A trip to Jebel Jais

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I visited Jebel Jais, or the Mt. Jais, mountain in the UAE yesterday. It is a part of the Al Hajar Mountains, which in Arabic translates roughly to ‘The Stone Mountains’ (جِبَال ٱلْحَجَر). These mountains line the northeastern border of the Arabian peninsula, running the length of and almost parallel to Oman’s eastern coast. In the UAE, it pierces into the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, and that’s where Jebel Jais is located as well.

A small group of us drove from Sharjah a few hours after a sandstorm had hit, sending the visibility plummeting and rendering the whole desert landscape with a dystopian brush. The way from Sharjah to the Al Hajar is largely empty, dotted now and then by a government building, a petrol station or unused housing colonies. But if you pay attention to the sand, you’ll see it changes colour from a pale orange to dark grey to bright orange, and finally to a dull grey as you reach the mountains themselves. I couldn’t capture this on my phone camera.

En route.

The tectonic context of the Al Hajar: the Arabian plate is moving into the Eurasian plate in the north, deforming the crust along the Makran subduction zone in the Gulf of Oman and the Zagros fault in Iran. Beyond this, I found a dispatch in the April 2015 issue of Gazelle, a publication of the Dubai Natural History Group, that matched much of my local experience around the mountains. So let me quote from there at length:

Twelve DNHG members, led by Sonja Lavrenčič, headed to Ras al Khaimah on April 10 for an exploration of Wadi Bih; an extensive watercourse which once served as a caravan route through Ras al Khaimah and Musandam. [Wadi in Arabic is roughly ‘stream’ or the path of a stream.]

The wadi lies under Jebel Jais, considered one of the highest points in the UAE, and presents a magnificent though very harsh landscape. At the time of our visit all the channels were completely dry and one branch of the watershed was barricaded by the Jabana landslide.

A little before my group’s visit, in fact, there had been a heavy downpour due to which the waters had flooded the drains along the sides of the road, breached the high water-mark in the plains and triggered a half-dozen landslides.

A drain along the side of the road.
A view of the valley.

The rocky debris collected near the feet of the mountains due to a landslide.

Between two ridges is a broad alluvial plain with a scattering of acacia trees, and our route took us in a loop around this area, skirting the edges of the slope.

The valley has a small modern settlement, and we encountered signs of earlier habitations at intervals. A tributary ravine named Wadi Ghabbas shelters a handful of ruined stone houses among Sidr trees [Ziziphus spina-christi], and another collection of homesteads stands across the plain under the opposite slope. …

Notable monuments to the exertions of earlier residents are the heavy stone walls of terrace fields seen around the wadi. The retaining walls were built over several seasons in locations where they would catch layers of alluvial wash; the accumulation of moist deep earth would then yield a crop of high-grade barley, which was packed off to the coast and used especially for sfai flatbread.

We examined two cisterns, stone-lined and of rounded rectangular form. In other environments the green opaque water with its drifting skim and fringe of withered grass might not be thought enticing but, in this desiccated terrain, whatever is wet is welcome.

The ascent to Jebel Jais begins in about 140 km and is picturesque from the start, especially if you can appreciate the features of arid landscapes. I lived for four years in the middle of nowhere in the UAE a while ago. I didn’t enjoy life then but you start to understand the desert and find pleasure when the heat is drier. On the day of our visit, in fact, the relative humidity was 40% and there was prediction of rain. Ras Al Khaimah is often the wettest of the seven emirates of the UAE, partly because of the Al Hajar.

The Al Hajar is at the centre of Ras Al Khaimah’s aspiration to become as prosperous as the emirate of Dubai. You might see some of these photos sport unusual linear shadows – they’re of cellphone towers. The UAE’s two cellphone networks have towers across the mountains. Almost all the towers bear the words “Jebel Jais – Ras Al Khaimah”. Perhaps the thinking is that if your phone works all over the place, you might be less averse to spending time here at any time of day. We did see one group of people hosting a barbecue halfway up Jebel Jais and quite a few others on picnics.

