Bulletin 25 - March 1985: The Southern Ruus al Jibal -- An Introduction to its People and Natural History

The Southern Ruus al Jibal -- An Introduction to its People and Natural History

by Rob Western


The Ruus al Jibal -"Heads of the Mountains" -lie east and northeast of Ras al Khaimah town, partly in UAE and partly in Oman. On the west the region is bounded by the Arabian Gulf as far north as the border village of Ash Sha'm, while on the east it stretches from Dibba north towards Limah. The north is bounded by the highest mountains and the Musandam peninsula and the south by the hills of Fujeirah and the plains around Digdaga and Khatt. The region is imprecise in its true north and south borders but coast to coast the distance is approximately 36 km maximum. Total area is about 2000 sqkm At present the southern half of this peninsula extending from the Strait of Hormuz down into the UAE is accessible without formalities from the latter country. Hence this article concentrates only on the southern Ruus al Jibal, though much of the description applies to the region as a whole.

The country is extremely mountainous, especially so on the eastern side where beaches are infrequent and cliffs drop sheer into the sea. On the west side there is an alluvial plain which gradually narrows north of Ras al Khaimah until the mountains meet the coast. There is no source of surface water and the deeply-incised wadis are all dry except during rains. The highest peaks of the Ruus al Jibal are Jebel al Harim (2087 m), Jebel bil Ays (1934 m), Jebel Qa'wah (1794 m) and Jebel Yibir (1527 m), the latter two in the south part. Much of the land is over 1000 m, dissected by huge wadi systems such as the Khabb Shamsi which once drained into the east coast at Bayah, and Al Bih which runs south and west into Ras al Khaimah.

This eastern tip of the Arabian platform is composed mainly of marine carbonate sediments laid down between the Permian and Lower Cretaceous. These sediments are now classified into various well-bedded limestones, dolomites, shales, marls, silt-stones and sandstones, with some local cherts and conglomerates. Subsequent buckling and both horizontal and vertical movements, plus severe erosion, have resulted in the spectacular landscape of today with its dramatically-twisting, sheer gorges and narrow summit plateaux. Clearly-defined stratigraphy at all angles contributes to a picture of tremendous upheaval, of a region so contorted and outwardly barren that it would seem impossible for people to live there. Everywhere is a confusion of rocks and boulders, plunging depths and soaring heights, a massive jumble of cliff and scree. The summit plateaux are windswept and frequently fogbound though rainfall is scant, arriving irregularly in winter or occasionally with the tail end of the summer monsoons from the Indian Ocean. Temperatures range between 30C and 50C in summer and between 18C and 25C in winter, lower at night. During summer humidity can be very high and the mountains are usually blanketed with a thick dust haze during this period. Average annual rainfall is in the region of 125 mm but is very variable from year to year.


The indigenous people of the region are the Shihuh, about whom not a great deal of research has been carried out. Their origin is still under discussion, and until a few years ago it was thought that they spoke a unique language. Indeed, for centuries it was believed by some that they were descendents of the Portuguese. However, it has now been established that the people comprise both Arab and Iranian components, and that their language is a mixture of Arabic and Farsi. According to tradition the Arab component of the Shihuh immigrated with the tribal groups under Malik bin Fahm from the Yemen in the second century A.D. Bertram Thomas* was of the opinion (1929) that Shih bin Malik bin Fahm was the Iancestor of the Shihuh but Walter Dostal (1972) prefers to see the word 'shihuh' as a term for the way of life considered typical of the region. The Arabic root SHHH means 'to be avaricious' and this may have been the traditional view of these people from the outside in the past. Salim Hamud aI-Salimi also gives weight to this theory in his work 'Madjmus al-Nasab'(1964-65), when he states: "The Shihuh descend from the Azd of Oman. They stem from Laqit b. al-Harith b. Malik b. Fahm. The people of Oman gave him the nickname 'Shahh' because of his avarice in relation to the tribute due to the Caliph Abu Bakr al-Sadiqi. This incident occured near Dibba."

