Much of Ras Al Khaimah’s efforts to promote tourism have focused on the emirate’s white sand beaches, luxury hotels and more relaxed pace of life. At the same time, the emirate is also home to several cultural and archaeological sites that are playing an increasingly prominent role in developing tourism. This is demonstrated by recent efforts to restore the ghost town of Jazirat Al Hamra (JAH), or Red Island, a former pearling hub and Bedouin trading post located just outside of RAK City.
Although the former island on which the village was built has been filled in, and the town itself has lain empty since the early 1970s, much of JAH remains intact today, and the village stands as a snapshot of what life was like before the UAE’s economy was transformed by modernity. Efforts are now under way to turn JAH into a major cultural and historic site, with the village currently under construction and expected to eventually house new hotels and attractions.
Efforts to develop and preserve the nation’s history will see several historic sites in RAK undergo rehabilitation and restoration in the coming years, including Dhayah Fort and the 6000-year-old Sheba’s Palace. Indeed, JAH, with its rich history, hundreds of intact buildings, and special place in the memories and hearts of many Emiratis, represents one of the emirate’s most prominent cultural attractions.
JAH is a secluded town on the coast of RAK, just 18 km outside of RAK City. It began as a coastal village established by, and central to, the Za’ab, or Hadhr (coastal Bedouin), tribe during the 14th century. As far back as the early 1800s, the town housed hundreds, and later thousands of people, many of whom worked as pearl divers, fishermen and coastal traders. JAH endured military and economic conflict with both the British and the Portuguese, while sustaining a steadily growing population and workforce.
However, by the early 1970s the town had been largely abandoned as a result of both economic and political factors, most significantly growth in the UAE’s nascent oil industry, which drew workers from across the Northern Emirates into Abu Dhabi in search of new opportunities.
In recent years, collective efforts to restore the site, originally spearheaded by four local volunteers, have seen RAK residents work on improvements including the installation of street lights and flag poles, and building restoration, in preparation for an annual celebration hosted in the village, and coinciding with the UAE’s week-long National Day celebrations in December. These early efforts have resulted in a restoration and development programme spearheaded by both Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi, ruler of RAK, and Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the UAE.
Part of the charm JAH holds today lies in how so much of it appears untouched and unchanged after decades of abandonment. The village contains 334 historic buildings, including 18 shops, 11 mosques and two schools, much of which stands today as a living memory of the emirate’s deep cultural and historic roots. “Although most of the housing infrastructure has deteriorated over time, many are still standing. It’s an expansive village, it has over 400 units, and a lot of it is still intact. Some of the public areas are still standing and in good shape, like the mosques and fort, and some of the old merchant’s areas – there was a small fish market and a little souq – those are also still standing,” Haitham Mattar, CEO of the RAK Tourism Development Authority (RAK TDA), told OBG.
JAH was built around what was once a thriving pearl industry, which played a central role in the UAE’s economy prior to the nation’s oil boom. Much like the efforts to restore the town today, the industry required a great deal of communal organisation and effort.
Pearl diving is the ancient art of retrieving oysters or mussels from the ocean floor to harvest saltwater pearls. Divers would descend as far as 125 feet on a single breath in order to fill their small nets with shellfish resting in the oyster beds.
Pearl diving was a significant industry and source of income for the people of India, South-east Asia and the Arabian Peninsula, especially the UAE. As a result of its bustling pearl industry, JAH became an international hub during the 19th century, welcoming merchants and prominent citizens from as far away as Iran and Africa, as well as pearl merchants from the Abu Shamis tribe, boat crews and labour from the Shihuh and Habus peoples, and grazing land for the Bedu groups of the Al Khawatir. Villages such as Jazirat Al Hamra were the primary global producers of pearls up until the early 1930s, when the Japanese invention of the cultured pearl — a pearl created by manually placing a shell bead inside an oyster — combined with a global economic depression, killed the industry.
Beware Of Djinn
As well as being a pearling and trading hub, JAH is the UAE’s most famous – and perhaps even its only – “haunted” town. It is visited to this day by thrill-seekers and ghost hunters hoping to spot the legendary djinn. Djinn are invisible spirits found in both Islamic and pre-Islamic Arab mythology. Described as having free will like humans, they are capable of both good and evil deeds and have a tendency to intervene in human affairs. Although famous to Western audiences as the genie in the film Aladdin, they are often portrayed in Arab culture as master shape-shifters who can assume the form of snakes and black dogs.
Much like the djinn, Jazirat Al Hamra became effectively invisible following the collapse of the pearl industry. However, since the final stages of the exodus, the town has risen to prominence among the world’s ghost hunters and filmmakers.
Stories regarding the supernatural presence in JAH started spreading after it was abandoned, and have persisted amongst locals and tourists visiting the site. However some theorise that these stories were left behind by the emigrating Zaabi tribe, hoping that tales of angry spirits would keep their ancestral home safe.
In The Spotlight
The rumoured haunting may have its origins in exaggerated stories of supernatural influence, but it has yielded economic benefits. The film Djinn, for example, released in 2013 and sponsored by the government of Abu Dhabi, was filmed on location in JAH. The notion that JAH is haunted contributes to the village’s quirky charm, playing into a broader government strategy to transform the site into an educational, cultural and historical institution. The cultural myth that has grown up around the site will help attract both local and international visitors.
The governments of RAK and the UAE have also invested heavily in restorations at JAH and other historical sites. Together with RAK TDA, they have drawn up a two-phase master plan to restore the village to its former glory, while RAK TDA has worked with consultancy PwC to develop a post-restoration tourism development plan, which could see new hotels spring up around what could eventually become a living museum. “Some of the existing two- and three-bedroom houses can easily be transformed into tourism facilities, but we still need to build the supporting elements for that, so it will need a hotel built around it. Ideally we do not want to interfere with the authenticity of the existing infrastructure. The goal is to keep its identity as much as possible,” Mattar told OBG. The first phase of the village’s restoration kicked off in early 2015 and is expected to wrap up within two years. After that, RAK TDA may implement new on-site tourist programmes before embarking on the second phase, which will last 12-18 months.
Indeed, the restoration forms part of an ongoing drive to preserve the cultural heritage of the emirate, which will also see restoration activities carried out at Dhayah Fort, a 16th-century fortress that stood as the Al Qawasim tribe’s last bastion against British invaders. Work will also go on at Sheba’s Palace, named for the eponymous queen mentioned in both the Quran and Bible, located in the nearby Hajar Mountains and dating back 6000 years to when RAK was known as Julfar.
Sites like these could potentially become a competitive advantage as tourism continues to develop. “RAK is the richest emirate in terms of archaeological and historical sites,” Mattar told OBG. “It has assets dating back 6000 years, which helps us position ourselves as a destination able to deliver a cultural and heritage experience. To stand out in the sea of sand, RAK needs to find a differentiator, which is having its own historical assets.”
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