x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

RAK, my childhood holiday venue, has come of age

Ras al Khaimah: the most northern, arguably the most unsung, certainly the most beautiful, of the United Arab Emirates.

Ras Al Khaimah is upgrading its roads, ports and airport as part of plans to become a regional transport centre.
Ras Al Khaimah is upgrading its roads, ports and airport as part of plans to become a regional transport centre.

RAK: Ready for take-off. So ran the headline on the report I received the other day from the Oxford Business Group (OBG), based in Istanbul. The acronym, so beloved of braying expats - the sort who might also use KL when referring to the Malaysian capital - has become something of a brand for Ras al Khaimah, the most northern, arguably the most unsung, certainly the most beautiful, of the United Arab Emirates.

According to the OBG, the national carrier RAK Airways resumed service in October after a brief, recession-induced hiatus, while the emirate as a whole is upgrading its roads, ports and airport as part of plans to "become a regional transport centre".

Ras al Khaimah has tried its hand at most things. It has looked for oil, set up a free trade zone and promoted tourism. The initiative to position itself as a regional logistics and shipping centre makes sense. The emirate has a rich trading history and proximity to the Strait of Hormuz, while its tariffs compete favourably with Dubai.

From what I understand, it is also quite a pleasant place to live. But it was never always thus. It was 30 years ago this month that I first set foot in Ras al Khaimah. My father had been appointed the Middle East Airlines (MEA) station manager a year earlier, swapping a Mayfair pied-a-terre for a single-storey villa in the middle of nowhere.

MEA had opened the route amid a wave of optimism that the tiny emirate was on the verge of a massive oil discovery and that RAK would give Sharjah, then something of a boutique emirate, a run for its money. By the time my father arrived, there were already signs that this would not be the case.

From the perspective of a 15-year-old on his school holidays, there was nothing to do. The only TV station was RAK TV, which fed viewers a daily diet of the news, followed by either an episode of Get Smart or I-Spy and then a movie, usually a B-western. Dubai's Channel 33 had a more glamorous schedule but we received that only in the summer months when the humidity could carry the signal the 100km up the coast. The high point of any holiday was a drive into Dubai to buy pirate cassettes at the Al Ghurair Centre, then Dubai's glitziest mall.

Today, of course, there is the gleaming Hilton Ras al Khaimah Resort & Spa, but in 1980 we had only the modest Ras al Khaimah Hotel where my father, before he remarried, would take me for lunch every day and where in the summer, the pool area was a social hub of sorts for the Lebanese community. There was a British sailing club, but my father, who held a British passport, was not invited to join.

On reflection MEA was probably already reconsidering the wisdom of its decision to fly to Ras al Khaimah. I can't remember if there were one or two flights a week (certainly no more) but every time I made the hop from Dubai, I was routinely the only person on the plane while my father, the immigration official and the customs officer were the only people in the terminal building.

And yet we all, and by we I mean the expat community - a motley gang of water engineers, explosives experts, Grey Mackenzie traders, bank managers and Lebanese businessmen - still believed RAK's fortunes would turn and that the investors with their hotels and malls would come galloping into town.

In 2000, the Government turned its commercial attentions elsewhere and established the Ras al Khaimah Free Trade Zone, which has since attracted major Indian companies.

The Government has also been pumping tens of millions of dollars each year into promoting itself as a tourist destination. I recall thinking at the time that maybe, just maybe, the emirate, might have found its calling.

RAK Airways - "Small Fares, Big Deals" - was launched in 2006 as a low-cost carrier serving the sizeable Indian community with routes to Egypt, India, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia.

"We were forced to close a year ago owing to the extremely tough market situation," Sheikh Omar bin Saqr Al Qassimi, the chairman of the airline, admitted recently. "But the time is right for a spectacular re-entry to the market," he added, saying that RAK Airways would be spending US$27 million (Dh99.1m) on an infrastructure upgrade for the airport.

That money would be spent on, among other things, new runway lights and improved aircraft maintenance facilities. It is hard to imagine Emirates Airline or Etihad Airways being burdened with such problems.

My father packed his bags in January 1988. He had effectively sat out the Lebanese civil war in desert exile. The last time I visited was in the summer of 1985 and in the five years I had been visiting, the only change I can remember was that the Ras al Khaimah Hotel had added a squash court.

Would I like to go back? You bet I would.

Michael Karam is a communication and publishing consultant based in Beirut