Island oasis of Al Sammaliah provides young Emiratis with a bridge to the past

Al Sammaliah is a sanctuary for animals, reptiles, plants, fish and even bees. More than that, it is a place where young Emiratis reconnect with their past.

AL SAMMALIAH // Just 12km north-east of Abu Dhabi city and a five-minute boat ride from Al Raha Beach lies a secluded island. This is Al Sammaliah, a sanctuary for animals, reptiles, plants, fish and even bees. More than that, it is a place where young Emiratis reconnect with their past. Away from the traffic and the bustle of the city, it is a peaceful place, until the quiet is interrupted each day by the sound of a white 4x4, driven by Abdul Kareem al Ali.
He drives slowly around the island, stopping at an enclosure housing 400 turkeys. Their response to his greeting, a honk of his horn, is enthusiastic gobbling. Their enclosure is one of hundreds. Nearby, a rescued female Egyptian duck waddles around with her ducklings. A golden male pheasant vies for the attention of dozens of females. Quails and other smaller birds admire the bigger emus and ostriches.
Swans swim along the mangroves near grazing gazelles, which maintain a disinterested distance from the bird dorms. All this is seen each summer by hordes of students, who visit in their thousands to learn about everything from sailing a dhow, to riding horses and camels, to social traditions such as the making of traditional coffee. "It is a bridge between the old and the new generations of Emiratis," said Mr al Ali, the head of environmental research on the island.
His job is to educate future generations about their country's natural history and habitats. "Time stops here on the island, giving the young a chance to enjoy the simpler and smaller things in life and reconnect with their past through the elders in their communities," he said. The island is run by the Emirates Heritage Club, which was established in 1993 under the patronage of Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed. It has more than 200 staff, and receives tens of thousands of visitors each year from schools and educational institutions across thecountry.
At 37, Mr al Ali is one of the younger teachers on the island. More typical is Khamees al Rumaithy, 86, a former sailor, fisherman and pearl diver, whose job is to pass on those skills to a new generation, teaching them to understand the winds in sailing and the habits of fish in the sea. "If you want to sail, then you have to do it the right way," he says. "Even if you have the latest boat with the best technology, the sea is stronger and will always win in the end. The new generation doesn't pay enough attention to nature and its guidance."
He is from the al Rumaithy, a prominent coastal tribe in Abu Dhabi. One of his people's ancestral homes has been reconstructed on the island, with five rooms, a majilis, an elaborate wind tower, which catches cool breezes high above the ground and directs it into the interior of the building, and an open square in the middle with swings overlooking the sea. It is built out of gypsum, coral and sea shells.
Despite his occasional impatience at their lack of knowledge or interest, Mr al Rumaithy says he looks forward to "each and every" chance he gets to talk to the young people. Besides the heritage and wildlife districts of the island, there is a tour of 32 beehives and an introduction into the "life of bees". Mohammed Fathi, an Egyptian who has been taking care of the imported Egyptian bees on the island for six years, said: "Bees don't like strangers and are very protective over their homes, so we introduce the students very carefully to the their world and tell them not to be afraid as bees sense fear."
There are 7,000 bees on the island, and only one queen bee. Their hives are protected from ants by bowls of oil at the feet of the table, and a beekeeper who keeps constant guard. The staff hope that by the end of their visit, which can last from a day to a few weeks, their young guests will have fond memories and a new outlook on life. "Patience, knowledge and manners, like how to greet a guest and how to behave in groups, are just some of things we hope our youth take back home with them," Mr al Ali says.
During his drives, he has to stop at the desert part of the island. Waiting patiently for a glimpse of the elusive desert lizard, the dabb, Mr al Ali says: "The older members of our club look forward to holiday breaks, sometimes more so than the students themselves."