Imagine a place where pearls were traded as currency; where Arabian horses are prized by the nomadic Bedouin people; where the distinctive aroma of Oud, known as black gold, wafts through the air.
This is Ajman, the smallest of the seven United Arab Emirates known for its beaches, and a country that clings to its past skills and traditions while it works to preserve its future as an authentic and luxurious Arabian destination.
The City of Ajman
Just a half hour drive away from the razzle-dazzle of Dubai’s skyscraping architectural wonders, glitter and gold displays showcased in expansive shopping malls, Ajman is the quieter capital city of the emirate of the same name, a 260-square-kilometre enclave in the northeast of the Arabian Peninsula next to Sharjah.
Although the UAE has undergone massive modernisation and development in recent decades, this petit emirate has managed to preserve its legacy and traditions while embracing the notion of sophisticated hotels and wellness retreats, making it an attractive day trip from Dubai, or even a UAE home base option for easy exploration.
Ajman is known for its natural beaches (16 kilometres of them), historical sites, and the city itself, which is home to a gold souk, markets and restaurants with palm trees lining the white-sand beaches with around 500 mosques with their distinctive minarets shaping the skyline. Authentic markets sell souvenirs, coins and fashion in vibrant sparkly textures. Food shops add to the bustle of local life and restaurants see local men sitting outside contemplating life over pots of Arabian coffee.
Families share meals in Emirati restaurants such as Liwara, where you should try the ragag (bread), and dip it into honey and cheese, and the Arabic coffee, made with cardamom, served with luqaimat, a kind of Arabic sweet dumpling popular in the Emaratis, which are coated in date syrup and similar to donuts.
A path runs along the Corniche connecting five-star hotels overlooking the Arabian Gulf. Behind is Marsa, a modern promenade dotted with restaurants and coffee shops, skirting the waterfront where families enjoy the cooler evenings.
Ajman has a plentiful daily supply and reputation for its fresh fish. Try Seascape at the Wyndam Garden for the best platters and the for memorable Indian cuisine, book a table at Bukhara at the Ajman Hotel.
Old Ajman developed from the shores of Ajman Creek as a trading port of Arabia. Before oil, it was known for its pearl diving and fishing trade.
The Heritage and Museum District in the centre of Ajman showcases its inherited traditions born from its austere natural environment and its trade links with foreign civilizations such as Mesopotamia, India and China. Home to traditional buildings and antiquities, Ajman Heritage District is an intriguing area that transports you back to a bygone era.
It’s in this area that you’ll want to visit the Ajman Museum, housed in an 18th-century fort and providing a fascinating insight into Ajman’s history and culture. History and trades come to life in an appealing contemporary representation. Galleries show replicas of tailors, rope makers, herb sellers and barbers (who doubled as dentists), as well as the trading habits of building wooden ships and fish cages, Emirati crafts and pearl diving.
Smart screens detail the British Campaign in the Gulf in 1819. Official documents are displayed of the exploration agreement between Ajman Government and British Petroleum company in 1951 and records of the Maritime Treaty of 1820. In the courtyard, under shade, is a replica model of the 1960’s Land Rover Series 111, the first off-road vehicle used in the desert and owned by the late Sheikh Rashid bin Humaid Al Nuaimi who ruled Ajman from 1928-1981.
Also, in the district is the humble dwelling, now a museum, of esteemed Emeriati poet, Rashid Al-Khadar, who wrote a poem praising King George.
The Scent of Tradition
A perfume gallery—La Rose Gallery Perfumes—sits in the heritage area reflecting the traditional significance of fragrances in the emirate. Here the air is misted with scented air and rows of perfumes line shelves, all tried and tested. There’s also a a side room for mixing exclusive recipes for personal requests—an art in itself.
Oud is traditionally known as black gold in the Middle East, a prized and fragrant oil extracted from tree resin. In perfumery, it’s often used as a base note that provides woody and earthy notes. It remains part of the Muslim culture as incense in homes and places of worship.
Preserving Nature One Tree at a Time
One of the biggest surprises of this little emirate has to be lush Al Zorah Nature Reserve, a green and wondrous refuge in Ajman. The large protected area consists of more than one million square meters of wetlands, mangrove forests and bird life. It is included in the government’s pledge to increase the number of trees by 100 million by 2030 throughout the UAE.
Serene and peaceful, the reserve offers two-hour guided kayak tours for small groups. Expect to witness jumping fish along your trip through narrow channels, with heavy overhangs of foliage. Spot egrets and herons accompanied by a chorus of birdsong. In the winter, you may be fortunate to see a flamboyance of pink flamingos on their stick-thin legs.
There are planting tours too, if you want to leave your own in-print in Ajman’s nature.
Escape to Masfout
In the Hajar Mountains, one of the highest ranges in the Arabian Peninsula, and an hour and a half through a desert dotted with camels and Acacia trees is Masfout (sometimes spelled Masfoot or Masfut), an historical town with active plans for touristic and cultural development.
Near the border of Oman, and at 600 metres above sea level, Masfout is retreat for residents of Ajman city looking to escape the heat. Here they’ll find fresh breezes and fertile land dotted with farms and fields of palms, mango, dates, figs, and citrus trees.
A popular visit is the modern and well-presented Masfout Museum, which opened late in 2021. Inside visitors will find attractive presented displays of artifacts and old photos that reveal the 5,000-year-history of Masfout.
On the hill opposite the museum is Al Boma Tower, a watchtower with a sweeping views over the surrounding landscape. Masfout is also home to Bin Sultan Mosque, built in 1815, and is the location where the President of UAE and Ruler of Ajman have residences.
A Healthy Future
From the healing traditions of the past relying on medicinal herbs, cupping and massage passed down through generations, Ajman has welcomed a new generation of integrative and holistic wellness experiences at Zoya Health & Wellbeing Resort, the first of its kind in the UAE.
Located in the Al Zorah area overlooking the golf course and tranquil mangroves, Zoya Health & Wellbeing Resort opened in 2022 and offers a range of retreat packages for detox and weight management as well as customised programmes that benefit from state-of-the-art diagnostic medical equipment and enviable spa facilities and fitness room.
Where to Stay
The Ajman Hotel is conveniently located on the Corniche, dressed in elegantly designed wood furniture in an Arabic style, with views over the Arabian Gulf. It sits within landscaped gardens and spills onto a white sandy private beach. It also offers a bowling alley and Bakhara, one of the best Indian restaurants in the country.
In the Al Zorah area sits the The Oberoi, an ultra-modern hotel with stylish rooms, suites and villas set in 37 acres of landscaped gardens. Designed by Peiro Lissoni, this resort has splashes of an art gallery and the largest swimming pool I have seen at 85 metres long.
Ajman may be the smallest of the Emirates, but it harbours ancient practices and harnesses the heritage of its long civilisation to showcase the essence of what Arabian hospitality can and will be, proving that good things do indeed come in small packages.
BeSeeingYou In: Ajman, UAE
Good To Know: Ajman is a 15-minute journey from Sharjah International Airport, 30 minutes from Dubai International Airport, and just over two hours from Abu Dhabi International Airport
WOW! Factor: The Spa facilities of Zoya Health & Wellbeing Resort
Tip: Ajman is a quieter place to stay with 5-star resorts at competitive prices yet within visiting distance to Dubai
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