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Postcard from the Emirates: Khorfakkan – a retreat from the noisy neighbours

October 2, 2022

Soft or hard? For a Brit who’s become so used to those words being used to describe various shades of Brexit, it came as a surprise to hear them used in another context, in a town thousands of miles away from my troubled homeland.

“Kazakhstan is a Muslim country. Soft Muslim”. Thus spoke a lecturer from Almaty whom I met at a swimming pool in Khorfakkan. If you’ve never heard of Khorfakkan, you’re forgiven. Nor had I, until we ended up there a few days ago. And how would this coastal town in a lesser-known corner of the United Arab Emirates describe its Muslim identity? Certainly not “hard” if the multitude of young Russian women in skimpiest of bikinis lounging by the pool in our resort – a mere hundred miles from Iran – was anything to go by. But not soft either, given local strictures about alcohol consumption.

Khorfakkan is an enclave of Sharjah, one of the larger emirates. It’s an old settlement on the Gulf of Oman, once colonised by the Portuguese, that sits nicely on the trade routes between the Indian Ocean and all points East. It’s protected by the Hajar mountain range, which must have made it relatively easy to defend in days gone by. It also has a facility rare in the region – a natural deep water port.

It’s hot at this time of year – 35C – yet cooler than on the Persian Gulf side of the Emirates. Perfect for for our needs – a few days of swimming, reading and venturing out in the cool of the evening. Though it’s tiny in comparison, Khorfakkan reminded us of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second city, where my wife and I lived for most of the 80s. The town is relatively underdeveloped. The beach has yet to be populated by rows of hotels and apartments. In common with every self-respecting seaside city in the Middle East, it does have a corniche. As Jeddah did, it boasts some bizarre buildings and monuments.

Where the Jeddah corniche had a giant bicycle and a concrete block embedded with crashed cars, not to mention a huge marble thumb, Khorfakkan has a bit more class. For example, in the shadow of one of the mountains it has an immaculate Greek amphitheatre, complete with Corinthian columns and seating for at least three thousand spectators. For what purpose? Who knows? I doubt if Sophocles or Euripides would be box office in these parts. But very impressive.

Pic Wikipedia/Sherenk1 

A couple of hundred metres away, there’s a waterfall at what looks to be a natural cliff face. Except that it definitely isn’t natural. And I very much doubt if the huge volumes of water that pour down it come from some natural source. Most likely it’s pumped from the sea. I’m sure that the municipality can claim that it’s the largest waterfall in the Emirates, just as Jeddah once boasted the tallest fountain in the region. At night, it’s brightly lit. People come in family groups to sit around at its base, much as Jeddawis would gather at the lagoon in front of the fountain.

Our hotel, which is blessed with the obligatory large pool and spa, is the only resort in the town. We were a bit surprised at the absence of balconies. Someone explained that the emirate had banned all balconies in hotels because it didn’t want people jumping off them, which apparently is a popular way to end it all in some of the larger cities. Fair enough, though I wasn’t aware that suicide was so fashionable in Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

Its monopoly on high-end tourism appears to be about to end, as evidenced by the roadworks along the corniche. Another large resort overlooking the beach is on the way. Clearly someone’s investing, and won’t be satisfied until the town matches its wealthier neighbours as a tourist attraction. But meanwhile the immediate vicinity isn’t great shakes for walking, especially at night, when you risk falling down one of the numerous trenches in the gloom, because the street lights are turned off.

But what of the tourists? As I suggested earlier, the vast majority in our resort were Russian. Given the current circumstances, with people of military age fleeing the country to avoid being sucked into Putin’s Ukrainian meat grinder, that’s not surprising. The UAE, as it always did, continues to welcome Russian visitors. But it did feel a little disconcerting to be mixing freely with our fellow guests when my country is busy providing the means by which Ukraine is slaughtering their compatriots. And when I looked at the younger Russians sauntering around the pool, I wondered how many of them are facing the call-up when they return, to be fed into the war zone with minimal training. Perhaps this is me projecting, but they certainly didn’t look full of the joys of spring.

In any event, they were making the most of their stay, especially at the dinner table. Large ladies, plates piled with food, started eating before they even sit down. On their way out, they were still eating. Yet you rarely saw a smile or a laugh. Perhaps that might have something to do with the fact that in Sharjah alcohol is banned. If I were to follow the classic stereotype, it would be hard to imagine these folks arriving without suitcases stuffed with duty-free vodka. One guy we saw staggering around the pool certainly wasn’t suffering from a surfeit of orange juice. But by and large, our fellow guests were pretty low-key, which wasn’t the case the last time we visited a place popular with people from Russia (see Postcard from Phuket – Russia Town).

The kids seemed to be having fun though, which is as it should be. If only we were all kids again.

We spent a couple of evenings down at the local souk, which has definitely benefited from the ruler’s largesse. Unlike in Dubai, which has a number of large, somewhat artificial, souk-like retail outlets specifically for the benefit of its tourists, Khorfakkan’s Old Souk has been sensitively renovated on a site that has served as a market for centuries. Nothing plastic. Plenty of eating places catering for all tastes. In one restaurant you could buy dates, spices and perfumes, including rose water, which is a favourite fragrance throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Again, unlike in most parts of Dubai, it was full of locals, out with their families, enjoying a coffee or a meal.

Because Khorfakkan is 150km away from Dubai airport, we hired a car, which by currently outrageous European standards was relatively cheap. A big difference from the Jeddah we remember is that the authorities seem to have tamed the traffic. Speed limits within the town ranged from 40 to 60kph. On the main highway to Sharjah and Dubai, the maximum speed limit was never more than 120kph, which made driving less of a Formula One experience than in Saudi Arabia, where no self-respecting driver travelling between the major cities would do less than 150, slowing only at known police hideouts. Another difference was that the highway was lit from one end to another, which probably helps to keep the accident rate down. Not much chance of a collision with a wandering camel emerging out of the gloom.

Khorfakkan brought back many memories of more innocent times. Even if its development is less chaotic and haphazard than that in Saudi Arabia in the 80s, it seems to have preserved a sense of ownership on the part of the local population that was very much present in Jeddah, and less in evidence in Dubai, where the population of Emiratis is vastly outnumbered by tourists and foreign workers from most parts of the globe.

Though our resort was very much the preserve of Russians (and Kazakhs, according to the chap from Almaty), the streets were definitely not. There are no big malls and no mega tourist attractions. At the risk of sounding like a Trip Advisor reviewer, if you’re looking for an easily accessible Gulf location without the glitz, you might think about Oman first, but Khorfakkan, a town on a far smaller scale than that of its noisy neighbours, should come a close second.

With all the development that’s going on in and around its most scenic areas, that might change. And who knows, if the current Russian exodus becomes a permanent feature, perhaps a colony of exiles will exert its own influence on the town’s culture. Though I suspect there would have to be some changes to Sharjah’s alcohol laws for that to happen.

But for now, though its Emirati population is definitely the visible ruling class, rolling up here and there in expensive SUVs, yet rarely to be seen behind a shopping till or a hotel desk, it’s still a distinctively Middle Eastern city. If one needed a reminder of that, one only had to look at this ad in the hotel.

Though I suspect it won’t be the happy couple who will be doing much weeding in Khorfakkan’s manicured gardens.

Well worth a visit, especially if you’re not impressed by artificial islands, indoor ski slopes, endless malls and soaring tower blocks. And for us, a welcome post-pandemic return to a region and culture we love.

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