Its lush valleys, leafy winding lanes and quaint architecture have long offered a refreshing escape from the hustle and bustle of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Change has been slow in coming to Al Ain, the garden city of the UAE and the birthplace of the late Sheikh Zayed, with its population of just over 600,000. But the Urban Planning Council (UPC) and international experts who helped design Abu Dhabi's 2030 development strategy have ambitious plans to revamp the sleepy retreat. They also have their sights on a similar facelift for Al Gharbia.
Many people in Al Ain are delighted by the prospect of modern development bringing their city into the 21st century, but some fear it may prove a double-edged sword for the historic site and its heritage. Although many residents of Al Ain have not heard of the plans afoot to dictate the future development of the city, they are keenly aware of subtle indications that presage big changes to come, and some are concerned about them.
Details of the development plan have yet to be disclosed, but there are already emerging symptoms of growth, such as a recent spike in prices caused partly by an influx of people from other cities in the UAE who have come to Al Ain for its lower living costs. Residents have noticed a lot more vehicles in car parks recently, although double parking has not yet begun clogging side streets. Congestion at roundabouts has increased, even if it is more manageable than Abu Dhabi traffic, and pedestrians are spending more time waiting at pedestrian crossings than before. But they do so patiently as more cars with Dubai licence plates crowd the boulevards of the oasis city.
A major push to develop the city "could be good and bad," said Mahmoud Ibrahim, 28, a salesperson for a mobile phone company, when asked what he thought about the development plans. Mr Ibrahim's revenues have tripled in recent months thanks to an influx of Western tourists and new residents from Abu Dhabi and Dubai, both about 150km away. He said more development and tourism would be a financial plus, especially if managed in an orderly way.
But he expressed anxiety about what else development might bring and feared that growing numbers of people and cars on the narrow streets could invite the same headaches that have plagued other cities in the UAE - including traffic jams, road construction and noise. "It takes me five or 10 minutes to get anywhere from inside the city," Mr Ibrahim said. "To get to Dubai from Sharjah, though, it can take up two hours."
The UPC plans are coinciding with a multitude of projects that will break new ground in the city and surrounding areas and should bring crowds of tourists. Al Ain Zoo will undergo a major expansion from 45 hectares to 900 that will transform the base of Jebel Hafeet into a large wildlife park and residential area. The iconic mountain, which towers over the city's horizon, may also host new indoor ski slopes that would line its escarpment with nearly 337,000 square metres of air-conditioned snow and ski jumps.
If approved, the unusual ski destination could be flanked by hotels, a theme park, a golf course and shopping mall on the pristine mountain. For Abdullah, 25, an owner of Al Raisi, a small boutique that sells traditional Gulf clothing for men, the prospect of more people and business coming to Al Ain is welcome. But he also fears a rapid influx of people could choke the city centre and destroy its relaxed atmosphere.
"We need more hotels, of course, but they should be built outside the city," Abdullah said. His main concern is that the municipality should build housing for labourers outside the city's residential areas as they were already starting to crowd living spaces. "This is a big problem," Abdullah said. "This city has been a calm, peaceful city. There is space to walk here and Inshallah, we hope it will stay that way."
Soi, a 38-year-old Filipino working at Al Ain's Intercontinental Hotel, said the city was special because it was different. "Dubai is a lot like Manila, full of traffic and very expensive. People like this place, and the reason I like it here is because it's green and because it's not like Dubai and Abu Dhabi." It is still unclear, however, whether the UPC plans entail a dramatic facelift for the quaint city centre where streets are lined with boutiques selling homemade perfumes, traditional Gulf clothing and wide assortments of Arabic sweets and spices.
Nathan Alexander, an Australian director of UPC, seemed to suggest in an article that development would create a more densely populated city. Part of the thinking behind the Al Ain development plan that is being drafted was about "avoiding more sprawl and instead creating greater density in the existing city area", he said. Al Ain is bidding to be included on the list of Unesco's world heritage sites, which residents hope will preserve the region's charm, and efforts are already under way to preserve the city and its surrounding areas.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, issued a decree in 2005 ordering the preservation of the city's oases from developers. Meanwhile Al Ain Municipality stated its intention in its strategic plan launched in May to retain the city's Arab architecture. "When people come to Al Ain, we know they want to see the real authentic Arabic city that has its own flavour and its own aroma," said Awad al Darmaki, the municipality general manager.