Gazelles on sand dunes near Al Ain, UAE.

A Drive Through the Desert from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain

Beige and black camels lazily grazing on tufts of grass, colossal sand dunes in shades of apricot, peach and tangerine, and herds of elegant Arabian sand gazelles — these are some of the delights spotted on the two-hour drive inland from the sprawling United Arab Emirates capital Abu Dhabi to the diminutive desert city emirate of Al Ain.

Once out of Abu Dhabi city, where traffic is often gridlocked and driving is erratic at best, cruising the UAE’s smooth wide highways with their lush green median strips is easy and stress-free and most boast brilliant desert scenery, easily as stunning as any in the Middle East.

There are only two things you need to be concerned about: lane-changing locals tearing by you at 160kms an hour and camels taking their time to cross the road.

One of the best things about Abu Dhabi is that the desert is on its doorstep. Just ten minutes from the city outskirts, there are gently undulating sand dunes and picture-postcard vistas of camels ambling the desert.

Emiratis make an effort to get out of the city regularly — there’s nothing like the desert to clear the head, they say — whether it’s for a weekend camping under the stars as their Bedouin grandparents did, an afternoon of falconry with friends, or a couple of days with the family at a desert resort.

Terence and I see our first camel roaming towards a lush, palm-shaded oasis less than ten kilometres out of the city and pull over to take a snap, as all camel spotting fans like to do.

Around Shabat, we stop to marvel at magnificent orange dunes, some of the finest in the emirate. Not content, we decide to take a detour along the Al Ain-Hatta Rd toward Shwaib to admire enormous rust-coloured dunes dotted with Arabian sand gazelles. On the other side of the road the views are of dramatic rugged mountains.

Not that long ago, in the pre-oil days, it took five days by camel to make the same trip across the dunes — there were no roads then — from the hot, humid coastal village of Abu Dhabi to the cool dry oases of Al Ain.

The stories told by Emiratis of those seasonal journeys their Bedouin grandparents made, from the sea to the desert, are the stuff of One Thousand and One Nights tales. Many still recollect, often fondly, the camel treks they used to make. The desert is a special place for Emiratis.

“Each time I look at Al Ain’s desert dunes, I see new beauty, new spirit, and my heart goes along with their endless shapes,” writes Al Ain artist and poet Wasel Safwan.

It’s been 50 years since the first oil exports left Abu Dhabi. An acute awareness that the oil will run out is what led to Dubai’s frenetic development and meteoric rise as a global transport hub and mega-tourist magnet and Abu Dhabi’s positioning as a luxury destination and cultural capital, and — in recent years — the development of laidback little Al Ain.

But rather than construct another shiny, sky-scraping new city, Al Ain has focused on the things that have always appealed to its residents and long drawn Emiratis and expats from Abu Dhabi and Dubai here for weekend getaways.

There are the tranquil date palm oases and the fertile springs that allow them to flourish, a fine dry climate that’s considerably more comfortable than the sticky, sweltering weather on the coast.

There is the area’s long history and heritage, recognised by UNESCO with a World Heritage listing, and the low-key vibe of this quiet, compact, down-to-earth city.

When you visit Al Ain, that’s what you should focus on too.

See our next story for ideas on what to see and do in Al Ain.



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  1. Rahman @ Destination Iran

    This must have been a lot of fun to have sand dunes in such a short distance from Abu Dhabi. However, you’re right. Oil has changed a lot of things at these countries although Arabs have always been good merchant and known how to get into rewarding deals.

    BTW, don’t tell me you’ve been traveling there in August, when you’ve published this post! You wouldn’t be able to come back from the desert in that heat, could you|?! No no way!

  2. Lara Dunston

    Hello Rahman, we lived in the UAE full-time for almost 8 years, first in Abu Dhabi from 1998, and then Dubai, and then it remained our base as we bounced around the world on assignment for magazines and writing guidebooks. We got very used to the heat very quickly, however, we tried to avoid the summer if we could. Most expats leave at the end of June for two months for summer holidays and we did too. It was only after we returned to freelancing that we found ourselves in the Gulf one summer. It was not fun at all. We spent most of the time indoors!


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