroundings, and traditional culture, based in the Al Dhafra Region. The year ahead is therefore likely to see Abu Dhabi take some key steps towards building its cultural tourism sector.
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