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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Neighbourhood Watch: away from Dubai's glitz, Hatta is where present and past collide 

In the first in a series of articles about the worlds within our world, we travel to the far corner of the emirate of Dubai and find an enclave trying to balance respect for tradition with the benefits tourism can bring

A world away from the glitz of Dubai city is a town steeped in history and culture. Huddled between the mountains, Hatta is a haven of tradition in an emirate known for its stark modernity.

About 134 kilometres south-east of Dubai and close to the Oman border, a burst of green date palms, rolling valleys and the sound of goats calling welcome you to this oasis of calm, where the pace is a little slower and the people a little friendlier.

Under a Hollywood-style sign that looms over the village from 450 metres up in the Hajjar Mountains, residents walk the streets, greeting each other by shaking hands or pressing their noses together.

While driving over Al Yumeh Mountain, Bakhit Al Mekbali, Emirati vice president of the Hatta Society for Culture and Folklore, points to a tombstone from about 3,000BC.

“Several tombstones from thousands of years ago are located in this mountain,” Mr Al Mekbali says.

“The graves, which were made of stones and rectangular in shape, tell you about the lives of the inhabitants of the region in those times. Between six and 10 men are believed to be buried in these tombs.”

Flint fields, old boats, short buildings and castles are some of the exciting clues to the UAE’s past and the earliest humans to walk these lands that are found here.

But Hatta is changing. The mountain city is being turned into an international tourist destination as part of a 10-year plan that was launched in 2016. It includes hundreds of new homes for Emiratis, commercial areas and green spaces for winter sports.

“Some who own homes on the mountains refused to move to a new home. Many locals are very attached to their past and heritage,” says Mr Al Mekbali, 46.

Bakhit Mohammed Al Mekbali, vice president of the Hatta Society for Culture and Folklore. Sunday, July 22nd, 2018 in Hatta. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Bakhit Mohammed Al Mekbali, vice president of the Hatta Society for Culture and Folklore. Sunday, July 22nd, 2018 in Hatta. Chris Whiteoak / The National

He believes the development projects will boost tourism and improve the town, but he is also a little worried that some of the cultural and heritage gems will be lost.

“On the whole, community members are thrilled about the transformation that is ­taking place in Hatta and the new houses that are being built for its residents,” Mr Al Mekbali says.

“But those living here are used to a specific pattern. For instance, they are not used to women wearing swimsuits.”

It is a hurdle that will need to be crossed when activities such as water sports are introduced to the village in a bid to improve and expand tourism.

Kayaks now slice through the still waters of Hatta Dam, with Hatta Kayak serving about 300,000 customers last year. The project developers are expecting that figure to hit 700,000 this year.

And as the number of tourists grows, so will the village, with hotels and other developments looking likely to transform it from a sleepy village to a hive of activity.

But Mr Al Mekbali is convinced it is a change for the better: “Increasing the number of tourists will help local businesses flourish. Many people here own shops.”

Among the other development projects is Hatta Heritage Village, which takes visitors a trip to the past. After a traditional greeting with Arabic coffee, it displays old-style houses that were built from mud in the times before the emirate’s steel and glass high-rises.

There are also traditional handicrafts that reflect the personality of early life in

the UAE.

The development plan is also improving the infrastructure of agriculture. Hatta Honey recently opened, where queen bees are raised, and this year it has produced at least 10 tonnes of honey, Mr Al Mekbali says.

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Read more:

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The beekeeping centre, which is surrounded by mountains on all sides, was opened at the end of last year.

For Hatta residents, it takes more than an hour to drive to the nearest shopping centre for everyday items.

“There aren’t any major shopping centres in Hatta,” says Emirati Latifa Al Bedwai, 32, who lives in Hatta but works in a bank in Dubai. “The Emirates Co-Operative Society provides only the essential grocery items.

“But I can’t leave Hatta. Everything is different here. I enjoy the busy life of the city but it’s very peaceful and quiet here. I love my neighbourhood.

“All those living in Hatta are just like a big family. Neighbours get together almost on a daily basis and everyone knows each other.”

When Hatta Central Market is built it will house an array of shops, tourist and sports outlets, transforming the commercial landscape.

The people of Hatta expect their town to become an attractive tourism spot and for the local economy to thrive.

“In Hatta, present and past collide,” says Mr Al Mekbali. But it remains to be seen how hard.