Picture this: it’s the mid-1990’s, the Emirate of Dubai is only 20 years old and in the midst of its magnificent growth and development. From an arid desert rose stupefying skyscrapers and incredible infrastructures in a blink of an eye.
Yet, this changing landscape to a modern one brought concerns of losing one’s identity and culture, with some members of the Dubai’s ruling family wanting to ensure their Arabian heritage is not lost. With this goal in mind, came Al Maha Resort and Spa in 1999: peaceful, serene, enchanting, and only an hour away from Dubai’s bustling cityscape. A place that takes guests on a journey through the city’s heritage, as well as its present through design, location, and services.
With views of endless golden sand dunes, Hajar mountains and indigenous wildlife roaming around freely, the resort’s story is born with the city’s ruling family. In collaboration with the current ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, CEO of Emirates Group, had the idea to build something that was authentically Arabian, deep in the heart of the desert. With HH Sheikh Mohammed’s passion for conservation reserves and desert traditions and HH Sheikh Ahmed’s quest to create an exclusive Arabian experience, the pair established the Bedouin-inspired, luxury resort. “[HH Sheikh Ahmed] wanted to build something truly exclusive, with an authentically Arabian atmosphere,” says Arne Silvis, the resort's General Manager since 2003.
The property itself has 42 canopy-style, private suites. The tent-like structures are beige in colour, matching the surrounding environment and creating this understated luxury escape in a rural landscape. “For the development of this conservation reserve, the idea behind it was to create something truly authentic, but small cameo boutique style,” Silvis explains, “nothing outrageous, no glitz, no shine, no velvet carpets and stuff like that.”
The interiors also follow the brief of subtle opulence and authentic Arabia, with a décor that blends together over 2,500 artefacts privately collected from around the Middle East, the largest in the region, potentially even the world. “Every room has different old artefacts, little kettles or tubs or pots and pans and whatever else the grandmothers threw out as the world modernised and we had the electric kettles coming in,” Silvis describes.
One of the unique artefacts Silvis mentioned was the traditional Omani wedding chests. “These beautiful wooden chests with the brass nodules with different patterns and designs, most of them are between 80 and 100 years old and they are collectors’ items now at the end of each bed, there's a different box,” he notes, “not one chest is the same, and the bride would have received it filled with linen, dresses and perfumes on the night of her wedding.”
The luxury suites not only house some of the region’s history, but they also cater to more modern tastes with a temperature-controlled, private pool overlooking the sea of sand dunes on the foreground, stretching all the way to the horizon and distant Hajar mountains. Of course, guests can also avail to the resort’s spa and indulge in even more relaxing moments during their stay.
Located within the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, an area spanning 225 sq. km, this exceptional property is surrounded by over 130 different species of flora and fauna. From Arabian oryx to Arabian red foxes, wildlife live peacefully among resort guests. “Since 2002 or 2003, the reserve is a first of its kind,” Silvis explains, “all the domestic animals, like camels, sheep, goats, were removed and the indigenous species were reintroduced.” Those who visit the resort are able to experience unique moments with the surrounding animals, such as wildlife drives, nature walks and horseback riding.
Since its conception, the reserve has been primarily focused on the rehabilitation of the indigenous animals. It employs a full-time conservation manager who oversees camera traps, movement of foxes, other animals, mammals and snake species.
While the reserve is the biggest part of their sustainability initiatives, Al Maha Resort complies with Dubai’s sustainability goal to reduce its carbon footprint wherever its able to. Some programs that they undertake is recycling glass, plastic bottles and used cooking oils. “From the resort side, we recycle absolutely everything,” Silvis says, “plastic bottles are the biggest housekeeper collections; we send them off to be crushed, then we bind them in a bundle and they come and pick it up.”
The resort hires a company called DGrade to ship the plastic to China, where they are processed into a fine powder and used in fabrics for caps, beach bags and more. “We have given them tens of thousands of kilograms of plastic since working with them,” Silvis iterates. “We have a sustainability committee that meets monthly,” he continues, “there are a few more initiatives that Dubai Tourism wants us to implement, which we will work on in the coming months.”
Even though the property does face challenges due the difficult environmental conditions, it still manages to leave guests wowed and impressed thanks to its dedication to creating an authentic Arabian experience. It gives visitors and residents of Dubai a chance to escape into another world, without travelling too far from the city centre. “We have approximately 28% multiple repeat and long-staying guests,” Silvis says, “they come here for the staff members and their superb service, they come for the food and beverage, they come for the peace, silence, the stars at night and just to get away from everything, and even though this is so not in Dubai, for me it's the real Dubai.”
Images provided by Al Maha, A Luxury Collection Resort & Spa