We parked the car and took a walking path into the heart of the oasis. It was the precise opposite of downtown Dubai. A lush forest, thick with date palms. Leaves rustling in a gentle breeze. Precious shade now suddenly abundant. It's not difficult to imagine the joyous miracle this would have seemed to a thirsty Bedouin coming in from the desert. No desalinization machines necessary here.
Granted, there is a Pizza Hut a few hundred yards away, which does dampen the natural wonder of it all. But Al-Ain is a delightful little town. No skyscrapers. No cranes. No expats in pinstripe suits. Instead, there's an outdoor market where people sell goats from the backs of pickup trucks.
On the heels of a week in Dubai, it's a true oasis, in every sense.
Compared to Dubai, that is true, but there is definitely a shift that is occurring here. The powers that be seem to be deliberately changing things. Within this last year the pace of construction and development has increased markedly. Just look at some of the recently announced, but not yet begun, projects:
Nagfa Hotel and Mall
Al Nagfa Hotel will boast 160 rooms ranging from standard to executive and ambassador suites [as well as] an additional 70 chalets... pool and water features... Built at the top of the Al Nagfa hill, guests can expect uninterrupted views of the specially designed landscape. The Al Nagfa Hotel will offer facilities like an indoor and outdoor spa, gym, infinity pool, a kids club, tennis courts as well as a restaurant with stunning views across Al Ain...
When completed, the Al Nagfa Mall will be a major shopping and leisure destination for residents and visitors in Al Ain.
With half a million square ft of retail and entertainment space spread across four levels, the mall will not only house a multi-screen cinema, restaurants, supermarket and food court, but also a traditional souq inspired shopping area.
Al Ain Wildlife Park & Resort
...extensive works are currently underway to transform the Al Ain Zoo to Al Ain Wildlife Park & Resort by expanding exhibits and improving facilities are turning the former zoo into a world class wildlife park and resort....
The residential community within the Park will deliver to residents and visitors a completely new way of living. Wildlife, ecology and the environment all co-exist with sustainable practices to create a living environment in harmony with nature.
Various accommodations will provide visitors the choice of a family oriented hotel and a luxurious 5-star resort. All with convenient access to excellent shopping and an oasis theme water park as well as stunning vistas of the Jebel and the wildlife park.
A themed shopping environment and multi-level retail area will include outdoor shopping promenades, a shopping mall, cafes, restaurants and special 'dining with a view' opportunities.
Noor Al Ain
The centre will also have a 300-room business hotel, department stores, cinemas, family entertainment facilities, luxury offices, terraced gardens, family dining, a health and fitness club, water park, and an indoor beach...
Facilities that the mall will have
* Retail mall stretching over 160,000 square meters
* Wide selection of cafés and restaurants
* Indoor beach, water fun park, and multi screen cinema
* Health club and sports facilities, including a spa, gym and tennis courts,
* Rooftop gardens
* Six residential towers with 1,300 apartments
* 300-bed hotel
* Parking lots for 8,000 cars
These are just some of the larger developments; there are many more smaller ones too.
Not long after I got here, I attended a presentation about the geography and history of Al Ain. The speaker, a UAE University professor, explained that the government deliberately slowed development here. For example, it is (or was) forbidden to construct buildings taller than four stories. But several the the buildings in Noor Al Ain appear to be taller than that in the news photo, so I'm not sure if the development got a waiver or if the law has changed.
But, to me, the story that proves that there is a movement to change the image of Al Ain is this: "Cosmopolitan Al Ain 'in need of cultural and heritage centre'".
Now, please do not get me wrong. I love Al Ain. I consider myself lucky to live here. Whenever I go to Dubai, I'm reminded again of how lucky I am. I love the lack of traffic; the slower, relaxed pace of life; the beautiful greenery, flowers and date palms. I would call this city many things.
"Cosmopolitan" is not one of them. I don't mean that as an insult. I don't like big cities. I like living in a town where the truck next to you might have sheep or goats on the back, where you can get to know your neighbors and not just be another face in the crowd. Where there are lots of kids and families. I'm not even against the construction of this proposed cultural center (and I agree 100% about the need for a public library). But it seems pretty clear that the sleepy Al Ain that so many of us know and love is fated to disappear.