It’s home to the world’s tallest building and the highest observation wheel, but step outside of the cities and the UAE really shows what it’s made of, and – spoiler alert – it’s more than just sand.
For our third instalment, we’re leaving the city behind with the outdoor explorers who spend their days in the UAE’s most breathtaking natural spaces.
The secrets of Sharjah
For ecotourism and environment specialist Ajmal Hasan, nowhere in the world compares to Mleiha, a historical site in Sharjah's central region that has been previously nominated for Unesco World Heritage status, with another nomination scheduled in the next two years.
With its rolling red sand dunes, archaeological marvels and spectacular hikes, the area is a treasure trove of natural wonders and a gateway to the country’s Bedouin past.
“This is where the deserts meet the mountains with huge peaks nestled between the red dunes,” says Hasan, who is education manager at the Mleiha Archeological Centre.
“The nature out there is just pristine in terms of landscape, history, wildlife and even the night sky. It’s incredible.”
As well as offering spectacular dunes for quad biking and camping, Mleiha is also home to the Umm an-Nar tomb, a circular Bronze Age grave, as well as the Fossil Rock, featured in our last hidden gems guide.
“These rocks date back 68 million years when the dinosaurs were dying out,” says Hasan. “This area was shallow seabed and now it's mountains, it’s crazy but time changes everything.”
In the modern day, the surrounding area is inhabited by camels, donkeys, gerbils, insects and rare flora and fauna, and the spectacle doesn't end when the sun sets.
“The night sky is incredible here because there’s less pollution and you can see the stars with the naked eye,” he says. “With a powerful telescope, you can even see the rings of Saturn. It’s amazing.”
An hour’s drive from Mleiha lies another of Sharjah's lesser-known natural spots.
Al Rafisah Dam is a large, clear lake overlooked by the Hajar Mountains and surrounded by tranquil green foliage.
“Not many people visit Al Rafisah and it feels completely peaceful and secluded,” says Hasan, who is also head of operations and tourism at Shurooq.
“There’s also a hiking path just behind the mountains where you can go trekking or you can just take a pedal boat and spend an hour just relaxing.
“There’s plenty of fish, toads and migratory birds. It’s a great spot and just opposite is Najd Al Miqsar heritage village where you can hike up to the fort and appreciate the views.”
Wandering around Ras Al Khaimah
Over in Ras Al Khaimah, Hasan recommends nature lovers head to Wadi Buraq, which straddles the border between the UAE and Oman.
“It isn’t signposted so not many people know it’s there.” he explains. “It’s a huge water collection area that forms a pool at the base of the mountains that turns into a proper lake covering hundreds of square metres.
“It’s completely beautiful but there’s no proper road leading to it, so you have to be in an off-road car to visit.”
An hour inland from Wadi Buraq lies conservationist Eddie Robinson’s favourite nature spot, Wadi Shawka, also in Ras Al Khaimah.
“If you want to flip the script on what you know about the UAE and Dubai then you have to go to Wadi Shawka,” he says.
“If you fell asleep on the drive through those mountains and then woke up in Wadi Shawka, you would think you were in a completely different country in a completely different part of the world.”
As the UAE approaches its rainy season, the wadi pools begin to fill, meaning visitors will soon be able to go swimming and spot thirsty wildlife.
“There are wild donkeys, goats, blue iguanas, frogs and fish,” he says. “You are almost guaranteed to see some form of wildlife, birdlife and lizard life.”
Only 25 kilometres from Wadi Shawka sits one of explorer and author Alexander McNabb's top hidden spots in the Hajar Mountains.
"Wadi Ejili is incredible, but it's important to pack safety equipment and check the weather forecast before you set off," he warns.
“Generally, most people will exit on the right to the Dubai-Hatta Road but the trick to it is to plough on ahead and take the track down into the wadi until you come to a quite extensive abandoned village called Sifuni.
“Eventually you’ll get to Wadi Helo, where you’ll find an amazing collection of Iron Age rock carvings up in the mountains. It’s just stunning."
Discovering Dubai’s desert
For aspiring explorers who are a little more nervous about venturing out alone, Robinson recommends spending the night in Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve with Platinum Heritage, for whom he is a senior conservation guide.
“The reserve is around 224 square kilometres in size, but we head to a hidden spot where we’re guaranteed to find animals,” he says.
“In the daytime, we’re looking for oryx and gazelle and at night we get up close to scorpions, snakes, Arabian hares, desert foxes, red foxes, hedgehogs and owls – stuff that can be really hard to find in other places.
“For all it’s part of a tourism experience, it really is a hidden gem.”
Four-wheel drives in Fujairah
For McNabb, who has written books about the UAE's heritage, there's no better way to explore than behind the wheel, though the daring routes he favours are not for the faint-hearted.
“Jabal Yibir road leading up to the mountain is hair-raising,” he says with a laugh. “It was half washed away by the rain in places and climbs steeply up to the highest peak in the emirates. It’s stupendous.”
With an elevation of 1,527 metres above sea level, Jabal Yibir lies in the Hajar Mountains in Fujairah and the only way to reach it is by a white-knuckle four-wheel drive.
“It’s all hairpin bends for kilometres and it’s very steep,” McNabb warns. “It’s brilliant but your spleen is in your mouth half the time.”
Further towards Fujairah’s coast lies Al Hayl, an ancient fortress surrounded by wadis, petroglyphic and archaeological sites.
“The ruler of Fujairah built his summer house here back in the early 20th century and whatever time of year you go there, there’s a cool breeze that wafts up the wadi, which is just lovely,” says McNabb.
“It’s just a beautiful place to drive up to the mountains and have a picnic.
“People say the UAE lacks nature and heritage, but it’s staring you right in the face – you just need to look at it.”
Top 10 UAE spots for nature lovers at a glance:
- Mleiha, Sharjah
- Al Rafisah Dam, Sharjah
- Najd Al Miqsar heritage village, Sharjah
- Wadi Buraq, Ras Al Khaimah
- Wadi Shawka, Ras Al Khaimah
- Wadi Ejili, Ras Al Khaimah
- Wadi Helo, Ras Al Khaimah
- Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, Dubai
- Jabal Yibir, Fujairah
- Al Hayl, Fujairah