If the notion of a private beach is an anathema to you, you’re not alone – many of us in the UAE hail from countries where beach access is as free as the air we breathe. But a cursory glance at a map of the UAE’s best seaside spots reveals that some of the best-kept stretches of coastal land are privately owned, often by five-star hotels that charge substantial amounts for anyone to just sit on the sand.
The UAE has a coastline that stretches over 1,318 kilometres, but some people have never really explored it, possibly put off by the belief that there’s no such thing as a decent public beach, where the masses are conspicuous only by their absence, where the water is crystal clear, and the sand isn’t covered with cigarette butts or discarded drinks cans. Do such places exist? The good news is that yes, they do, here's where you'll find them...
1. Saadiyat Beach, Abu Dhabi
OK, so this isn’t exactly free to access (Dh25 for adults, Dh15 for children who are 6 and over), but stay with us, it’ll be worth it. While it’s flanked by five-star beachfront resorts, Saadiyat Island’s 400-metre public beach is a protected natural shoreline lapped by impossibly blue waters, which are by law bereft of jet skis, speed boats and other irksome watersport machinery, yet regularly home to schools of majestic dolphins.
Facilities are plentiful – loungers, towels, umbrellas and changing rooms are all available – and there are also lifeguards on duty. But Saadiyat’s trump card is its status as a haven for some of the country’s most prized wildlife. The dunes are protected and no development is permitted within 60 metres of the shoreline, allowing the hawksbill turtle to nest and breed here in peace.
2. Shuweihat Island
This one really does take some commitment, but the rewards to anyone who makes the epic journey (from practically anywhere else in the UAE) to this stunning location are innumerable. If you’re familiar with the colour of sandstone the ancient city of Petra in Jordan is famous for, you’ll know what to expect from the low-lying cliffs and caves that look like nothing else you’ll have seen in this country.
Ideal for a meticulously planned, long weekend of camping, Shuweihat is about as far west along the coast as you can get before you’re faced with the Saudi border – not too far past the town of Ruwais. You’d be advised to best use a four-wheel drive vehicle to get across the causeway and over the rocky headland, whereupon it’s best to disembark and scramble down to the water’s edge. You won’t believe your eyes – it’s that beautiful down there.
3. Mirfa Beach
Way out west of Abu Dhabi in the Al Gharbia region, Mirfa Beach is home to the annual Al Dhafra Watersports Festival (every April) and is its only developed beach. But don’t let that put you off going, for if you can stomach the long, long drive to get there, this pristine stretch of public coast lapped by turquoise waters is almost always peaceful and uncrowded.
Camping facilities are available and there’s a small, low-key village nearby where you can buy supplies. You have to pass through this place to get to (or from) Sir Bani Yas Island if you’re going there by car, so why not stop off en route and soak up a day or two of extra downtime before heading back to the daily grind?
4. Black Palace Beach, Dubai
Some call it Al Sufouh Beach, others Secret Beach. But Black Palace Beach gives this stretch of pristine white coast a nice mysterious touch and, for the most part, people are unaware it even exists. Sandwiched between royal palaces in Al Sufouh, not far from Knowledge Village, the entrance is unsigned and there are no facilities, no restaurants, no showers, no lifeguards and, depending on the time of day, no other people. Bliss.
So if you’re self-sufficient and fancy a few hours of simple, unadulterated and tranquil beach time, coupled with impressive views of the Burj Al Arab, take a towel, seek it out and relax. It might be smack bang in the heart of Dubai, but this is about as basic and peaceful as it gets.
5. Khor Fakkan
Overlooking the Gulf of Oman, Khor Fakkan (part of Sharjah, bordering with Fujairah) is a favourite destination for city dwellers who just want to get away from it all and soak up some good old-fashioned nature. Roughly translated as “The Creek with Two Jaws”, the loveliest public area of the lot is a peaceful cove known as Heart Beach on account of the shape that’s been carved into the headland above.
The Oceanic Hotel is nearby if you fancy stopping over, but Heart Beach will take about 15 minutes of trekking to reach – a small price to pay when you clap eyes on this paradisiac location, the likes of which you won’t have believed exist anywhere in this region. This is the UAE coastline at its finest; just make sure that if you do visit, that you leave it just as you found it: naturally beautiful.
6. Jebel Ali Beach
Not far from the hustle and bustle of Dubai, but far enough to dissuade many from making the trek, Jebel Ali’s public open beach is a great place to chill out. Adjacent to JA Jebel Ali Golf Resort, this stretch is natural and bereft of the facilities demanded by most tourists, which is probably another reason the crowds stay away.
The water is calm and shallow, and there’s an almost surreal view to the left when looking out to sea, of the concrete support pillars that may, one day, support one of the roadways onto Palm Jebel Ali. For now, however, this unassuming bay of beauty is not disturbed by the racket of construction – for the most part, it’s a peaceful respite from the city. Just don’t be taken in by its nickname of “Dog Beach”, as pooches are no longer allowed on the sands.
Take your passport with you if Dibba tickles your fancy – you’ll need it to go in and out of Omani checkpoints to get to the best stretches of beach. Even the journey there is breathtaking, with the imposing Hajar Mountains ever present, providing dramatic backdrops all along the coast.
Do your homework and you’ll discover that the best beaches are unreachable by car. You need to put in some legwork, or charter a boat, if you want isolation and quality snorkelling in waters teeming with marine life. Not far from the renowned Zighy Bay, Al Mayam and Haffa are some of the finest and most peaceful areas of UAE coast that are well worth seeking out. Take your tent once the weather has calmed down a bit and unplug from everyday life.