There is no evidence in the Ruus al Jibal of any influence from the Umm an-Nar or Hili cultures of the third millenium B.C., nor of the later Hellenistic or Portuguese incursions. It would seem that these almost inaccessible mountain fastnesses have remained aloof from the outside world for centuries apart from local links with the ports and villages on its own coastline. It is only now, in the late twentieth century, that the region is beginning to be opened up, particularly by the Oman Government acting through the Musandam Development Company.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the area was disputed by both Muscat and the Oasimi factions in Sharjah and Ras al Khaimah. The Sheikh of Sharjah blockaded the whole peninsula in 1839 but to no avail, and a land expedition to subdue the Shihuh in 1855 failed to penetrate the defiles between Ras al Khaimah and Dibba. Gradually the Muscat faction won the support of the British Bombay Government and, since the Shihuh had always been opposed to Oasimi politics, that section of the Ruus al Jibal that lay north of a line from Dibba to Ash Sha'm became de facto part of Oman.

At the end of the nineteenth century the Shihuh population was estimated at 21,500, of whom 7,000 lived in the interior. In his Gazetteer, published between 1908 and 1915, Lorimer writes that "The Shihuh of the interior are described as Bedouins, but some of them have houses of loose stones. Their chief wealth appears to consist of goats, of which they own large numbers, but they are said to grow the greater quantity of the grain which they require." Lorimer's figures are almost certainly exaggerated and many may have been counted twice as there was regular seasonal movements to and from the interior. The present population is not known precisely, but that of the interior must be less now that many people have recently been moved to the larger coastal villages with their better amenities, including schools, shops, electricity and water. During the cooler winter months extended families still transfer to the tiny terraced plateaux to prepare fields in case of rain. In the summer these hill settlements are mostly closed up and the groups move back to quarters on the coast. These summer settlements have traditionally comprised barasti huts on the fringes of date gardens which the Shihuh own. At one time they participated as labourers in the pearling boats off the Ras al Khaimah coast, and a few still engage in summer fishing. The lack of water, which rapidly percolates through the limestone rock, meant in the past that nobody could live on the mountains throughout the year. Nowadays, aluminium or galvanized tin water tanks are placed at points adjacent to hamlets on the track from Bayah to Khasab and replenished regularly by road tanker. This means that some people can now remain in their mountain homes over the summer. Even so, many of the upper farms have an abandoned air and in some the walls and buildings are not being repaired. Some of the coastal villages contain permanent members of the tribe; indeed, Ash Sha'm was once 100% Shihuh.

The Economy

The economy of this region of few resources was until the present one of subsistence agriculture, based on goat breeding and wheat and barley as the staple crops. Date cultivation and some fishing is carried out on the coast. A very few date palms exist on the mountain farms but are apparently no longer tended. Both wild and cultivated fig trees are present, and there is a species of natural bush which provides edible nuts. There is no tradition of metal-working or pottery-making; tools, storage vessels and household utensils are all imported from the coast. Some weaving and leather-work is carried on. There is a very close kinship among the people and marriage within the tribe is obligatory, with cousin-marriage a standard feature.

The term 'bulaidah' refers to the mountain hamlet unit of one extended family. Within the area of Al Agebat, for example, on the plateaux near Jebel Qa'wah, are several isolated farms, each with a centralised collection of single storey square or rectangular huts. These buildings are of drystone construction with an outer layer of mud or mortar, and earthen roofs over a framework of wooden beams and twigs. Some of these structures are substantial, with huge corner stones, and most have window openings and wooden doors. Solid buildings were necessary to protect the interiors both from the climate and possible goat incursions during the summer when the tenants were absant. Very occasionally a building may have a small square tower at one end. Doors are now bolted and padlocked during the summer, but whether this has always been the custom is not known.

Among these buildings, the living quarters, is one or more storage huts, often a corral for goats made of stones and thornbushes, and a lined cistern. This may be a natural cleft in the rocks, cemented at the ends, or an enlarged hole in the ground, sealed with rough cement.

