When people first picture the United Arab Emirates (UAE), windswept dunes and towering skyscrapers probably come to mind.
And while the UAE certainly has some of the largest uninterrupted stretches of sandscape to marvel at, it is also home to a diverse natural environment. Its rich landscape includes everything from ancient fossil beds to wetland habitats to unspoiled desert oases.
Sustainability initiatives in the UAE are a key focus area for the UAE government. Sustainable development in the UAE has established more than 40 nature reserves, equal to over 5,000 square kilometers of protected areas.
This has allowed the country to surround itself with an abundance of natural beauty.
Nature and its diverse wildlife are at the heart of the UAE’s rich heritage. Here are five magnificent natural wonders of the UAE that deserve a closer look.
Bu Tinah Island
A finalist in the New 7 Wonders competition, Bu Tinah is a private nature reserve located in the Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve, off the coast of Abu Dhabi. A recognized UNESCO site since 2001, the Marawah Marine Reserve is the first and largest biosphere in the Gulf region and is home to numerous islands and an extensive coastline.
Bu Tinah boasts unique biodiversity and an abundance of wildlife. Its surrounding waters are rich in seagrass beds and healthy coral reef habitats. Its mature mangroves lining the island’s southern coast make it a hospitable place for many migratory creatures.
The area is heavily populated by migratory birds such as the osprey and western-reef heron. It is also a nesting and breeding ground for the endangered hawksbill turtle and it hosts the second largest population of dugongs. Dolphins are regular visitors to this archipelago as well.
Visits to Bu Tinah are reserved for a select few to ensure its sensitive ecosystem continues to thrive and endure.
Jebel Jais Mountain
Few sights are as breathtaking or as thrilling as the views at Jebel Jais, the UAE’s highest peak.
Towering at 1,934 meters, Jebel Jais is located in the eastern part of Ras Al Khaimah. Formed over 70 million years ago, Jebel Jais and the rest of the Hajar Mountain Range is perhaps one of the oldest regions of the UAE.
Visitors to Jebel Jais can reach the country’s highest peak in one of two ways: by car or on foot. Those looking to conquer this mountain journey and reach the peak by foot, particularly beginner hikers, should bring a guide.
A smooth 30-kilometer road snakes through the rocky mountain face, making it an ideal route for driving enthusiasts. To fully enjoy the scenic driving route, bring a vehicle with decent power and grip. While the road surface is excellent, drivers should be cautious of hikers along the route as well as falling rocks.
Once at the summit, several adventure activities await. One of the best activities to enjoy at Jebel Jais is ziplining across the canyons of the Hajar Mountains. Measuring 2.83 km long, the Jebel Jais zipline is the longest zipline in the world.
Khor Fakkan Beach
Visitors to the UAE looking for more leisurely activities will find plenty to do at Khor Fakkan Beach. Situated in Sharjah, overlooking the Gulf of Oman, this public open beach is a favorite among locals and marine life enthusiasts — a true paradise for relaxing and unwinding.
Translated as “The Creek with Two Jaws,” Khor Fakkan is currently undergoing revitalization developments to transform from a domestic getaway into a global tourist hub.
Sharjah’s development authority plans to redesign the beach into an enviable tourist attraction complete with modern tourism amenities and attractions alongside a new cruise terminal to enhance this region’s tourism appeal.
Currently, visitors to Khor Fakkan can enjoy numerous water activities including diving, fishing, and boating.
A truly spectacular dune, Big Red is the ultimate place for off-road adventures. 50 kilometers away from Dubai, this saffron-colored dune formation is popular among locals and travelers alike for dune-bashing, sandboarding, and mountain biking.
Big Red and its surrounding dunes also offer the perfect backdrop for a unique camping experience. Book your trip with a local excursion tour group to experience a traditional Bedouin-style camping experience after an exhaustive day of riding through the dunes.
Al Wathba Wetland Reserve
If this is your first visit to the UAE, Al Wathba is an eye-opening introduction to the country’s natural world.
A verdant sanctuary, the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve is a showpiece highlighting the UAE’s diverse natural landscape. Covering five square kilometers of wetlands, fossilized sands and dunes, and sabkhas (salt flats), the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve was first established in 1998 and has been a protected wetland since 2013.
Visitors to this complex ecosystem will discover a huge variety of plants and wildlife. In total, the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve is home to over 250 species of birds, a diverse aquatic life, and several species of flora and fauna.
Of significant note is the reserve’s flamingo population. As the only site in the Arabian Gulf where flamingos breed, Al Wathba Reserve is home to over 5,000 pink flamingos.
Natural sights to behold
The nature and wildlife in the UAE are unmistakable features of the country’s rich and diverse landscape. The desert and other biomes provide visitors with unique experiences that offer a great escape from the country’s man-made glitz and glamour.
Beyond traditional tourist attractions, the UAE is home to a wide range of natural areas worth exploring. Each of the 43 officially protected natural areas spread throughout the UAE is teeming with an abundance of wildlife and indigenous plant species.
What natural hidden gem do you look forward to exploring?
Rasha El Saleh is the Conservation Education and Outreach Coordinator in the education team of Emirates Nature-WWF working on its programme, Connect with Nature. She leads the outreach and youth empowerment aspect in growing the Connect with Nature community within the UAE and providing opportunities for youth to lead in this community, in addition to supporting partnerships with vendors supporting and promoting active aspects of the programme.