Soft white sand covers my toes before I step into the cool, crystal waters of the Persian Gulf. Behind me rise the five-star hotels of the corniche and beyond them modern shops, cafés, restaurants, souks and construction sites heralding more to come. There is one historic building, a clay-brick fort, where the museum offers a fascinating glimpse of the desert kingdom hidden beneath the veil of oil-wealth’s concrete, glass and asphalt.
I’m in Ajman, the smallest of the United Arab Emirates and the latest to join the tourism boom. Though just 25 miles (40km) from the dazzling lights of Dubai – with its 12-lane highways, miles of malls and sky-splitting towers – Ajman is different.
Calmer, quieter, much less in-your-face. The sand is softer (and natural) and the water, clearer. You can actually walk the nearby streets, and even promenade with locals along the waterfront in an Arab version of the passeggiata.
In the Ajman Tourism Board’s colourful new home – complete with table football – its director, Saleh Mohamed Al Geziry, dressed in full-length white dishdasha, explains that the emirate has signed a partnership with UK tour operator Kuoni and appointed its first overseas representative in England to woo UK holidaymakers.
There are grand expansion plans – including new resort hotels, malls and marinas – but they will not be competing, he insists, with the obsessive record-breaking of “new, new, new,” Dubai. There will be no Burj Khalifa, let alone the even taller Dubai Creek due to open next year. Ajman, he says, is happy to let tourists day-trip to “the busy city” (many hotels provide a free shuttle), returning “home” to Ajman’s “more peaceful, more affordable luxury”.
From just outside the Islamic-arched entrance to my hotel, the Ajman Saray (owned by the crown prince, who quietly drops by for coffee at weekends), I can see the fort, now home to the Ajman Museum. Its castellated clay walls glow in the sun as we enter the courtyard, flanked by a conical tower like a perfect sandcastle, and a delicate terracotta minaret from which sings out a particularly harmonious call to prayer.
This is quite a simple museum, but it is revealing. I start in the room about pearl diving, once Ajman’s main source of income (along with the smuggling, for which it was historically a front). Pearl-collecting continues, but it is now more a pastime than a profession, and you can learn all about it on a tourist trip aboard a traditional dhow.
These solid rough-wood sailing boats, workhorses of the Persian Gulf far back into the mists of time, are still the region’s fishing boats. Each morning and evening they deposit their catch at Ajman’s waterside fish market, where residents and restaurateurs drop by to bid at the fish auction, or browse the many stalls. I wander the aisles of sparkling tuna, barracuda, parrot fish and goggle-eyed lobster, and watch the dhows neatly manoeuvring into their night-time berths.
The museum has displays on local crafts and traditional medicine, some of it still used, says our guide, “because the prophet tells us about it”. I see colourful traditional costumes on display, quite unlike the top-to-toe black in which my female guide is swathed. “I wear those brighter clothes on Fridays when I am not working,” she says.
Ajman is known for its textiles. People come from across the UAE to Saleh Souk. It’s a couple of minutes’ walk from the museum, past an extension that is under construction along with a new heritage district of shops, eateries and a cinema/cultural venue expected to open towards the end of the year.
At the souk, we watch as a few local women (all in the requisite black abaya – some showing just their faces, others only their eyes), browse the bright brocaded kaftans and jalabiyas, while white-robed men sit on a reed-shaded bench to chat.
Opposite is the Gold Souk; shop after glittering shop full of bangles, earrings, and the intricate layered necklaces that are the traditional women’s wedding wear. Marriage costumes have changed little since the one in the museum, and bridal gold is still the must-have status symbol. “It’s heavy,” I’m told, “and heavy on the groom family’s pocket, too!”
“Before the wedding, the bride has a hen night,” my guide seems to say, as she points at another museum display. A hen-night? “No, henna – to pattern the skin.” I laugh. This would be one of the least-appropriate places for a hen night. Although I am assured, repeatedly, that Ajman is safe for women (as well as men) and I never feel uncomfortable, even the hotel – where bikinis on the beach are fine – has a sign on the door of its changing rooms saying “No Nudity”.
I move on to perhaps the most interesting room in the museum – the royal family’s bedroom. This small, simple first-floor space with a canopied, carved bed and a couple of red-patterned Persian carpets, was the home of the Sheikh of Ajman until 1970. This was the heart of his emirate in the not-so-distant days before oil, when the town was a handful of houses among desert sand and scrub.
I do see a stretch of the original terrain at the crown prince’s stud farm. Here he raises prize-winning Arab horses with round, deep-pond eyes and strangely crocodilian muzzles that win them beauty titles across the world.
A museum of the Arab horse is planned here, likely to open in a year or so, but today I follow Omar, the head trainer, through stables hung with coloured glass and latticed lanterns. I meet many champions including long-time royal favourite, white stallion Escape, after whom the smoking bar in our hotel is named.
Beyond the stables, a herd of elegant oryx wander the desert sand. One stands in seeming symbolism, alone on the horizon, framed by the towers of a new development ghostly grey in the heat-haze.
Not all of Ajman’s nature is gone and efforts are being made to protect some of what remains. The emirate owns two inland enclaves, Al Manama and Masfout – the former agricultural, the latter mountainous – where outdoor and adventure tours are being established. I stay near the coast and at Quest for Adventure, meet Brian Parry, ex-British Army soldier, who runs kayaking trips amid the Ramsar-protected mangroves of Ajman Creek.
Following him along a muddy path between these tightly wound, succulent-leaved trees is like going through the cupboard into Narnia. Suddenly there is not a building in sight and all around is tranquil water, fringed with verdant forest.
Paddling peacefully along in stable, easy-to-use open kayaks, we watch sea-squirts fountain at the edge of mud silver-plated with coral-like clumps of shiny grey polyps. A heron jumps up and down on the surface of the water as it wrestles with a fish, and a colossal cormorant fans its great black wings, its creamy body like an extension of the dramatic dead tree on which it is perched.
A broad-winged marsh harrier circles above, an osprey swoops, and a kingfisher flits across a side-channel, before we reach a fashion parade of fancy-themselves flamingos catwalking through the water.
The mangroves are on the edge of the Al Zorah development, already boasting an 18-hole Troon-designed golf course, a marina (two more to come) and the first hotel, an exceptionally stylish, Zen-calm Oberoi resort created by Milanese designer-architect Piero Lissoni.
Not in the least Arabic, its 29 acres, rich with greenery (the maintenance of which is “our main cost,” reveals a manager) support just 89 units including gorgeous contemporary villas looking on to the pristine white-sand beach.
“Many of our guests never leave the resort,” I am told, “they come to relax and recharge.”
And this is, in fact, a pattern at many hotels here – resorts designed to meet your every holiday need. Back at the Saray, I take a dip in the sea and laze briefly on a mattressed sunbed by the pool, before a taster treatment in the clean, serene, exclusive spa.
A cocktail in the beach bar (this dry emirate makes exception for licensed international hotels) leads most agreeably into a delicious dinner of Arabic specialities – tahini-rich hummus, baba ganoush (smoked aubergine dip), lamb in several flavourful forms, fish and perfect lobster. I’d certainly be happy to just chill out here for a while.
Kuoni (01306 747008; kuoni.co.uk) offers seven-night packages including flights, transfers, B&B accommodation and excursions, from £799 per person at the Ajam Saray and £1,349 at the Oberoi Beach Resort, Al Zorah.
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