How Ras Al Khaimah got its name

From 'head of the tent' to folklore about a sheikh who kept a lantern lit on the top of his tent, the meaning behind Ras Al Khaimah has long been misunderstood

Ras al Khaimah - May 1, 2010 - Kuwati Street on a Saturday night in the Sidroh neighborhood in Ras al Khaimah, May 1, 2010. (Photo by Jeff Topping/The National)
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A friend of mine landed in the Emirates 10 years ago, a fresh graduate ready to join his first big project in the Gulf.

That night, he looked out from his hotel balcony on Sheikh Zayed Road at the construction sites below and wondered which would be his new workplace.

The next day, his boss broke the news. The job wouldn’t be in Dubai but RAK.

“Iraq?” thought my friend. “Isn’t that where the war is?”

Being a polite Irish boy, he kept his thoughts to himself as he was put in a taxi due north.

Only a decade ago, the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah was still relatively unknown to those outside the UAE.

The wife of the Ruler of Sharjah requested people avoid using the common acronym RAK on Tuesday, noting that people should be proud of its heritage.

Of course, use of the acronym has never been disrespectful. The emirate’s most recognisable companies have used it to brand both themselves and the emirate. Look no further than RAKBank, RAK Rock and RAK Ceramics, which has exported the name to millions of households all over the world through embossed toilets, sinks and tiles.

Use of the shorter and snappier title is perhaps inevitable in an age of hashtags, tweets and reduces the chance of mispronunciations and misspellings for those visiting the region.

When I moved to the emirate as a child in 1997, the signboards on the coastal highway each used its own spelling for Ras Al Khaimah in a different way, the favourite being Razzle Khaimah. Even then, the emirate had long been called RAK for the same reason people use USA, UK or UAE. It’s easier.

Once in a blue moon, as happened to my friend, this results in confusion. Yet misunderstandings are increasingly rare as Ras Al Khaimah builds its name as a centre for manufacturing, tourism and logistics.

Some local businesses have taken inspiration and named themselves after RAK’s medieval predecessor Julfar, a fertile city that was home to 50,000 to 70,000 inhabitants at its height in the 14th to 16th centuries. But few residents take the time to learn the history behind a name.

Even those who use the full name of Ras Al Khaimah usually misunderstand its meaning.

Ras Al Khaimah is usually translated as head of the tent, a direct translation from classical Arabic.

This is commonly attributed to its position at the northern point of the tent-shaped UAE but the name Ras Al Khaimah long precedes the formation of the country.

Others explain the name with romantic tales of a sheikh who kept a lantern lit on the top of his tent so mariners could find their way home.

Nonsense, say historians.

Ras refers to the peninsula, or headland, where the original Ras Al Khaimah neighbourhood is located. Khaimah means tent but also refers to tightly-knit palm frond houses that covered the sliver of land between the sea and the creek. So a more accurate translation would be, tip of the palmy huts.