Dune roaming: Discover the real Arab culture in Abu Dhabi

Matthew Teller heads out of the city to the villages and oases where the traditional Emirati way of life still holds sway

"Dubai?" The camel farmer plumps his cushions, shifts on to the other buttock and takes another sip of coffee. "Dubai is not Arab. There's nothing there." He pauses and a cool breath of evening wind brings us a whiff of the desert – subtle and serious, reminding me of a foxed paperback. We sit with our backs to the Empty Quarter, picking at the remains of dinner as the twilight gathers. "The only place where you can find Arab culture now," he continues, "is in the small villages and oases."

Like this one, is the implication. I feel lucky for finding it.

The United Arab Emirates, which include Dubai and Abu Dhabi, are almost accidental guests to the global tourism party. Until the late 1980s they were on the itinerary of most travellers between the UK, Asia and Australia, simply because aircraft were obliged to refuel there.

When new technology allowed longer flights, the response of Dubai was remarkably prescient: to set up an airline and make this fragment of desert an international hub. Such was Emirates' success that its neighbour, Abu Dhabi, decided to launch a rival carrier, Etihad, six years ago this week. (Etihad was this week voted best airline in the World Travel Awards.) If the move encourages passengers to stop over and explore Abu Dhabi, so much the better. They may even find some tracks of the great explorer, Wilfred Thesiger, who was here a lifetime ago.

Most tourists to the UAE never get to meet a single Emirati, and are instead whisked from hotel to mall in an air-conditioned bubble of expatriate culture. Four-fifths of the population – and almost everybody involved in tourism – is a foreigner.

For this trip I'd set out to avoid all the urban flummery of the tallest this and biggest that. It's not as if the UAE lacks hinterland to explore. Abu Dhabi emirate, the largest of the country's seven regions, is roughly the size of the Irish Republic.

The first imperative was to get out of the city. I headed east to Al-Ain, an oasis on the border with Oman that has been settled for millennia, long before the coastal cities were even conceived. Sheikh Khalifa, president of the UAE, and Sheikh Zayed, his father and president at the country's foundation in 1971, were both born here. Yet far from being hidebound, Al-Ain is like a breath of fresh air after the sweaty commercialism of the coast. It has the comfortable dry heat of the desert, and lacks any sign of Dubai's Napoleon complex. The low-rise streets are shaded by palms and ghaf trees, fragrant with jasmine in the evenings.

I strolled past ordinary clothes shops, emporia selling cheap radios and the Bin Khumairy Smoking Goods Company, where the Iranian manager Mohamed talked me through 13 different mixes of water-pipe tobacco.

Most people are from somewhere else – you see more Pakistani shalwar kameez than Arab kandoura robes – but Al-Ain has a higher proportion of Emirati nationals than any other city in the country. After sunset I asked craggy-faced Peshwari passers-by for somewhere good to eat. By miming and gesturing – their few words of English trumped my non-existent Pashto – they directed me to the Falcon, a shabby-looking curry house behind Pizza Hut. True to the hype it served exquisite rogan josh for the equivalent of £1, yet almost everyone in there was Emirati – normal for Al-Ain, extremely unusual for the Gulf.

Al-Ain means "The Spring". The oasis after which it is named fills a part of the city centre with lush groves of date palms. I walked one afternoon on quiet, shady lanes between the trees, beneath incessant birdsong, before taking in the Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum, the former ruler's modest residence – a complex of atmospheric courtyards, airy cloisters and simple reception rooms.

Across town stands the Jahili Fort. Built in 1898, it is newly restored and full of atmosphere, with mud-brick walls enclosing a vast courtyard overlooked by a four-tiered round tower and inner stronghold.

Within the fort you can see a superbly presented permanent exhibition, mainly comprising Thesiger's own photographs, taken here in the 1940s. The exhibition tracks the life of the man known as Mubarak bin London: "The Blessed One from London". One of the rooms shows a film in which two of Thesiger's companions relate how "if [anyone had] known he was English, they'd have killed him. So we called him Mubarak and said he was a sheikh from the north."

Thesiger's exploits still resonate. I got chatting with Omar al-Mukhtar, an Egyptian resident in Abu Dhabi, who was visiting Jahili for the first time. He gazed up at the title of the exhibition. "I've heard about Mubarak bin London," he said. "But I didn't know he was English. And who is this Thesiger person?"

