Middle East

Where on Earth is Umm al Qaiwain?

An Ilyushin 76 Russian-made cargo plane, once owned by former arms dealer Victor Bout, sits in a lot on the site of the old Umm al Qaiwain airfield Image copyright John Dennehy / The National
Image caption An Ilyushin 76 Russian-made cargo plane, once owned by former arms dealer Victor Bout, sits in a lot on the site of the old Umm al Qaiwain airfield

Dubai and Abu Dhabi have become synonymous with the skyscrapers, glitz and glamour that have escaped much of the Arab world. Yet they are just two of the seven sheikdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates. So what about the other five? UAE-based writer Marcus George has been exploring.

Look at a map of the United Arab Emirates and it is a confusing patchwork of territories.

Just Abu Dhabi and Umm al Qaiwain are coherent chunks of land. The rest are divided up across several other emirates, a legacy of the region's imperial past as protectorates of Great Britain.

This arose as the original borders were drawn up to reflect tribal groupings and allegiances. Although some of these weaving borders may once have been under dispute, all is quiet now.

While the ruling families of the seven territories are tied together in the federation - which is for the most part financed by Abu Dhabi's huge oil wealth - they are keen to promote their own fiefdoms in tourism, trade, construction and industry to keep income flowing. Inevitably some are faring better than others.

Umm al Qaiwain: A quiet backwater

Image copyright Marcus George
Image caption Umm al Qaiwain. Ramshackle, undeveloped and bit neglected

It feels like a forgotten place. Away from the main road, life in this corner of the UAE hums at a gentle pace, a smattering of vehicles navigate their way around pot-holed streets. Modernity has tried to push its way in - a new house here, some road-building there - but with limited success.

This is Umm al Qaiwain, one of the United Arab Emirates' lesser known founding member states - a world away from the bright lights and big city of Dubai.

But that doesn't mean it has nothing to offer. Its natural habitat boasts populations of green turtles and mangroves and a much slower, laissez-faire pace of life that reflects the traditional Emirati way.

"It's a sleepy hollow. Such a laid-back town," says one expatriate who chose to live here.

"Nobody knows about it. It's really undiscovered."

What it lacks in infrastructure - no shopping centres or five-star hotels here - it makes up for with genuine charm and cheaper rents, around a third of the price of Dubai.

Despite some urban sprawl, Umm al Qaiwain remains at heart the fishing village it was decades ago when dhows were carved on the beach.

Plans for big construction were on the horizon once that would have given a boost to the local economy and population but the 2007-08 credit crunch put a stop to that.

In many ways, it resembles what the United Arab Emirates was before oil was discovered: ramshackle, undeveloped - some would say neglected - and comparatively poor.

As such, Umm al Qaiwain is perhaps the clearest example of just how much of the United Arab Emirates remains unknown and unexplored by the outside world.

Ten minutes drive north lies its now disused airfield. A dilapidated Russian transport plane squats close to the entrance, gradually sinking in the sand.

According to UAE news reports, the craft was once linked to the convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout, a hint of the mysteries that disintegrate with its rusting fuselage.

Ras al Khaimah: From industry to tourism

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Like other emirates, Ras al Khaimah offers sun and sand but development too

Continue north from Umm al Qaiwain and you come to Ras al Khaimah, or RAK, the most northerly emirate. Like the others, it offers a sun-kissed coastline and now boasts many a luxury hotel, a relatively new phenomenon.

Last year, it appointed a tourism tsar to promote its attractions that include the UAE's highest mountains. But there is little of Dubai's glitz on show, at least not yet.

Prior to its ambitious drive into tourism, RAK was known for its mining and supply of rock and aggregates which continue to be shipped across the region.

On windy days, dust billows from cement quarries in the north of the emirate.

And then there is RAK Free Trade Zone which in recent years has attracted great interest, describing itself as "one of the fastest growing and most cost-effective free trade zones in the UAE" and hosting 8,000 companies, according to its website.

Droves of expatriates flock here to obtain trade licences and furnished offices that are cheaper than those in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Fujairah: Strategic role

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The oil storage business is big in Fujairah

Decades ago, it is was once the summer-time destination for Emiratis on account of its climate which is a few degrees cooler.

Now, it boasts genuine strategic importance for the rest of the UAE as Fujairah offers access to the Indian Ocean.

Initially, Fujairah was a small port offering bunker fuel for refuelling passing tankers, plus some hotels and beaches. It is now one of the largest bunkering ports in the world.

"It's all about the port," says veteran general manager Capt Mousa Murad.

"In the future, it'll be one of the top three to four ports in the world," he said confidently.

Its destiny was sealed with the opening in July 2012 of a strategic oil pipeline that brings crude from Abu Dhabi's oil fields to Fujairah for export by tanker.

This avoids the need to ship oil through the narrow and sensitive Strait of Hormuz, a prime goal for the leaders of the UAE who fear that conflict in the region could close the waterway and stop their oil lifeline flowing.

A new refinery is set to be built in Fujairah by the end of 2016. In many ways, it is going in the opposite direction to RAK, from idyllic natural habitat to economy-driving industry.

Sharjah: Former glories

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption An Imperial Airways passenger plane, surrounded by an armed guard provided by the Sheikh of Sharjah during a refuelling stop in Kuwait.

The road back from Fujairah passes through Sharjah, Dubai's sizeable neighbour, and in many ways its beating heart. It was once the most important of the seven sheikhdoms owing to its importance as a trading hub.

There is little to distinguish the borders of the two territories other than the landscape: the mountainous environs of Fujairah give way to the flatter dunes of Sharjah.

With rents booming in Dubai, a growing proportion of its labour force has opted to live here and take on the daily commute along Sharjah's clogged roads.

It also seems to be a city of mechanics. Its industrial areas boast car graveyards where dealing in spare parts is a major business. It is also the destination for wrecked US cars which are sold and shipped by the container-load for scrap.

Like other emirates, Sharjah once relied on fishing, pearl-diving and trade. It carved out a central role during the British protectorate era from 1820, where it hosted Britain's only political representative in what were then known as the Trucial States.

By 1932, Sharjah boasted the UAE's first airport, Al Mahatta, a stopover to service Imperial Airways passengers en route from the UK to India.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sharjah is playing catch up to Dubai and Abu Dhabi

It is now one of dozens of the emirates' educational institutions which include a museum dedicated to Islamic civilisation along with art and science museums which lead some to hail it as the UAE's "pioneer" in promoting arts and culture.

Ajman: UAE's minnow

Ajman is the smallest of all the emirates which is nestled between Sharjah and Umm al Qaiwain. With an area of just 250 sq km (95 sq miles), it is more a city than a state.

As with RAK, its population has grown on account of its success in attracting companies to set up in the Ajman free zone.

It is also home to the ship-building company, Arab Heavy Industries and the boat-builder, GulfCraft.

Though it offers beaches and a local souk, the reality is that few people are ever likely to explore Ajman, unless they are interested in buying a luxury yacht.