2 Janaury 2009

Scaling the highest peak in the United Arab Emirates is not for the fainthearted. First, to paraphrase Mrs Beeton, you have to find your mountain.
This was not as easy as it might seem. Understandably enough, mountain climbing is not a big thing in the UAE but nobody seemed entirely sure which one was the nation’s highest mountain.

From my cursory internet searches before landing in the UAE, I knew that Jebel Hafeet, the picturesque massif emerging out of the desert at the oasis town of Al Ain, had been misidentified as the highest peak so frequently that it’s verging on becoming accepted fact. The truth is it’s just the highest in Abu Dhabi emirate.

A bit more internet searching produced a consensus of Jebel Yibir, a 1525m mountain in the range that forms the Musandam peninsula, shared between the UAE and the Sultanate of Oman, south of the Strait of Hormuz.

But then a bit more searching through the UAE road atlas once I arrived revealed the border between Oman and the northernmost emirate of Ras Al Khaimah tended to follow the watershed of the range and just on the Oman side was a 1934m peak called Jebel Bil Ays.

Was the map inaccurate, making Jebel Bil Ays a shared summit of both nations? Was the highest point of the UAE the place where the slope to Jebel Bil Ays crossed the unmarked border? Or was there a bump entirely on the UAE side that stood higher than anything else? It seemed entirely possible that the UAE’s highest named peak, highest peak and highest point were three different places.

I decided it was time to find out.


My favourite UAE road sign. Beware of something, but we’re not going to tell you what.

This entailed hiring a car then heading north through the deserted highways of New Year’s morning. Once out of Abu Dhabi, the biggest of the seven emirates, it took hardly any time to go through the coastal emirates of Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al Quwain and then Ras al Khaimah.

I’d only previously been to Dubai, which is even more frenetic in modernising than Abu Dhabi is, so it seemed almost odd to see the gentler pace of development and obviously poorer conditions of RAK. As a corollary to the slower development, there were fewer expats and thus a higher proportion of Emiratis. This in turn was reflected in far more frequent use of Arabic in advertising.

The architectural vernacular also seemed more indigenous as well, compared to the relentlessly international homogenised styles of building and decorating.


And there were goats. Lots and lots of goats. If you wanted a tourism slogan for RAK, you could do worse than: “Ras al Khaimah — 10 million goats can’t be wrong!”

The mountains emerged from the haze in a towering wall to my right and after an unintended detour through downtown RAK, I found my way through trial and error onto the road towards the border crossing at Wadi Bih. Just before the crossing, a side road disappeared into the mountains and, according to my unverified road map, went high into the mountains. With luck, I’d be able to do a lot of the height gain by car.

At first the signs were good and the powers that be were in the process of turning this obscure dead-end side road into a thoroughfare wide enough to hold a four-lane highway. Then as it reached the head of the wadi and began zigzagging up the side of the hill, there was a sign: Road Closed.


Of course, being a hire car, it would have been wrong to drive up a closed road. This photo, er, isn’t taken as I drove out the next day. No, because I parked and walked.


And this red dot certainly wouldn’t indicate how far up the closed road you can drive a 2WD Toyota Yaris. No, that’s just conjecture and hypothesis.

From the red dot, it took about 45 minutes to reach where the road ended, at which point I was passed by some Sunday drivers in 4WDs who could have given me a lift…


Instead I got to eat a lot of dust.


I scrambled up to the skyline ridge and began making my way up excellent grippy limestone through a series of rock steps.

Each time I expected to have to use my hands to get over the rock steps, a simple solution would appear and I was beginning to become suspicious about how organic this was when I noticed the next step featured a drystone rock staircase. Sometime in the distant past (IE before oil), this had obviously been a shepherd’s route to access the high plains above.

It was a sign of things to come on what seemed like Jebel Bizarro. As I went higher, the signs of civilisation increased rather than decreased. Up ahead I could see a set of power lines on the far skyline.

And alongside it, I could make out a track of some kind. In keeping with my Jebel Bizarro theory, the shepherd’s route gradually improved into an intermittent path and then into a bridle path and then into one capable of being driven by ATVs.


Thanks to the level of fitness that reflects four months of living in an Abu Dhabi hotel, it took three hours to puff my way up to the first peak on the ridge, which was Contestant Number One on the possible list of highest UAE peaks. Once I reached it and looked beyond, I figured I’d be able to make sense of the 1:100,000 road atlas I was using to navigate.


By then, the sun was starting to set over Iran, itself invisible through the haze over the Gulf. Just below the summit of the first peak, I found somewhere flat and sheltered then rolled out my bivy bag and zipped up to keep out the marauding and homicidal flocks of camel spiders and scorpions, about which I’d been hearing horror stories for the past four months.


Up this high, I realised how much light pollution and haze affected the night sky in Abu Dhabi. Here the stars shone clear.