Some of the tiny, irregular terraced fields are always in close proximity to these central buildings. Fields are demarcated by substantial walls. Earth was, and in some places still is, brought in from surrounding parts of the mountains, and flooding after rains effectively levels the fields and builds up the soil depth with silt. These fields have a tiered, rounded effect reminiscent of small-scale hill paddies in Asia. From the surrounding slopes narrow channels lined with natural stones and rocks are gouged out to guide rain water along to the cisterns and fields. Usually there are field systems further away too, some of which involve a trek of up to three kilometres. larger fields may measure up to 20 by 50 metres, but generally they are smaller and narrower. At one hamlet on the northerly slope of Jebel Qa'wah, a large hillock of red earth has been systematically dug into by hand to provide soil for nearby terraces that perch on the shoulder of a 1000 foot gorge.

Above the farms and field systems groups of pillar-like rocks were once erected. The most likely explanation is that they acted as a guide in fogs or storms. Tracks, some of them trodden perhaps for centuries by man and goat, zigzag to the heights and crisscross the plateaux, but they are sometimes difficult to distinguish on the stony terrain.


Dostal's research showed that the communities in the Ruus al Jibal were mutually-supporting, and any excess produce would be shared with neighbours first. Only afterwards would further excess, usually only goats and dates, be sold on the open market. Land for cultivation has always been at a premium in the mountains and is usually never sold to outsiders; hence the importance of inter-marriage, so that farms and fields can remain within the ownership of the clan. This communal independence earned the Shihuh a reputation for being hostile to all outsiders, Arab and non-Arab alike, which has only recently been overcome. The apocryphal story of tribesmen shooting up the new Ras al Khaimah cement factory because of their annoyance at cement dust spoiling their mountain crops is not so far off the mark. In 1930 a Shihuh leader, Muhammad bin Sulaiman, wrote to the British agent: ". . . we tell you to be careful, you and the English. And, Sheikh Hasan and all his subjects, we have nothing to do with you and do not trespass on our precincts and properties and the place in which your desire lies is our property and precinct and whoever of you trespasses in that quarter not one of you will return by God and by the Lord's glory and by the right of the Proud. We will declare Jahad and kill whosoever arrives in our quarter and will allow no one of them to return. There is no Governor to govern us and we are independent by ourselves and we do not recognise Sheikh nor Governor nor Sultan . . . That is what we have told you, we drink the blood and do not care. We request that you fend off this matter and do not interfere in our precincts and property. Your despotism be upon yourselves and your danger be upon yourselves. Do not blame us and salaams." (Indian Office Records). A year later Bertram Thomas summed up this hostility when he wrote: "The Shihuh habitat is so forbidding, that no European has ever dared to penetrate it at all." Things have since changed. Since the graded track was completed in 1981, the mountains have seen a steadily increasing trickle of sightseers and campers. Most have kept only to the track, but a few explore side wadis, and the attitude of the Shihuh is outwardly friendly but wary. Some areas are still so isolated that contact with the non-Arab outsider is minimal for a few families. Foreigners are quickly warned off if they show too much interest in the new water tanks.

There are no mosques as such in the upper mountains but as devout Muslims the Shihuh have areas set aside for prayers in each hamlet. In the past they were superstitious and also worshipped at various small shrines, particularly in times of epidemic. Graveyards are located both within the hamlet precincts and further out on the open slopes. A typical grave is outlined by sizeable stones and larger upright slabs at either end. The inside is raised with earth and gravel.

Rock Art

Rock art is an established feature of several parts of Oman, and has been documented in the northerly parts of the Ruus al Jibal at Qabal and Wadi Qidah, as well as at Ash Sha'm in Ras al Khaimah. A thorough examination of the Wadis Al Bih and Khabb Shamsi could prove very interesting; cursory checks of likely overhangs and caves by members of the ENHG have so far revealed nothing. In 1980 a number of rock etchings were reported on the vertical face of a 4 metre high block of stone at the side of Wadi Kubh, between Idhn and Dibba, further south. One drawing, of a camel apparently with a back pack, measured 39 by 25 cms. However, in the mountain hamlets etchings on grave stones and other slobs are not uncommon. Camels and men riding them are popular motifs; some of the animals are not humped and may represent donkeys. The riders are usually depicted holding a rein attached to the camel's neck. Occasionally people are drawn in stick-like form with outstretched arms and legs. Less common are trees, particularly stylised date palms. One slab at Al Agebat shows a broad U-shaped piece of jewellery reminiscent of the heavy items worn across the chest that can be seen in local gold souks today. Lines, perhaps representing strings of beads, run down from a horizontal bar that links the two ends of the U. Other drawings are crudely-etched and frequently unidentifiable, as if they are practice attempts.

