Now doesn’t that look nice?


Where to begin… We had planned to go camping in Khor Fakkan but had heard of an oil spill that was ruining beach life up there, so we decided to try something new and take a road trip to Umm Al Quwain. We’d heard that there was free camping on the beach and that it was a popular destination. We were a little weary of being around a ton of people, but we decided we’d try it out, anyway.

We left Al Ain around 2:15 pm and headed to Dubai. It took about 3 hours to reach our destination, and we drove to a couple of different areas looking for something that resembled the images we’d seen online. Most of the beaches were pretty trashed, and some looked like they wouldn’t be too good for a couple of 7-year-olds to run around, so we kept looking until we found the beach from the pictures. Nestled between an industrial dock and a resort island, the beach was obviously a well-loved area by locals.

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Beach Camping at Umm Al Quwain
Umm Al Quwain UAE دولة الإمارات العربية المتحدة Is the least populous of the seven sovereign emirates in the United Arab Emirates, located in the north of the country. The emirate is ruled by Saud bin Rashid Al Mu'alla. The emirate had 72,000 inhabitants in 2007 and has an area of 750 km2 (290 sq mi).
Here’s a nice little video of the area for some reference.

Remnants of litter were around, but nothing too bad. We found a place by a bush that had collected parts of cars and some styrofoam, but it was flat and had fewer bones, ashes, cigarette butts, plastic bits, and what-have-you than the other places. So, we broke out our tent and supplies and started to unpack. It didn’t take us long to set up and start admiring the view, so we broke out some shisha and some beers and breathed a little easier.

It was about 7:00 pm at this point and there was almost no one at the beach with us, which was perfect. We talked and let the kids wander around, sometimes calling them back when people decided to drive their vehicles on the beach – with little attention to small bodies playing near the water’s edge. Whatever.

At around 10:30 pm cars started to pull in to other areas. Mind you, this is a stretch about 2 miles long, and cars were beginning to fill up the area. People were bringing out chairs, barbeque, firewood, lanterns, radios with speakers, lights, and all manner of party-by-the-beach supplies. We marveled at the beauty of the camping culture in the Middle East, loving the free spirit of the ancestral nomad realized in the contemporary Emirati.

By midnight the beach had completely filled up with revelers of all kinds. There was a group of Filipinos to our right, a group of Emiratis to our left, and all manner of Pakistani, Indian, and other Middle Eastern families and groups dancing, yelling, and obviously partying it up. The kids had fallen asleep by that point, so we weren’t too worried about the noise, but the party continued WAY past our bedtime.

At around 3:30 pm I woke up to silence. It was awesome. THEN, I heard some people talking. Loudly. They were walking down the line of cars and campers, talking as if it were a Sunday stroll in the park. Then, first imperceptibly, then louder and louder, a bass beat started up again. It became a full-blown party again, with people yelling and laughing – the second wind had come. It took a while for me to find sleep again, but I finally did – and slept until the light came.

I awoke to birds, waves crashing, children laughing, and the sound of a good day ahead. I wiped my weary eyes and crawled out of bed, stumbling out into the sunshine to find… a completely trashed beach. All the cars were gone except a few stragglers, the only indication of what had happened – everything that was evidently too cumbersome to take back home or too difficult to carry to the trash bins just a few yards away.

Trash bags, like stingrays, swam along the small waves, undulating elegantly as they made their way out to sea. Styrofoam containers playfully bobbed on the edges of the black water, soaked with soot and ash from the fires and oil canisters littered here and there. Whole meals were being picked at by the seagulls who had made their lives off the refuse of the uncaring – feasts for scavengers who wait for the crowds to come and drop off their night’s wanton consumption.

This really doesn’t do it justice. The amount of small trash that can’t be seen was overwhelming. Plastic utensils, bits of food, lighters, broken glass, not to mention wet spots that were probably community pee areas.

What had been a pretty beach the night before was now an eyesore and biohazard. I shuddered to think of where the mass of people had done their business during the night – due to the complete and utter lack of facilities within 5 kilometers of the beach. I wanted to grab a trash bag and start collecting, but the sheer volume of refuse gave me pause. And to think this happened almost every weekend. I’m sure the waters off the coast cycle tons of trash from that beach every season. I can’t imagine what the sea life must look like under the water around the area.

I went to an ADNOC about 11 kilometers away to get some coffee for us, and the people behind the counter just nodded with resigned recognition as I told them about the heaps of trash at the once beautiful beach. They each said their honest piece about a cultural acceptance that everything will be done for you – that there will always be someone there to pick up after you, to wipe you, to wash you – until there isn’t.

“There must be systemic change to address the ecological disaster that happens every weekend at these places.”

The Emirates are not the first place I’ve witnessed this phenomenon. Chinese beaches that were touted as pristine offered fine sand that gave up used (for what?) tissue when one buried their toes contentedly. Some Latin American beaches are landfills after national celebrations bring thousands of families to swim and drink. I have seen crazily trashed beaches in the United States, as well. This problem is not unique to the Emirates or Emirati culture. It is simply a lack of awareness. The people who left trash all over the beach probably didn’t mean to create such a biohazard. It reminds me of an old environmental poster I saw as a teen.

It said something like: Johnny didn’t think that throwing his trash out of the window would be a big deal.

And neither did Tommy, Linda, Jenny, Jason, Sam, David, Lucy, Marcus, Paul, Christine, Diana, Ana, Ben, Tyler, Deborah, Barbara, Eli, Jacob, John, Sally, ad infinitum. The list went on and on down to the bottom of the page. The point was clear. It takes a concerted, individual effort to change patterns of behavior.

There must be systemic change to address the ecological disaster that happens every weekend at these places. Too often, revelers leave behind their nights’ excesses and then return the next weekend, unaware that they have completely polluted the area, leaving long-lasting environmental distress in their wake.

Trashed beach in China.

What had originally been an admiration for the “camping culture” that we had seen, soon turned to disappointment at the blatant disregard for the environment or anyone else’s enjoyment of the area. We came, we saw, we trashed it. That seems to be the name of the game around some of the beaches in the Emirates. If there isn’t a team of laborers to swoop in and clean up the area, that place is doomed. I wonder how many more pristine areas will be destroyed before deep change can happen here? I hope it comes soon. I love and appreciate the natural beauty here – but it must be appreciated by those that have lived here their wholes lives – or at least by those that enjoy spending time in this beautiful part of the world.

In order to leave this post on a rather high note, I will say this: There is a freedom here that is lacking in places like the United States. You can just drive up to a beach, pitch a tent, and enjoy the night beside the waves here. With the exception of hotels and their private areas, the rest of the desert – as well as the beaches – are considered communal property. It really was nice to see everyone gathering at the beach to listen to music,
dance, and enjoy life. It would be perfect if there were ways to ensure that those same people left the place as they found it (for the most part).

There are beaches in the States, as well as around the world, where regulations are so tight that one is constantly worried about being harassed by someone for sitting in the wrong spot, using the wrong towel, or “illegally” bringing in their own snacks and beverages. I think there can be a happy medium between these two points, and perhaps the Emirates will find it. There can be regulation without oppression. Where, when, and how are still up in the air for now.

Here is my caveat: I have been to other beaches that have been very well kept. I have never camped on them to see any aftermath of a celebration the night before. Having said that, I think that this beach is probably typical of the free camping beaches along the coast. I have heard from people much wiser than myself that this is the case.

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