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To buy a camel in Abu Dhabi, the place to go is Ikea.
Not because the Swedish furniture giant is now retailing self-assembly ships of the desert – although it probably would if it could.
It’s just that Abu Dhabi’s last traditional camel market, a daily bustle of haggling, hooves, handshakes and humps, sits right next to an Ikea store decked in familiar blue and yellow.
The camel souk is one of the highlights of a day trip to Abu Dhabi’s second city Al Ain, a lush, laid back and historic escape from the emirate’s coastal capital.
It takes about two hours to drive the straight-line highways from downtown Abu Dhabi through the desert to Al Ain (experimental tech could one day reduce that to eight minutes).
It’s a journey deeper into desert, on the border with Oman, but one that leads to some of the best cultural attractions in a region more usually known for big buildings and big spending.
Al Ain Oasis
Chief among those attractions is the Al Ain Oasis.
Walking beneath the fruited date palms of this green space in the heart of the city, listening to the babbling of a nearby stream, it’s easy to forget you’re in a place that’s mostly desert.
This tranquil forest of tall trees and quiet walled lanes interspersed by a maze of waterways is all the more remarkable because, a few years ago, it almost vanished.
As Al Ain grew in the 1980s and 90s, the oasis was in danger of being swallowed up by development. Instead, planners pushed back, expanding the greenery out into the city.
The oasis’s delicate eco-system, farmed using methods thousands of years old, is now protected as a UNESCO heritage site, and helps give Al Ain its Garden City nickname.
A visitor center opened here in 2016 and cycles can be hired to explore, but for anyone tired of Abu Dhabi’s relentless heat, it’s more pleasant to stroll in the cool palm frond shadows.
Occasionally, visitors might come across one of the irrigation channels, known as falaj, springing into life as they direct water from nearby cisterns to thirsty date groves.
“I can just stare at these trees for hours,” says Usman Mustafa, an engineer on a break from working in Dubai. “This place is like a beautiful sanctuary.”
Al Ain Oasis, Al Ain, Abu Dhabi; +971 3 712 8523
Al Ain camel souk
Want to buy a camel?
Probably not, but many people do in Abu Dhabi, which is why the Al Ain souk still thrives as the last of its kind in the UAE – a throwback to ancient times in the modern shadow of Ikea.
It’s a spectacle worth checking out, particularly in peak trading hours soon after gates open at 6 a.m., when deals are sealed with arguments, mobile phone calls, handshakes and hugs.
Visitors are welcome and most traders – who hail from places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia – are happy to show off their animals when asked if it’s OK to take photos.
“They’re usually bought for meat by local people,” says Ghulsahib Khan, a veteran salesman from the Afghan city of Khost with a dozen boisterous one-year-old beasts to sell.
“These young boys have a good taste, they’ll give some nice meat,” he adds, saying they typically fetch about 4,000 dirhams, or $1,000, each.
The camels are usually bought to provide meat for celebrations such as weddings. Once sold, they’re loaded – sometimes reluctantly – onto trucks or pickups and driven away.
“UAE people are good to trade with,” says Khan. “There’s usually some bargaining but the price is worked out quickly.”
Tougher deals are struck with folks traveling from Oman. Omanis have different tastes, Khan adds, pointing to a giant, angry-looking camel in the center of the clean marketplace.
“That’s one’s about 15 years old. No one’s going to eat him… except maybe Omanis.”
Al Ain Camel Souk, Zayed Bin Sultan St., Al Ain, Abu Dhabi
Jebel Hafeet mountain
Rising 1,400 meters up over the southern suburbs of Al Ain, Jebel Hafeet mountain offers epic views over largely flat Abu Dhabi and neighboring Oman.
There are popular springs at the bottom and nearby some Bronze Age tombs where archeologists have unearthed 5,000-year-old ceramic and copper artifacts.
Best of all though is the 11.7-kilometer mountain road to nowhere, which snakes its way to the summit on a twisting route that’s regularly name checked as a world-beating drive.
Out of the car, there’s little else to do but admire the vista, perhaps from the swanky hotel near the summit, or sample the fare at the rather down-at-heel restaurant at the top.
The road’s a particular favorite for cyclists who relish mile after mile of 8% inclines under a sweltering Arabian sun and, no doubt, the effortless freewheel back into town.
Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet Al Ain; Jebel Hafeet, Al Ain, Abu Dhabi; +971 3783 8888
Al Jahili Fort
There’s something very satisfying about the appearance of the Al Jahili Fort, which has been a focal point in Al Ain since it was constructed in 1891 as the local governor’s HQ.
Perhaps it’s that its crenelated mudbrick walls closely resemble a giant rendition of the sandcastles many of us have built on beaches. It looks exactly like a fort is supposed to look.
Rehabbed in 2007, the photogenic structure now houses a cultural center and permanent exhibit about Wilfred Thesiger, a 20th century British explorer famed for expeditions across the hostile arid deserts of the Arabian Peninsula’s Empty Quarter.
It’s a fairly quick visit, leaving time for more history fixes at the archeology-heavy Al Ain National Museum and the Al Ain Palace Museum, a former royal residence that offers a glimpse into a relatively recent regal past.
Al Jahili Fort, Al Mutawaa, Near Al Jahili Park, Al Ain, Abu Dhabi; +971 3 711 8331
Al Ain National Museum, Zayed Bin Sultan Street, Al Ain, Abu Dhabi; +971 2 657 6171
Al Ain Palace Museum, Al Mutawaa, Al Ain, Abu Dhabi; +971 3 751 7755