None of the drawings is large. Slabs rarely measure more than approximately 50 by 40 cms, and the etchings usually leave a fair margin. The technique is restricted to pecking with a hard stone, presumably pointed, on the darkly-patinated rock surface, crushing the surface at the point of impact and leaving a thickly dotted outline. Arms and legs are up to two inches thick and the interior of an outline, such as a stylised triangular camel hump, is invariably heavily-stippled. There is no attempt to produce clearcut straight lines with any aid. The pictogram is produced from start Ito finish with one or more hammer stones, and there is as yet no evidence for any carving.

Research on other sites in Oman has not yet defined a chronology for this art form. In Wadi Sahtan on Jebel Akhdar there are pictures of vehicles with driver and steering wheel which must of course be very recent. In the Ruus al Jibal the slab drawings are certainly closely associated with the mountain settlements, but their age is unknown at present.


As far as I am aware no proper survey of the vegetation of the Ruus al Jibal has ever been undertaken. Floras have been published for other parts of Oman and of course these include species also found in the far north. Appendix II of the Scientific Results of the Royal Geographical Society Musandam expedition of 1971-72 contains two lists of plants collected by P.F.S.Cornelius and identified by Miss D. Hillcoat at the British Museum (Natural History). The specimens were collected between November and January, which is early in the growing season, and the appendix acknowledges the fact that the lists are by no means complete.

My own observations are based on four trips to the area, three in high summer and one in late February. A further trip in April/May would undoubtedly extend the recordings. The RGS lists include plants collected at or near the shoreline, whereas my recordings have always been inland, among the gorges and plateaux.

In such a geographically small area it is difficult to generalise on habitats. A few species do thrive throughout the vertical range, but the majority prefer more restricted zones. Ziziphus spina-christi and Acacia tortilis trees are to be found at all heights, though there are relatively few on the summits and then only in sheltered clefts or cultivated around settlements. The wider entrances of the larger wadis are dry for most of the year, though in wet seasons the dam in Wadi Al Bih can collect a sizeable body of water. In the dry wadi beds the vegetation is similar to that in wadis elsewhere in the mountains. Acacia scrub lines the sides and foothills while Tephrosia apollinea, Fagonia indica and Reseda aucheri cling to the rocky banks. In areas where there is some cultivation, or where the dam waters retreat to leave a cracked, muddy surface, Chrozophora oblongifolia and Forsskalia tenacissima take advantage of the damper ground especially in summer months when it is too late for germination of most ephemerals. The only species actually restricted to the stony wadi floors is Ficus salicifolia, which forms long lines on either side and on boulder detritus in the middle of the Khabb Shamsi, and which affords nesting sites for local bulbuls.

Between the wadi floors and the summit plateaux the cliffs, slopes and upper valleys contain a wealth of species, even in high summer. More work needs to be done on spring annuals but perennials are firmly established even on inaccessible cliffs. All the typical mountain species of the Northern Emirates are represented, including Lavandula subnuda with its delicate pink lavender flowers; Boerhavia elegans, which looks like puffs of fine red smoke; Echinops spinosissimus with huge thistle heads standing five feet high; the smaller Helianthemum kahiricum with its tiny lemon yellow blooms; Pteropyrum scoparium, a dense compact tangle of needle-like leaves and tiny white flowers; and Caralluma species, with small cactus-like stems almost inconspicuous against the rocky bockground. One of the most attractive sights is the festoons of Capparis spinosa (the caper of pickling fame), bushy and up to 10 metres long, trailing down cliff sides. Between July and early September these beautiful white caper flowers are among the few noticeable blooms in these mountains, though they only open up early in the morning when they are beseiged by hordes of bees and wasps. Capparis cartilaginea is hardly represented at all; it is much more dominant further south where, for instance, C. spinosa is not recorded on Hafit. Acacia tortilis trees, up to 3 metres tall with their distinctive flat tops, are abundant on the less steep slopes and along wadi rims. Another tree is more striking. Moringa peregrina is found throughout the region at heights between 200 and 1000 metres, and on the sheerest rock faces where it has the ability to gain a foothold in the smallest cracks. This evergreen species with needle-like leaves grows to 8 metres and when in pink flower or displaying its foot long angular pods makes a very pleasing sight. The pods when mature split into three lengthwise, and the pea size seeds are cast into space to fall into any nook or cranny on the cliffs below. Dyerophytum indicum, with its curious dusty white leaf-bloom, is common on lower banks just above wadis, along with Periploca aphylla with its virtually leafless wands.

