Discovering an Abandoned Desert Village: Unveiling UAE’s Hardscrabble Past

Nestled amid the sand dunes, just an hour’s drive away from Dubai’s towering skyscrapers, lies an abandoned desert village that serves as a poignant reminder of the swift urbanization that has transformed the United Arab Emirates. This village, known as al-Ghuraifa, was constructed in the 1970s to provide housing for semi-nomadic Bedouin communities. However, it was left deserted in the 1990s as the UAE’s oil prosperity catapulted it into a global epicenter of commerce and tourism, paving the way for the futuristic cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

In recent times, this ghost village, located near al-Madam town in the Sharjah emirate, has evolved into a tourist attraction that offers an escape from the concrete jungles of coastal cities. It provides visitors with a unique glimpse into the Emirates’ challenging past, marked by hardships and resilience.

The village, comprising two rows of houses and a mosque, carries valuable insights into the modern history of the UAE, as Ahmad Sukkar, an assistant professor at the University of Sharjah, emphasizes. This settlement was part of a public housing initiative established after the UAE’s formation in 1971—a union of seven sheikhdoms. The revelation of oil reserves 13 years earlier had already commenced reshaping the country’s destiny.

The village became home to around 100 members of the al-Ketbi tribe, notes Mr. Sukkar. This tribe was one among many Bedouin groups that led semi-nomadic lives, raising livestock, traversing desert oases, and occasionally visiting Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which were then small port towns reliant on fishing and pearl diving.

The houses, built from modern cement, incorporated local design elements that echoed the transition to a more settled life. These homes featured vibrant interior walls adorned with mosaics and vivid colors. The village elders had designated spaces, called majalis, to convene local councils. One house was adorned with wallpaper depicting a lush green landscape, a stark contrast to the arid desert landscape outside.

The reasons behind the mass exodus just two decades after the village’s construction remain somewhat elusive. Local lore suggests that malevolent spirits drove the residents away, but Mr. Sukkar posits that a more plausible explanation lies in the pursuit of a better life in the rapidly expanding UAE cities. Limited access to essential amenities like electricity and water, coupled with sandstorms, likely played a role in their departure. Additionally, the families faced long desert commutes to access government jobs and schools in Dubai.

Today, the desert is gradually reclaiming the village. Drifts of sand have made their way into the abandoned homes, obfuscating walls and reaching almost to the ceiling. Only the mosque remains untouched, thanks to diligent cleaning efforts by maintenance workers from the nearby al-Madam.

While some descendants of the camel-mounted Bedouin still inhabit the UAE’s rural expanses, many have embraced city living, surrounded by gleaming skyscrapers, air-conditioned malls, and modern highways. Expatriates form the majority of the UAE’s population, and some have developed an interest in its more modest past.

Presently, tour guides lead groups of visitors through the abandoned village. The village has also served as a backdrop for music videos and social media posts showcasing Dubai’s opulent lifestyle. As the municipality takes measures to safeguard the site, including installing fencing, a security gate, and garbage bins, some of the village’s mystery diminishes. However, these actions set the stage for it to become yet another tourist attraction in a country renowned for its captivating sites.

Danny Booth, an expatriate from the Isle of Man, remarked on the importance of exploring such places before they undergo transformation. “Sometimes these places are better left undisturbed, as they lose their charm when they become crowded,” he wisely observed.

The village of al-Ghuraifa remains a poignant testament to the UAE‘s journey from its challenging past to its current prominence on the global stage.

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