In the word of one European expatriate living in Ras Al Khaimah (RAK): “There are two reasons why anyone would want to come and live in RAK: the money that can be made and the lifestyle. RAK delivers on both, I am happy to say and it is a real inducement to help in the country’s development.”
In comparison to the megatropolis of Dubai, RAK is an oasis of low-rise calm. While the building continues apace, it is a long way from blotting out the sky. The consequence, say residents, is that in RAK they can hear themselves think and breathe a little deeper.
The government is keenly aware that key to the emirate’s future appeal will lie in its ability to preserve its desirability as a great place to live; to maximise the use of its natural charms and enhance them where necessary; and to create a relaxed legal framework, in order to attract both long-term residents and tourists in the right numbers.
RAK is blessed by its coastline – which arguably looks a little scruffy at present because nature is being re-engineered to appeal to retirees, business executives and sun-seekers – and by its mountains in the east. Just as importantly, the emirate has managed to create the right mix of lifestyle attributes to enhance that appeal. As the expatriate says: “When I was first offered the opportunity to work here, the first thing we checked out was the schooling, which is excellent.”
The expatriate says he has also found the right social mix, surrounded by other international families, many of whom have children who attend the same school as his own. “And when we want the hurly-burly of Dubai – for example to see the new aquarium – it is just an hour’s drive away.”
Golf is an essential part of the expatriate lifestyle, and at the weekend many of RAK’s inhabitants are to be found playing in the picturesque courses in the emirate.
RAK also has a relaxed attitude towards alcohol, which can be purchased for home consumption from specially licensed outlets; and pork products, which are available for purchase by non-Muslims from branches of RAK’s well-stocked supermarkets.
Increasingly, it is hoped that tourism will make up a larger percentage of the country’s GDP. The expansion of the airport will certainly help that, as will, in time, the opening up of new routes for its airline, RAK Airways.
There are some natural constituencies of the tourists that RAK is likely to continue to attract. It offers a relaxed destination for Iranian visitors (Iran is a hop across the Strait of Hormuz), as well as visitors from elsewhere in the emirates and the Gulf Co-operation Council. Already, its beach resorts have become a firm favourite of Russian package tourists and other European visitors are sure to follow.
One issue at the moment is simply one of capacity. RAK possesses some fine hotels, namely the flagship, the Al Hamra Fort Hotel and Beach Resort, which is part-owned by the Ras Al Khaimah Investment Authority (RAKIA), and others including the Hilton Hotel and a Hilton Resort and Spa, the Bin Majid Beach Hotel and Resort, and the Khatt Springs Hotel and Spa.
Various artificial islands and other coastal developments will shoulder some of the strain of higher visitor numbers – most of these are mixed-use in character and will be able to accommodate short- and long-term residents through the provision of hotel rooms, serviced apartments and time-shares – through to the sale of villas and apartments. But a further 15 five-star hotels are in the pipeline – essential, says the government, to meet anticipated demand.
Beyond the beach
RAK will not, however, become just another beach resort, and the government is keen to showcase the rich history, culture and tradition of the emirate – and to show a livelier side.
Already, the best hotels make a point of offering opportunities including desert treks, show cruises, trips to the mountains, sand-boarding and diving. Many of RAK’s residents are active thrill-seekers, both vicarious and actual, and fans of camel-racing, shooting, go-karting, and water-skiing are all catered for. Mountaineering is another adrenaline-fuelled pursuit which is readily available in RAK – but not elsewhere in the UAE.
Off the beaten track
RAK also has a number of interesting archaeological sites, including the remnants of habitations of tribes, which are best explored by four-by-fours – as are the wadis, steep-sided valleys through which streams flow, shaded by palms. And the desert has its lure – to the west of Digdada, extraordinary red dunes lie in a northerly direction, and the many camel camps and native settlements betoken a way of life which is fast-eroding in much of the UAE.
One way of life that is certainly not eroding in RAK is its traditional hospitality and welcome to outsiders. Given its small population and traditional lack of facilities for training, education and technical development, RAK is largely dependent – at least for the moment – on imported skill sets and talents. Those that can offer such skills can be assured of a very generous welcome.