World Heritage sites are established by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a means for identifying places with cultural and historical significance. Demarcated as protected zones, UNESCO heritage sites in the UAE are a major attraction for history buffs and regular tourists who want a glimpse into the nation’s glorious past.
In this post, we will cover sites that are officially recognized as UN World Heritage Sites in the United Arab Emirates. We will also be covering areas that are on the global organisation’s tentative list of heritage sites in the UAE.
Official UNESCO sites in the UAE
Al Ain Oasis
Located in the middle of the Rub al Khali desert, the Al Ain Oasis is a 4,000-year-old settlement and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Covering 1,200 hectares, it’s the biggest oasis in the region and is also one of many in Al Ain recognised by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization for its value in biodiversity and cultural heritage. It’s also one of the many popular oases in the UAE.
A tour of the site answers why the oasis is a UNESCO site in the UAE. The area is resplendent with fruit trees and around 147,000 date palms. It’s also been said that UAE’s founder, His Highness Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, was born under the shade of the palm trees. Apart from foliage, a still-operating Falaj irrigation system reflects what the agriculture in the region has been like for millennia.
A great place to start your tour is with the Al Jahili Fort. Originally built in the 1890s, the fort officially opened to the public in 2008 and is one of the largest in the country. It was restored by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage into a tourist attraction.
Displaying the components of the UAE heritage site is an Eco-Centre at the entrance which provides an overview of the site’s significance and its importance in Abu Dhabi’s civilisation. In addition to showcasing ancient farming methods, visitors can know more about the area’s history with a series of interactive exhibits.
The Al Ain Oasis is a popular tourist hub and features several beverage and food outlets. Parking is free here too with connectivity to neighbouring attractions like the Al Ain Palace Museum.
- Location: Al Ain, Abu Dhabi
- Contact: +971-2-599-5438
- Opening hours: 08:00 am to 05:00 pm (Open daily)
Hili Archaeological Park Abu Dhabi
Those looking to visit other heritage sites in the UAE may visit the Hili Archaeological Park in Abu Dhabi. Located 10 kilometres outside Al Ain, the area is a combination of a public garden and a historical site with a history that can be traced back to the Bronze Age.
Most of the monuments in the UAE heritage site are from the Umm an-Nar period and are dated from 2500 BCE to 2000 BCE. There are also several ancient tombs and settlements in and outside the park. A notable structure is the Hili Grand Tomb which was used to bury the dead from surrounding settlements.
The tomb has two entrances with engravings of people and animals. Notable ancient settlements in the area include Hili 8 reveals evidence from agricultural practices in the UAE 5,000 years ago. One of several UNESCO heritage sites in the UAE, the Hili Archaeological Park is a family-friendly space with plants, fountains and small play area for kids.
- Location: Mohammed Bin Khalifa Street, Al Ain
- Opening hours: 04:00 pm to 11:00 pm (for families only)
Jebel Hafeet Tombs, Abu Dhabi
Marking the beginning of the Bronze Age in the UAE, the Jebel Hafeet Tombs are pretty distinct considering their beehive shape. The site is closed but it can be seen at the foothills of the Jebel Hafeet Mountain. Plus, you can always bide your time with other leisurely pursuits in Jebel Hafeet, like taking a trip to the Al Ain Zoo.
Bida Bint Saud
Another area for your “UAE heritage sites” bucket list is Bida Bin Saud. It’s pretty hard to miss. Located 15 kilometres from Garden City, the archaeological site is a large stratified rock rising high above the surrounding farms and desert.
Also referred to as the Gharn bint Saud, the mountain is the site of several unearthed stone tombs, some of which date back 5,000 years. Listed as a UN World Heritage site, excavated artefacts from the area — like a 3,000-year-old falaj irrigation system and remains of an ancient public building — are proof of Al Ain’s role in the development of Abu Dhabi’s eastern region.
The area is completely fenced off although visitors are allowed to drive around the perimeter. Unearthed artefacts from Bida Bint Saud are on display at the Al Ain National Museum.
Tentative UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the UAE
In addition to the aforementioned areas, the United Arab Emirates has several other notable sites that are on UNESCO’s tentative list of heritage sites. The places waiting to be recognized by the global organization include:
Gate to the Trucial States, Sharjah
The emirate of Sharjah was the gate to the Trucial States and had great significance in the country’s pearl trade. The government of Sharjah has made great efforts to preserve the city’s historic structures. This includes the old port and the buildings in the old air station that are now home to the Mahatta Museum. Additionally, the emirate has a strong law of Antiquities and Heritage that keep historical areas protected which add to its appeal as a potential UNESCO World Heritage site.
Central region in Sharjah
This refers to a mountainous region which includes around five major archaeological sites. Excavations in the area have revealed the existence of human settlements dating back to ancient times
Cemetery and settlement of Umm an-Nar Island
Located on the southern shores of the Arabian Gulf, the Umm an-Nar Island is off-limits and is a major historic site. Recent excavations have covered 20% of the site and uncovered houses built with marine rocks and a cemetery.
Abu Dhabi Sabkha
The coastal sabkha, or flat salt-encrusted desert, in Abu Dhabi are located south on the coast of the Arabian Gulf. The sabkha are considered some of the most unique documented in the world as a result of their completeness, vastness and research carried out by geologists.
Al Bidya Mosque
One of the UNESCO heritage sites in the UAE on the organisation’s tentative list is the Al Bidya Mosque in Fujairah. Located in the Al Bidya village, the mosque is the oldest in the UAE. It is still in operation and has a unique architectural design. All this make it an ideal nominee for a UNESCO World Heritage site title.
Considered one of the largest archaeological sites in the UAE, periods of human settlement at the Ed-Dur Site include the Bronze Age, Stone Age, Iron Age, Obeid and Pre-Islamic periods. Located in Umm Al Quwain, the fenced area is home to a significant temple with architectural details unique to the first century AD.
Khor Dubai is another one of tentative UNESCO heritage sites in the UAE. The natural seawater inlet in the Arabian Gulf divides Deira and Bur Dubai and is spread across 14 km. Also known as Dubai Creek, the site was the focal point for Dubai’s development as a trading port with the first recorded reference dating back to 1587.
Have you visited any of these sites? Let us know about your experience in the comments below.
Till then, that’s a wrap of our review of UNESCO heritage sites in the UAE. Want the country’s history in detail? Start by visiting heritage sites in Dubai. For a glimpse into the country’s rise as a pearl trading hub, continue your historical tour by visiting heritage sites in Abu Dhabi.