Heritage aside, Al-Ain is known for its camel market, where beasts from as far away as Khartoum and Karachi go for prices topping £10,000. It took half a dozen taxi drivers – every one an Afghan; I suspected there was a cartel operating – before I found Saeed who knew the way. After a dusty hour roaming the pens amid some very hard bargaining, Saeed (also Afghan) took me on the immaculately engineered highway leading up Jabal Hafeet, a mountain rising to 1,240m just outside Al-Ain. The views from the top were spectacular, the food at the bland summit hotel less so.

Another of Thesiger's haunts was the Liwa oasis, on the edge of the Empty Quarter 200km southwest of Abu Dhabi. I rented a car to get there. It was a magnificent drive, following a broad highway out of the bleached, elemental landscape of the coastal sabkha (salt flats) and into warmer sandy shades of orange and ochre.

Liwa comprises about 50 villages strung together along a 100km arc at the limit of the dunes. It is the ancestral home of both the Al-Nahyan family, rulers of Abu Dhabi, and the Al-Maktoums, rulers of Dubai. Like Al-Ain, it long predates the UAE's megalopolitan ambitions. The Al-Nahyan only left Liwa – in 1793 – because a hunting party tracking dhabi gazelle discovered fresh water on an island off the coast. They departed to settle the island for the first time, naming it Abu Dhabi (idiomatically, "The one with the gazelles").

Yet Liwa remained isolated. When Thesiger came through in 1948, he was the first European to do so. I passed the wells of Qutof, where Thesiger camped – still crowded with date palms – before heading out on what must be the greatest desert drive achievable in a rented saloon anywhere in the world. An asphalt road heads south from Liwa for 25km into the sands of the Empty Quarter, crossing vast plains of sabkha (salt flats) and cresting seemingly limitless dunes the colour of apricot and brown sugar. It was laid to reach Tal Moreb ("Scary Hill"), a ridge of sand 300m high that is now a venue for weekend offroading. But the dune, when I got there, was just a dune; the epic desertscapes on the way knocked the main attraction into a cocked hat.

At the Liwa Hotel, I asked about the camel fair recently held nearby (we have beauty contests for dogs; Arabia, naturally, has the same for camels). A village farmer had taken one of the top prizes. I wondered if I might meet him. Half a dozen phone calls later, and I had directions to Rashad Ali Al-Mansouri's farm.

Modest and taciturn, Rashad Ali received me with grace, serving dates, spiced coffee and sweet ginger tea before taking me out to the paddocks. A dozen camels loped over in greeting. He grinned, patting one, chucking another under the chin. Then we caught sight of the champ, draped in her winning silks. Even to my untrained eye, Al-Kaida (with a K, not a Q; it means "Unique") was strikingly beautiful, with wide eyes, an elegant jawline and lusciously long legs.

Standing together, leaning on a gate, Rashad Ali and I could have been in Derbyshire, our feet on muddy turf, gazing over a green valley – yet this particular dale was waterless and the rolling hillsides were naked sand. All it took was a shift in colour to jump from Arabia to England, and I played the trick in my mind – seeing ochre, then flicking a mental switch to see green.

I explained the thought to him, but he'd never seen a green valley, so just nodded. Then he invited me to eat with him – so we sat out on cushions after sunset and scooped chicken and rice by hand. After cardamom-scented coffee, and his gloomy judgements about Dubai, I asked if he'd ever travelled.

"I went to Cairo once," he mused, pensive as a Peak District sheep farmer. "It was..." – a long pause – "...alright." The breeze brought us a few grains of sand, swirling in the dusk. "But I missed the desert," he added, and offered me more dates.

Whatever may be happening on the coast, Emirati culture is alive and well in the sands.

Travel essentials: Abu Dhabi

Getting there

The author flew to Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airways (0800 731 9384; etihad.com), which flies from Heathrow and Manchester.

Staying there

* InterContinental Al Ain Resort, Al Niyadat Street, Al Ain, UAE (00 971 3768 6686; interconti.com). Doubles start at 510 dirhams (£83), room only.

* Liwa Hotel, Liwa (00 971 2882 2000; ncth.com). Doubles start at 812 dirhams (£133) B&B.

More information

* Abu Dhabi Tourism: 020-7201 6400; visitabudhabi.com

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