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History of Al Ain

Updated on 05.06.2018

Al Ain is a city rich in history - located in a fertile oasis, it has been inhabited for millennia, and has aroused much covetousness - this is also where Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of United Arab Emirates, began his political career, when he ruled the emirate's eastern region of Abu Dhabi - visiting Al Ain is going through history and certainly the best place to try to understand what the country was before the discovery of oil.

Fresco depicting camels in the museum of Al Ain, United Arab Emirates ©Odyfolio

A fertile and millenary oasis

Al Ain and its surroundings have prospered for millennia thanks to the presence of oases, and the control of their irrigation thanks to the falaj system. This irrigation system appeared in the region 3000 years before our era, and is based on the principle of water sharing. Each parcel is assigned an irrigation time controlled by a solar frame. The water comes from shallow aquifers through wells of 5 to 15 meters, then transported by aflajs. This has allowed the development of food crops including the date palm, ubiquitous today in the oases. The archaeological sites of Hili, north of the city, attest that advanced irrigation and water transportation systems have existed since the Bronze Age, and that they played a important role in the sedentarization of the populations in Al Ain.

Archaeological remains

Al Ain is home to many archaeological sites dating from the Neolithic. The Hili sites are the best known because open to the public. There are also circular stone tombs dating from 2500 BC One can also note the archaeological sites of Jebel Hafit and Bidaa Bint Saud, which as Hili and the oases of Al Ain are classified as World Heritage Site. Unesco since June 2011.

The fortresses of the 19th century

More recently, and precisely in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an impressive number of fortresses of all sizes have been erected in the city of Al Ain. Indeed, the fertile oases of the region were very coveted hence the concern of the inhabitants to defend them against the enemy tribes. Most ruined fortresses have been restored for the enjoyment of visitors. However, the restoration trend is more like reconstruction than restoration.

Saudi incursions

The oasis is divided in two: the West (Al Ain) is attached to Abu Dhabi, and the East (Buraimi) to the Sultanate of Oman. But in 1952, Saudi Arabia decided to annex the area and sent a garrison to take control. It is based on the fact that in the early nineteenth century, it controlled the area up to levy taxes. From 1949 she will therefore claim sovereignty. But the troops of the British colonial power managed to make retreat the Saudi troops. The historical and geopolitical considerations of this incursion are still obscure and little documented, with as protagonists on one side Saudi Arabia and the American oil company ARAMCO looking at oil fields, and on the other Oman, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi supposed to be protected by the British. It was not until 1974 that the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia settled their differences by signing an agreement the terms of which have never been made public, but whose content is more likely to reflect the distribution of oil wealth than the preservation of a historical heritage.

Sheikh Zayed in Al Ain

We can not talk about Al Ain without mentioning Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of the United Arab Emirates. Its palace museum is one of the most visited attractions in the city. Although born in Abu Dhabi, he arrived in Al Ain in 1946, as governor of the eastern region of the emirate of Abu Dhabi. He took up his quarters in Fort Muwaiji. Excellent manager and recognized as a good and just man, he undertook with heart his mission to administer and develop the city, in a time of instability. He was very attached to the renovation of the falaj system. It also ended the slave trade that was important in the region. According to some historians, there were volumes comparable to the black slave trade between Africa and America. The British from the beginning of the 19th century declared the slave trade illegal but the practice continued. Omani sailors supplied themselves with slaves in Africa, especially in Zanzibar, Tanzania, and sold them in the Arabian Peninsula. Some were used on the coast for the dangerous pearl fishing. This is an aspect of the region that deserves to be known but today the office of tourism prefer to paint a romantic portrait of the desert and its nomadic culture, and obscure a part of history.

Al Ain in the 21st century

The city of Al Ain in the 21st century is very different from neighboring Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Here, rulers want to keep his identity and not be invaded by the skyscrapers. Thus, although Al Ain is the third largest city in the country, the buildings have only a few floors and are well integrated into the historical heritage. The city opens to tourism and the world with a zoo, Al Wadi Water Park, a football club. It is also a border town contiguous to the Omani city of Buraimi where locals will buy cheaper gasoline. If you mention the name Al Ain, you will probably be told Jebel Hafeet. The second highest mountain in the UAE is indeed a nice point of view, but we can not reduce Al Ain to its most popular tourist attraction. You have to push the doors of the fortresses, stroll through the oases, visit the must-visit Cheikh Zayed Museum.