A view of Al Hamra village Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Ras Al Khaimah is rising. Fast.

The quaint seaside emirate, one of seven that comprise the UAE, is increasingly attracting expats seeking a home and a lifestyle, and not just a weekend outing.

“What brought me from Dubai to Ras Al Khaimah is the virtual absence of traffic jams and housing affordability here. My wife and children also like the place; we can find whatever we need of shopping and leisure without breaking the bank,” said Abdul Rafiq, 39, Indian, a public relations officer.

Other residents echo his sentiment.

Imran Ullah, a Pakistani food deliverer, likes the vibe of RAK. It’s got the serenity of a rural place and “is yet a city in its own right. It’s very secure and the government services are all good. I also like how affordable it is. You get to experience more of the local culture here as well compared to other emirates”.

It is this enviable blend of the timeless and the modern that is adding layers to the emirate’s growing appeal.

Gulf News visited Ras Al Khaimah to catch its many new facets.

Over the past four or five years, RAK has been enjoying a steady tourism growth, thanks to new offerings and a vibrant marketing campaign. In fact, hotel capacity has barely been able to keep up with demand.

A million visitors are projected to visit the emirate by 2019.

RAK is on top of the UAE — quite literally — as it is home to the UAE’s highest peak, the 1,900-metre-tall Jebel Al Jais Mountain. RAK is nestled at the northern tip of the UAE, and its name itself is taken to mean “the head of the tent”.

Last year, RAK welcomed 740,383 visitors (more than double its population of 345,000 people). Meanwhile, the 2016 first quarter hotel occupancy rates rose 17.7 per cent compared with the same period last year.

“That’s a good problem to have,” quipped RAK Tourism Development Authority CEO Haitham Mattar.

“RAK is the fastest growing emirate in the UAE. We are known to be affordable, providing value for money and offering 5-star options at the price of 4-star. We’ve got the sandy beaches, mountain adventures and sea dives, all so close to each other. No one does it all like we do.”

Hugely popular also with visitors is the RAK heritage, dotted with forts, watch towers, museums, archaeological sites, including the 200-year-old Jazeera Al Hamra village currently being restored to its former glory. It will provide a window into the past, into “how Emiratis lived before oil”.

The masterplan for RAK is also taking into consideration sprucing up the old town area, including the old souq, which are destined to become tourist magnets as well.

The RAK Public Works and Services Department (PWSD) is at the forefront of providing amenities for residents, including constructing new roads, maintaining parks, and safeguarding the environment.

Ahmad Al Hammadi, director-general, PWSD, said the department is currently executing the third and final phase of a years-long project on upgrading Al Shuhada Road, also known as Old Truck Road, which was notoriously dangerous.

“Al Shuhada Road was a deadly road before. Every month there would be a death. It was a big issue,” Al Hammadi added.

The road is being upgraded to a double-carriage road from a single-carriage road. It is a main artery for heavy vehicles, especially those transporting raw materials from quarries in the mountains. A lack of street lights coupled with speeding cars trying to dangerously overtake slow-moving lorries on the road proved disastrous many times. Now, lamp posts with energy-efficient and environmentally friendly LED lights are also being installed, besides fresh asphalt and new lanes.

The road projects are part of a traffic masterplan that will be based on recommendations from an expert consultant after an extensive survey of the current situation and projections for the future.

PWSD is also engaged in the upkeep of older community parks, some of which had never been serviced since they opened decades ago, Al Hammadi said. Most notably, it is revamping RAK’s main and biggest park, Al Saqr Park. New rides, games, landscaping, shops, kiosks and cafeterias are coming up there. PWSD has also stated that recently three new parks have received their power and water connections.

Residents are also showering praise on a key project — Al Quwasim Corniche, which includes a walkway by the mangroves-studded backwaters, a 1.2km rubberised jogging track, landscaping, and restaurants. “It really has become a favourite destination for families and visitors,” Al Hammadi said.

He added that PWSD has additionally launched award-winning innovative smart apps and services. For instance, residents now can simply take a picture of problems on the road or greenery and post it to the department’s Saned team, which will swing into action to resolve it within hours (or within two days if the damage is substantial). It even awards those who report faults with a badge to honour them.

The emirate is home to another landmark destination, Al Marjan Island, a pointer to the diverse aspirations of residents and tourists to the UAE.

The first and only destination of its kind in RAK, having being founded on reclaimed land from the sea in the form of four interlinking islands, Al Marjan Island extends 4.5km into the sea and covers an area of 2.7 million square metres. It offers pristine white beaches, greenery, plush resorts, bespoke residences and spotless walkways.

Currently there are 1,500 hotel rooms available, with 400 more rooms under construction from different hotels.

“By 2025, Al Marjan Island should be home to 8,000 hotel rooms, 600 holiday villas and 12,000 apartments. “It’s an aggressive target but it’s also achievable, given the current demand that factors in the emirate of RAK,” Al Marjan Island managing director Abdullah Al Abdouli said.

“Many of the guests are UAE residents enjoying staycations. You’re out but you’re still in. We’re attracting a pedestrian urban lifestyle, where you can enjoy the authenticity of the place,” said Al Abdooli.

On offer are resorts, dining options, walkways, jogging and cycling tracks, pristine roads, water sports, and much more. It is RAK as never experienced before; reminiscent of getaways on tropical islands — but one that is manmade and right here in UAE.