And just over to the east, on what seemed to be the frontier ridge between RAK and Oman, a dozen or so floodlights turned on. I went to sleep, pondering that when the UAE decides it no longer wants to have the higher per capita carbon footprint in the world, there are a lot of easy steps to take.

The next morning, I dumped my pack behind a rock and headed up towards Contestant Number Two of potential highest peaks, along a track that had now improved into something traverseable by a standard 4WD. Jebel Bizarro was living up to its reputation.

Once on the frontier ridge, the road improved again and then I saw the reason for the floodlights. The summit was home to a substantial home, numerous communications attenae, an array of solar panels, a flagpole bearing a UAE flag and the ubiquitous irrigated garden.


It was the presence of a pair of helipads that finally caused the penny to drop — I was at one of the Sheikhs’ summer homes.

Fortunately the Sheikh wasn’t in but my arrival caused a fuss from the squad of subcontinental staff who live up here, each of whom was dressed as if they were about to join Scott in the Antarctic even though the weather was a mild winter’s morning. They quickly got over the shock to invite me in to eat but I demurred and pushed on.


Based on where the watershed was, it was clear there was another knoll higher than the one on which the Sheikh’s home was positioned. It’s fair to say that navigation was not an issue, because leading to it was a paved path lined with streetlights.

Once I reached Contestant Number Three on the high peak stakes, I found a substantial majlis — the Arabic equivalent of a loungeroom — constructed from rock, on which the Sheikh and his cronies would hold court and smoke their shishas.


By now I could see what I was pretty certain was Jebel Bil Ays (green dot) and its presence entirely in Oman according to my road map was explained because opposite it, but wholly in the UAE, was a knoll (red dot), with the watershed running between them.

There was more of a feeling of relief than elation as I wandered over to the knoll. Just to vindicate my navigation, a white border plinth bearing the UAE and Oman symbols stood between the two peaks. This unprepossessing and unnamed knoll of rock and scrub was the highest point of the UAE.


OK, so it wasn’t on a par with finding the source of the Nile or uncovering Tutankhamen’s tomb but I was mildly chuffed to finally reach the UAE’s highest point. I estimated it at about 20m lower than Jebel Bil Ays.

I pondered dubbing it Jebel Bill Ayres, after the Weather Underground activist who had been used as a last-ditch attempt to smear Obama in the US election. Then I wondered if there was an Arabic translation of Bizarro.
(As I were to find out a few weeks later, it’s name was actually جيس , which translates to “Jess” or “Jais”.)

I retraced my steps back to my pack and then down the mysteriously deteriorating route to the road, just as a Syrian guy pulled up in his Jeep Wrangler and asked me about where the road went. I explained that it stopped about 200m ahead.

“Do you want a lift?” he then asked. Let me think about tha… yes.

We arrived back at my Yaris at the, er, bottom of the hill, just as a German and a Russian pulled up in a car. They were the only hikers I’ve ever seen in the UAE and they too plied me for information about where to go, after which the German asked: “Would you like a beer?”

Life seemed too bizarre for words, but after a couple of mouthfuls I remembered about the UAE’s zero alcohol limit for driving and the compulsory jail terms imposed for even the most technical of breaches. I nursed the beer then discretely poured it out after they hiked off.

On the journey back to Abu Dhabi, what had been the BBC world service radio station on the journey to RAK was now featuring someone wailing muezzin-like in Arabic, while the stations that had played incessant crappy pop songs were now playing what might best be described as elevator music.

All was explained that night, when I caught a news bulletin explaining that the head sheikh for Umm al Quwain had died that morning. The UAE would have a week of national mourning, including three days in which all government services would close, while the sheikh’s emirate would have 40 days of mourning and 10 days of closures.

All the radio stations had been directed to play sombre music, but some reason a compendium of eighties hits played on pan pipes — including, I can state with authority, Careless Whispers — was deemed to be sufficiently respectful to mark the passing of a national leader… jh

A couple of people – OK, two – have asked how to get to the highpoint so I’ve created a page with maps and directions here.
It can also be reached by a 1-2hr detour from the “Stairways to Heaven” roundtrip.


< Snow in the UAE   Canyoning near Hatta >


2 Responses to “The highest point of the United Arab Emirates”

  1. Nicolas said

    I went there this Eid holiday (2011).
    According to some workers we met, the road will be 35km long in total (probably counting from the branch at the main road) and completed end of 2012.
    There is a camp with workshop at approximately km23, with a gate and only construction staff is allowed to continue with cars. The road is driveable further until at least km 30.
    We didn’t continue to the top due to the heat.
    The road closed sign is now different and says “Road closed between 8:30PM and 6AM”.

  2. Saz Payne said

    Loved this blog. Thank you for writing it. The road to the top is almost complete now and its May 2017.

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