Arabian Enclaves and Counter-Enclaves – United Arab Emirates, Middle East

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I am sitting in the backseat of a taxi in Kwahr Fakkan, waiting for the Pakistani driver to return to the car. How could this happen, I wondered. Everything started so fine. I had approached the taxi driver half an hour earlier in Dibba, asked whether he spoke English. "

Yes, no problem", he said.

"I want to go to a place called Madha" I said. "Do you know where it is?"

"Yes, no problem", he said.

At the first major roundabout, he asked if I wanted to go to Kwahr Fakkan. I was somewhat surprised by his question. If we were on our way to Madha, then the Kwahr Fakkan option was our only option. So why ask? I answered politely: "Yes, first Kwahr Fakkan, then Madha."

Road sign in Madha
Road sign in Madha

When we reached Kwahr Fakkan, the driver stopped the car and wanted me to pay for the trip. "Madha", I said, "not Kwahr Fakkan. I want to go to Madha."

"Madha, Madha", he replied, "no problem." He started the engine, drove two blocks further down the road. Then he parked the car and disappeared inside a shop.

Kwahr Fakkan is the second largest town on the east coast of the United Arab Emirates, approximately half way between Dibba and Fujairah. From Kwahr Fakkan there is a road that leads into a mountainous desert area called Madha. Madha is about 75 square kilometres in size and belongs to Oman. What makes the area interesting is that it is an enclave, i.e. a territory that is completely surrounded by another country, in this case the United Arab Emirates. I know Madha is not a typical tourist destination, yet I expected all taxi drivers to know where it is.

The Nahwa village sign
The Nahwa village sign

My driver returned to the car in the company of a countryman of his, probably the shop owner. The latter spoke good English and explained to me how to get to Madha. He then said something to the taxi driver in a language that I presumed was Urdu. His instructions agreed with the information I had deducted from my map, although my driver clearly had not understood the map at all when I showed it to him earlier.

Ten minutes later we crossed the UAE-Omani border and soon arrived in a village called New Madha. According to my map there was only one road inside Madha, and it led straight to the village of Nahwa, my final destination. In real life there were several roads going in various directions. None of the signs, however, showed Nahwa.

The police outpost in Nahwa
The police outpost in Nahwa

I could see that my driver was confused, too. He had a passenger who apparently did not know where he was going. He drove around for a minute and stopped outside one of two small shops. We stepped out of the car. Then another car stopped next to our car. Two young men got out and asked me in English if we needed help. I asked for the road to Nahwa.

To my big surprise the two young men told me that they lived in Nahwa and were in fact on their way home. They had stopped simply because they had never seen a Westerner in Madha before. I asked my driver to follow their car; five minutes later we approached the outskirts of Nahwa. My driver kept saying "Arab crazy, Arab crazy" to himself while he was driving.

View of New Nahwa
View of New Nahwa

I took several pictures of the border station and interviewed the two young men. Being local people, they were of course very much aware of the special geographical and political status of Nahwa; it is also an enclave. The village is part of the United Arab Emirates, completely surrounded by foreign territory – in this case the Omani territory of Madha. Nahwa, to put it differently, is an exclave inside another enclave, a so-called counter-enclave!

I learned a lot about Nahwa from the two young men, but not what I wanted to know most of all: the story behind such a curious international border. Some of the facts I was told were familiar to me. For example, Nahwa consists of two parts, old Nahwa and new Nahwa. There are some forty houses in the village. According to the young men, Nahwa is the most developed village in all of Madha. Of course I could not tell whether this was true, or whether the young men were simply proud of their village.

During the next half hour I walked around in the village taking pictures, until I eventually asked the taxi driver to take me back to Dibba. It is not every day one has the opportunity to visit an enclave, let alone a counter-enclave!

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Leave a Comment

  • Jassim Ali said at 2013-07-01T09:48:22+0000: http://www.thenational.ae/lifestyle/madha-villages-pledge-of-allegiance-changed-the-map-forever this will explain the story better.
  • John McManus said at 2013-08-06T01:36:35+0000: A very interesting trip!
  • Elaine Conley said at 2012-01-29T16:13:12+0000: I was surprised that the taxi driver stayed around....
  • Alessandro Morelli said at 2012-01-21T12:05:16+0000: any info why exist this counter-enclave status?
  • Enrique Treviño-Borton said at 2014-06-13T14:39:05+0000: exciting it is to travel,to learn and to fondly remember.I´ll be there and about soon.cheers.ertb.