There are also spacious viewing decks with dumpsters, clean public toilets and – near these decks – solar-powered water purifiers and street lamps. We also spotted a (speed-controlled) roller-coaster and what’s purported to be the world’s long zip-line. It was closed for service when we visit because of the sandstorm. Someone said there’s a proposal for a five-star hotel near the Jebel Jais peak, plus other restaurants, cafés, camps and outdoor activities in the area.

A mobile cellphone tower.

In early 2021, the UAE’s Hope probe entered into orbit around Mars. Where R&D is concerned, UAE might be considered naïve but also extremely wealthy, allowing it to throw money at problems that would indeed benefit from more money. The Hope probe’s development had involved some scientists in the UAE as well as three American universities, which had also put the probe together. But the probe flew with the UAE flag and its orbital capture was timed to happen in the 50th year of the country’s existence. The UAE is effectively using the achievements of spaceflight available to achieve today to elevate its international standing and advertise its ability to think progressively, even if in a superficial sense.

Closer to ground, en route to Jebel Jais, you might spot a labourers’ camp or two, where conditions have only recently improved to include minimum wages for Indians. This contrast is inescapable throughout the UAE but especially in its rapidly urbanising parts. Ras Al Khaimah itself is a wealthy emirate whose highways feature sophisticated traffic cameras and radar imagers even as they’re flanked by petrol stations operated by overworked, underpaid Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants.

Near the feet of the Al Hajar, in fact, the emirate has been doling out land (and water and power) to Emiratis for them to build large houses on, anticipating the area’s impending, inevitable prosperity. There’s nothing similar for the immigrant workers who laid those supply lines.

A panoramic shot of the Jebel Jais landscape. Ignore the smear.

An important thing that the emirates, their companies and their contractors are doing is exercising a latent resentment of the aridity. The workers’ work to ‘develop’ Jebel Jais is hardly distinguishable from an exercise in transforming the desiccation into a tenuous urban paradise, in much the same way Dubai has been expanding by gradually swallowing sea and sky and Abu Dhabi has been by exploiting hydrocarbon extraction and export.

I’m not sure what Ras Al Khaimah’s long-term plans are, to be honest, but if they’re anything like those of Dubai, one has to think they also include proposals to ‘reclaim’ the sea, afforest large areas of the desert, roll out cloud-seeding programmes, create and expand a ‘financial district’, attract tourists and spread the gospel of consumerism.

We had started our ascent at around 4 pm and reached an altitude of some 1.5 km by 5.40 pm. We couldn’t go much further because the road work hadn’t been completed beyond that point. The peak of Jebel Jais itself was another 0.5 km upward. There was no wind and for the first time there was some blue in the sky, which meant we were above the sandstorm. It was also 6º C or so cooler than it was on the ground.

The end of the road.

On the way down, we stopped for some cotton candy (at a small restaurant a local had set up in one of the viewing decks) and continued on. Two new sights we were able to catch were of the mountains we couldn’t see properly during the ascent, because of the sand in the air, and some cirrus clouds in the sky.

Beholding something colossal is a distinctly unsettling feeling. Something so large that you realise the smallness of your own body, and the bodies of other people, and simultaneously the largeness of the world around you. Especially the ability of little things – pebbles, motes of sand, splinters of rock – to crenellate on and on, not stopping when they’re as big as you, as your house, as your airplanes. They keep going like a deliberate reminder by the forces of nature of the scale at which they’ve been labouring for millennia. Thus, you’re forced to countenance the simple and immutable weight of perspective. Like tens of thousands of people join a protest until parliaments and palaces tremble, the mountainous accretion of diminutive objects can loom large enough to render human intelligence and ingenuity itself of doubtful value. This, they seem to say, is the world. Welcome.

Just as we reached the highway and began on the road home, a second, more intense sandstorm had hit the region and the hillscape became martian. The wind and the sand whipped so incessantly around that they scattered sunlight meaningless. You could easily defy its brightness and look directly at it. Thanks to millions of motes of sand, your star is no longer blinding.

Sunset at Jebel Jais.

Now for home.