For residents of Al Marjan Island, a new community hall and activity centre are also coming up, in addition to gyms, retail chains, and other attractions. “There will be a lot of facilities, so in the end people won’t have a reason to leave the island,” he added.

Another attraction is Al Hamra Village. The purpose-built, master-planned community is home to 64 nationalities. It is a flagship example of how RAK has endeared itself to expats seeking a home and a lifestyle and not just a passing experience.

The development covers an area of 77 million square feet and includes 1,500km of pristine beaches, over 1,000 villas and townhouses, nearly 2,500 residential apartments, five hotels (including the legendary Waldorf Astoria), an 18-hole golf course, a marina and a shopping mall.

It was initially designed as a holiday-home destination but has over the years become a living, thriving community in itself, said Barry Ebrahimy, head of commercial, Al Hamra Group.

“There has been a big shift in four or five years as more and more people choose to live in RAK, and Al Hamra Village in particular, on a full-time basis. It has great value as a home, whether you are buying or renting,” he added.

“But more important than that is lifestyle quality. It’s secure and world-class by all means. It’s community-focused as is evident in everyday life. Neighbours know neighbours. It’s those little intangibles people sometimes forget when they are living in a big city.

Arlene A., a Filipina resident of RAK, taps into that vein, “Even the weather in better in Ras Al Khaimah, I feel since moving here two years ago. It’s got a lot of open spaces. I just love coming for walks and the views on the Corniche. You won’t get into traffic jams and everything’s affordable.”

Mansour Ahmad, 22, an Emirati private sector employee, sums it up, “I’m fond of the quiet life that Ras Al Khaimah offers but which also comes with all amenities and facilities.”

Resident reminisces

British expat David Neild’s story is as much about his experiences as it is about UAE history, sprinkled with intimate details not known even to Emiratis. Until now.

Neild has penned his memoirs in A Soldier in Arabia, which provides a first-hand look at life and politics in the pre-oil Trucial States, as the UAE was then called.

Gulf News caught up with Neil, now 78, at his villa in Ras Al Khaimah, where he had arrived in 1960s as a young man upon the calling of the ruler and his friend, Shaikh Saqr Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, to set up a defence force for the sheikhdom. Neild was part of the Trucial Oman Scouts comprised of British and Arab soldiers.

He was also part of events that changed the course of UAE history.In 1966 he was on stand-by near Abu Dhabi when Sheikh Shakhbut was replaced by his brother Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

He is one of only two British officers still alive today who was present during that transfer period.

“We weren’t there from a military point of view. We were there in case there was a problem. I was fortunate to know Shaikh Zayed before he become the ruler of Abu Dhabi. I knew him personally in the days when he had more time to sit over a cup of coffee, or to go hunting with him,” Neild, who speaks good Arabic, said.

Neild recalled another historical event – the invasion of the Tunb Islands by Iran on November 30, 1971, which caught the world by surprise just days before the UAE independence.

“It was there [in my bedroom in Ras Al Khaimah] at about 5am in the morning that I got the radio operator’s message from the island of Greater Tunb, who informed me that the island was under attack. So I was the first person to be told. Then I went immediately down to Shaikh Saqr’s home – it wasn’t even a palace then – and informed him. He and I were first two people to know about the invasion. He was very upset, naturally. Initially, his reaction was to get anyone with a weapon in the dhow fleet and head to the island. We would have gone, no doubt about it.

“But then he told me to wait and he went to pray. He came back and said we can’t do that. He said to tell the men to put down put down their weapons and try and get them back from the island as soon as possible.”

He said the legacy of “genuine friendships” formed down the decades are still close to his heart, while praising the transformation of the UAE under its leadership.

Readers will find that the 160-pager, available in leading bookstores such as Borders, places “a better understanding of history” before them.

RAK CERAMICS

RAK Ceramics is a super-brand that is synonymous with the success story of RAK. For good reason.

In a way, it is almost like an ambassador of RAK to the world, with the RAK Ceramics logo found on tableware in leading hotel and restaurant chains, as well as in homes in 160 countries.

Its website says the company has become of the largest ceramics manufacturers in the world, with “a global annual production capacity of 117 million square metres of ceramic and porcelain tiles, 4.6 million pieces of sanitary ware and 24 million pieces of tableware; with a $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion) turnover and a distribution network that spans 160 countries”.

It was founded in 1989.

“Today, we are still among the top three ceramics players worldwide. We have 8,000 employees in our RAK plant and we have 7,000 in the plants overseas. These employees — from senior management to labour — are living, staying and sending their children to school here. We are very much part of the UAE and RAK success story,” said RAK Ceramics Group CEO Abdullah Massaad.

“I’m proud to say one of our latest products is the Maximus Mega Slab (135x305cm). We are the only factory in the region that has this facility to produce something so big. Our RAK plant is only the second plant worldwide to implement such a big tile.”

Equally impressive is its tableware line, found in top hotels such as Waldorf Astoria.

RAK Ceramics is “going to be the world’s best lifestyle solution provider. We are not only a ceramics manufacturer”, Massaad added.

NUMBERS

Total Ras Al Khaimah schools up to secondary level: 118

Government/Public school students: 33,722

Private schools: 33

Population of RAK: 345,000 (2015)

Average annual economic growth rate: 8.8% (2011-15)

740,000 tourists in 2015, targeting 1 million by 2019

Highest Peak in UAE: Jebel Jais – 1,910m

Saqr Port: Mena’s largest bulk handling port

2016 Q1, RAK grants 30% of UAE’s industrial licences