Half a century of transformation from humble backwater to the global city has seen new islands dredged from the ocean, new towers drive the skyline higher, and a new population of international visitors arrives.
But one distant corner of the Emirate is prized for its quiet continuity.
The Hatta Mountain Conservation Reserve is found in the Hajar Mountains that stretch from the east coast of Oman into the northern UAE.
The Reserve falls within a tiny exclave of Dubai that is surrounded by the neighboring emirates of Ras al-Khaimah and Ajman and Oman to the South.
The arid landscape and temperatures that touch 55 degrees Celsius might seem inhospitable. But Hatta is swiftly becoming one of Dubai’s most popular attractions and worst-kept secrets.
The reserve is subject to a program to develop its assets for tourism, with visitors drawn to the “glamping” experiences, the hiking trails – and the surprisingly rich wildlife.
“We have approximately 4,000 arthropods (in the UAE) — bees, wasps, spiders, and other organisms,” says Brigitte Howarth, an ecologist at Zayed University who has long studied the region. “We would probably find 30-40 percent in the Hajar Mountains.”
Dozens of species entirely new to science have been discovered in the region since a series of studies were commissioned in 2008, the ecologist adds.
There are larger species here too, including mammals.
“The Arabian spiny mouse does very well in some of the elevations,” says Howarth. “Also Wagner’s gerbil…(and) we sometimes find certain owls.”
The Arabian Tar — a species of a wild goat — is well adapted to the steep slopes and “very prominent” in the mountains, she adds.
Hardy plants can also make a home here. “We know of a small lily that occurs right on the top of the mountains,” says Howarth.
One native plant comes with its own history lesson, the Ziziphus spina-christi, or Christ’s thorn tree, is believed by some to have supplied the thorns that formed Jesus Christ’s crown of thorns.
New discoveries have fueled a greater interest in the region. Howarth says she collaborates with leading institutions such as the Natural History Museum in London with research on Hajar mountain species.
But the growing popularity of Hatta brings challenges as well as benefits, and the ecologist sounds a note of warning.
“Eco-tourism, if it’s done well, is extremely valuable,” she says. “There should always be learning opportunities for people to appreciate and understand the biodiversity of areas such as the Hajar Mountains.”
“Unfortunately, some ecotourism does not necessarily take into consideration that we shouldn’t impact on the biodiversity…at times it is still impacting negatively.”