AL AIN // When visiting Al Ain Oasis it is easy to imagine the relief Emirati coastal dwellers felt when arriving there, after braving a three-day trek to escape the summer heat.
With its flowing irrigation system and canopy of thousands of trees, the oasis – which was last week launched as a Unesco World Heritage Site – provided a respite from the typical Bedouin meal of dates and dried milk, offering papayas, bananas and pomegranates in abundance.
Visitors to the heritage site can relive the experience in many ways, as little has changed in its 3,000 years of existence.
“We have tried as much as possible to keep not only the essence of this place the same, but the livelihood of the people who depend on this land, and have done so for hundreds of years,” said Abdul Rahman Al Nuaimi, an Emirati archaeologist who worked on the area’s restoration.
The oasis is still privately owned, with thousands of plots farmed by the Emirati families who have inherited them and who manage more than 140,000 palm trees in the oasis.
“Families have children. They will inherit the land and through generations this has happened, so much that today you’ll find some individuals inherited a single palm tree,” said Hamdan Al Rashdi, an archaeologist for the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.
Mr Al Rashdi said these families still depend on the oasis for livelihood and it remains the starting point to carry the fruit across the UAE and Middle East.
Since the Iron Age, the ancient irrigation network, known as aflaj, has carried fresh spring water from the Hajjar Mountains to nurture 1,200 hectares of dates from all around Al Ain.
“The existence of the irrigation brought about two cultural revolutions – an economic one based on the increased agriculture and a cultural one where people had to start interacting with each other,” said Mr Al Rashdi.
“And that remains until today.
“There is a whole life inside the oasis. They are very cooperative.”
But ownership was not always so organised. One may not expect today that a site with an abundance of dates, mangoes and figs was also one of many battles.
“Around all the oases, you’ll always find forts and defensive towers,” said Omar Al Kaabi, a researcher of historic buildings involved in the project.
“The main source of water is the aflaj and if you can’t defend them then it’s over. Before, there were people who owned the rights to water. People would be obliged to pay for access to that water – that is until Sheikh Zayed, bless his soul, came.”
When Sheikh Zayed united the emirates, he bought the rights to the water sources in Al Ain and redistributed them back to the people to share as equals, said Mr Al Kaabi.
In that time, several laws were established that still govern the area and the water use today.
“For example, you are not allowed to cut the palm trees – not a single one,” Mr Al Kaabi said. “By law, this protects the area from becoming a commercial entity.
“By law, it will continue to serve society by providing sustenance today, as it has been for thousands of years.”
Modern building practices are not allowed in the oasis. Al Ain Municipality supports all private owners in the maintenance of the farms, even helping the owners to rebuild mud walls that separate plots.
“This is what we want – for people to come so we can share this piece of history and to keep it as the heritage that is so important for us,” Mr Al Nuaimi said.