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From Mangroves to Mountains: Unveiling Ras Al Khaimah's Hidden Treasures

To slow down from the fast-paced routine and environment of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), oftentimes, residents seek Ras Al Khaimah as a staycation destination. It offers proximity to nature through its soaring mountains, emerald beaches, and multiple mangroves. It’s an escape away from the high-rise concrete jungles of the bigger surrounding emirates. Pleasant discoveries such as the Pink Lake, the hustling bustling Fish Market in the Old Town of RAK, and the Annual Art Festival at Al Jazeera Al Hamra Heritage Village add depth to the emirate, essentially creating a character and feel described as an urban identity.

My first visit to Ras Al Khaimah was about five years ago with a small group of friends. It was quite a surreal experience as we drove to Jebel Jais Mountain, set up a barbecue, took pictures of the sunset, and drove back down the meandering roads. A typical experience suggested for visitors in guidebooks. The second time was to attend a conference held in the urban area of Ras Al Khaimah. Cities with scenic drives, natural assets, and heritage areas are typically connected through infrastructure or landscape corridors. These corridors can be vehicular, pedestrian, ecological, retail, visual, or a mix of multiple scenarios. These can be composed of a tree-lined highway with food and retail kiosks, cafes, stop-over areas, visually appealing scenic spots, or gateways along these corridors. It can be a trail with cultural amenities, such as the cheese route in Germany. It can be multiple orchards connected by motorway. It can be a visual corridor such as the temporal Sharjah Lighting Festival, linking key areas of the city through immersive art and pedestrian trails. The idea is to act as a conduit for people from one point to the next, allowing for a more engaged and meaningful experience. The connection can be from any destination, urban to rural to natural. On my visit to the city area of Ras Al Khaimah, the mountains greeted me from the distant horizon. As an urban construct, the city didn’t glide back to the mountains through a tree-lined boulevard or tram or any such activity points. The natural reserves and the urbanized area act as a standalone destination with multiple activities but with no mediator as an incentive to head from one destination to the next. This lack of connectivity was evident during research documentation through satellite imagery and site visits. Interviews with tourists and visitors heading to Ras Al Khaimah on weekends also mentioned singular points of their visit, such as staying at a resort or walking on the beach. This made me think of how each asset is almost scattered and neither connected nor accessible in most cases.

Residents continue to imbed a wonderful sense of belonging through tradition, culture, and heritage, but it remains undiscovered in most cases by visitors. Many public spaces act as public plazas, but improved developmental measures could enhance them. During one of my field visits, a local resident pointed out where he used to fly kites in childhood, how residents engulf the public plazas during national holidays, and the prominence of Arabic signage in public areas.

From the chosen set of locations in Ras Al Khaimah, I completed 239 steps on a 70-meter-high hill crowned by the Dhaya Fort for this study. The aerial view of the mangroves, waterfront, and city from this pivotal historical benchmark set the tone for remaining field visits. The purpose of this experience was to explore how natural assets can be accessed through enhanced corridors of movement which gauge an interest while heading towards them. For Dhaya Fort, mapping and documentation made it evident to improve access to the surrounding date palms and the focal heritage identity of the landscape. The corridors would be vehicular and visual in this case.

This was just the starting point of my policy research as I continued to map out pivotal locations that could benefit from such connectivity. While noticing headlines about Ras Al Khaimah developments of waterfront reclamation projects, I delved into the lesser commercial prospects of enhancing the urban identity through softer interventions of landscape and activity points. These would uphold a long-lasting image of Ras Al Khaimah.

Photographic surveys, while exploring the Old Town of Ras Al Khaimah, led to the realization of multiple layers of the city, the waterfront, heritage areas, mangroves, and newer developments of malls. Existing infrastructure showcased the possibility of an intriguing experience of trails winding through the city, unifying key areas. Notes from my observation of day and nightlife in the city suggested many pleasant surprises that otherwise might go unnoticed by frequent visitors. The view of the mountains against the sunset at many road junctions while the signal was red. This is where street corridors could be used to frame the natural background. Also, there is a need to negate the development of high-rise structures in residential areas such as Seih Ul Uraibi. Here, the presence of the horizon and vast desert was highlighted while capturing urban silhouettes of small, low-height residences along the myriad of empty plots.

The field visits lasted a year, providing me with the chance to view Ras Al Khaimah through the lens of different seasons and events. The inherent urban identity started to settle in, shifting my perspective from viewing myself as a visitor to instead viewing myself as a resident. Even more asserting the need to unify the fragmented wealth of urban, natural, and heritage reserves through corridors. As Ras Al Khaimah continues to develop, it is bound to become the ultimate destination for tourists and residents.

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