A journey into the desert (and the past) to the hidden gem of Al Sila

Nearly 350km from Abu Dhabi, the small town retains its old way of life

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Nestled in the rolling dunes of the Arabian Desert lies the town of Al Sila, a hidden gem 350km west of Abu Dhabi in Al Dhafra.

Insulated from the hustle and bustle of city life, it feels as if time slows down when you are in Al Sila.

For tourists eager to experience life in the western region of Abu Dhabi that borders Saudi Arabia, the town offers an interesting mix of heritage, culture and a rustic way of life.

The vast stretches of the desert make it a perfect place for camping, with spots in and around Al Sila where you can pitch tents and enjoy the tranquillity of the desert under the night sky.

Not far from the town centre is one of the most prized heritage assets of Al Sila — a 200-year-old Ghaf tree. Locals call it the "Shabhana tree".

“This is the most famous landmark in Sila. The late Sheikh Zayed used to visit it often, and it is an important part of our heritage,” said an Emirati man who drove us to the spot.

Considered one of the oldest and the largest such trees, it stands in the middle of a lush and gated 300-hectare forest.

Access is denied to the public and visitors can catch only a glimpse of the tree that towers over the surrounding foliage. But only from a distance.

A caretaker leads camels through the desert at Madinat Zayed, in Abu Dhabi's Al Dhafra region. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

A visit to Al Sila is incomplete without going to the camel races.

Camel rearing and racing are an integral part of the Bedouin culture in Abu Dhabi, and Al Sila is one of the most famous camel racing destinations in the western region.

Taha, a caretaker at the camel racetrack, said about 200 camel owners gather daily at the track for practice sessions.

“During the season, the tracks get really busy as camels from different parts of Abu Dhabi, and even from neighbouring Saudi Arabia, come to take part in races,” he said.

Population of 8,000

But during Ramadan, the town appears deserted and its small community of about 8,000 people mostly stays indoors.

As is the case with any other part of the UAE, Al Sila’s population is a mix of Emiratis and foreign residents.

Most non-Emiratis are employed in supermarkets and shops, and also the oil refinery in Ruwais, about 80km away.

Ruwais, Madinat Zayed, Liwa, Mirfa and Ghayathi, as well as Delma Island, are other neighbouring towns.

Marjan Khan, a Pakistani resident of Al Sila for the past 14 years, says the town has undergone a facelift since he came.

“I came to Al Sila in 2009. There were no big houses or these shiny buildings. The main streets were tarred but just two lanes,” Mr Khan, who runs Al Gharbeya Furnishings and Spreads, told The National.

He said his father, Yaar Mohammed, who opened the shop, died in 2014, leaving the business to him.

“Since Covid, business is dull. I am struggling to make ends meet. I hardly have any customers these days,” he said.

In one part of the town, a cluster of modern two-storey houses dots the area.

A municipality officer who did not want to be quoted said many new projects had come up recently.

“We are building amenities to add to the quality of life in Al Sila. There is a private ladies' beach, which is very popular,” he said.

The beach for women stretches over 18.3km and the area has restaurants, shops, swimming pools and basketball courts.

A new hospital, a school, a police station and shops have also been built.

A new cycling and running track is being built that will stretch from the town's centre to the public beach.

“Once completed, the running and cycling track will help residents enjoy the outdoors and encourage them to lead a healthy lifestyle,” the officer said.

Al Sila public park is a sprawling green space in the heart of the town centre and is a popular, family-friendly spot.

Updated: April 14, 2023, 6:00 PM


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