The ghost town that isn’t – Al Jazirah Al Hamrah

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Al Jazirah Al Hamrah is frozen in time.

The abandoned town has long been known as a place plagued by ghosts, but the town is filled with years of precious history and memories of Ras Al Khaimah. 

By Hind Aldah

Sweat trickled from Zahra Rashid’s face, with the blistering afternoon sun shining down as she was walking the abandoned streets. Not a single soul could be seen in sight. Every time a breeze would blow, or a leaf would drift in the wind, the hairs on her arms would stand up. 

The ruins of the deserted town give the buildings an eerie feeling to them. But while Rashid was pacing around the area, she could feel the rich history of the old, abandoned town protruding from the ruins of the buildings. 

Amid the recently opened resorts, furnished malls and modern residences in Ras Al Khaimah, the remains of Al Jazirah Al Hamrah sit untouched as if frozen in time. 

Rashid, a university student from Dubai, was well-aware of the ghost legends that surround this town. She recalled that even during her visit to the nearby Al Hamrah village beach resort a few years ago, her family contemplated visiting Al Jazirah Al Hamrah. “I remember telling everyone I really didn’t want to go because it was scary,” Rashid said. 

Rashid used to think that the place was eerie, and she was terrified of it. “Growing up I was not a horror movie type person, and I didn’t like any of that,” Rashid said. “People visiting the abandoned town would hear strange sounds coming from inside the buildings.” 

Even from two emirates away, stories of ghosts and jinn traveled across to Sharjah, where 62-year-old Hassan Aldah grew up hearing myths and legends about the town. One of them, he told me, is the story of Umm Al Duwais. The ghost is well-known in the United Arab Emirates as a beautiful woman who walks around and seduces men, only to later kill and haunt them. 

Still, the town owns this reputation of ghosts haunting every bit of the ruined buildings. Most people in the UAE will tell you the same thing if you mention Al Jazirah Al Hamrah; it’s a haunting ghost town. But not everybody shares that sentiment. 

Mohammad Ali Al Zaabi didn’t see it that way. “I don’t agree with the name ‘ghost town,’” he said. “The history behind Al Jazirah Al Hamrah goes way back to the 1820s and was known by the British Government during their colonialism of the Gulf.”

The town was once flourishing with pearl diving as its main economy in Ras Al Khaimah. The Al Zaab tribe were one of the main tribes that inhabited the town, which was also known as “Al Jazirah Al Zaab.” Some 2,000 people lived in the island, but between 1968 and 1971, they completely abandoned the town for good. 

But why did they leave?

“Before the union of the Emirates, there was some tribe conflict in the Jazeera al Zaab and the standards of living was low,” Al Zaabi said. The UAE’s first ruler His Highness Sheikh Zayed al Nahyan promised better jobs and a higher standard of living for the tribe, so most of them moved to Abu Dhabi where they could have better opportunities. 

However, some families, like Al Zaabis, stayed in the area. He said that they remained because of the “sentimental and historical attachment.” 

A Rich History Beneath the Ruins

Al Jazirah Al Hamrah is situated right next to the beach, making it an ideal spot for fishing and pearl diving. Originally, it was inhabited by around 200 people, mainly fisherfolk and pearl divers. This was when those two economies flourished in Ras Al Khaimah before the discovery of oil. 

Al Zaabi recalled his visits to the abandoned houses with his father and brother, where his father would tell them of the families who lived in the houses. 

For Rashid, all previous misconceptions about the town being deemed as creepy vanished. “I thought that it was a very beautiful place to be honest.”

What’s Next for the Village?

Today, plans are being made by the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority to preserve the town for tourism. It is even on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage list. According to the RAK tourism officials, the need to turn it into a tourism site will be important for visitors and locals alike to experience the rich history of the village. 

During the past decade, many cultural landmarks and heritage sites have been commercialized for tourism. Rashid thinks that this takes away the authenticity of the place, and the commercialization of heritage sites makes people go to the commercialized areas and only visit the new and renovated parts of it. 

“I completely understand in some cases to preserve the area so that it doesn’t get any worse than it already is, and people could still come and see it and I honestly would endorse that.” But Rashid said that making it a tourist destination won’t necessarily give outsiders the full experience. 

When I visited Al Jazirah Al Hamrah last week, it appeared as though it hasn’t been touched in decades, the remains of the buildings reminiscent of the town that it once was, a vibrant merchant town for fishermen and pearl divers. 

Even among all the ruin, you could still imagine the rich history that the town carries.