On the summit plateaux the variety is quite different. One of the more unusual species is Amygdalis arabicus, a shrub or tree up to 5 metres high with numerous drooping stems. The flowers are small and pink and the fruit a small edible nut tasting of almond. In the UAE the southern Ruus al Jibal is the only habitat of this plant, though it is common across Hormuz in southern Iran. Ficus carica is a common wild fig which has also been planted on farms and protected from goats. The fruits are small but perfectly edible. The protected version has larger leaves, whereas the wild fig is heavily grazed and never really attains the status of a tree. Another summit species is Dodonaea viscosa which lines the runnels and tiny wadis before these dry stream beds drop off the plateaux and plunge into the gorges below. These Dodonaea stands with their shiny green leaves are often large and provide shelter for a variety of birds and animals.

The whole of the plateaux are covered with a low vegetation mat of mixed shrubs and grasses on the broken stony surface. Astragalus fasciculifolius with its spines and bright pink flowers, Artemesia herba-alba, a kind of wild thyme, Pycnocycla caespitosa with its tight mauve flower heads and the yellow blooms of Launea spinosa are all common species. Interspersed are clumps of Euphorbia larica, ever-present at higher mountain elevations throughout the region. Chief grasses are Cymbopogon parkeri with its faint odour of lemon, Hyparrhenia hirta, Tetrapogon villosus and Cenchrus penisettiformis. This last grass is usually found only in more sheltered areas, often near farms, along with other lowland imports such as Solanum incanum and Vicoa pentanema which are only seen on or near field systems where they can benefit from the richness of goat and donkey droppings and water on the soil. One of the rarer plants found out in the open is a species of carnation, Dianthus cf. crinitis, which has only been recorded hitherto at one locality in the UAE, in the hills between Khatt and Dibba.

Much more fieldwork needs to be carried out on the vegetation of the Ruus al Jibal. The larger part is virtually undisturbed and offers a unique chance for surveys in a region that is a botanical link with southern Iran and the mountains in south Arabia and as far as East Africa.


"Wild animals are said to include the fox, jackal and striped hyena, and Jayakari's wild goat is fairly common, especially in the hills near Limah." This is all Lorimer has to say of animals and his information is from hearsay. Whether jackal or striped hyena existed or not at the turn of the century, they don't appear to today, though the Ruus al Jibal is wild territory and as recently as the late 70s there were reports of leopards being shot there. In September 1983 a caracal lynx found itself trapped in a school on the outskirts of Ras al Khaimah, where it had no doubt been scavenging from the mountains to the east. The only other recent record of this animal in the UAE was from the sands near Sueyhan in 1968. Large animals other than goats and donkeys are rarely seen and are probably not numerous given the scant water resources. The Oman Government is providing water troughs in isolated spots to help encourage the natural fauna. Small rodents obviously eat the nuts of Amygdalis arabicus shrubs, and foxes have been smelt in the upper settlements. Several specimens of Jayakar's lacertid, a large rock lizard, have been seen in the Khabb Shamsi, along with smaller lizards so far unidentified. None of the species has been captured.

C. Clarke, 'Rock Art in the Oman Mountains', Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, Vol. 5, 1975.
W. Dostal, 'The Shihuh of Northern Oman', The Geographical Journal, March 1972.
F. Heard Bey, 'From Trucial States to United Arab Emirates', Longman, 1982.
J.G.Lorimer, 'Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia', Calcutta, 1908-15.

* Financial Adviser to the Sultan in Muscat, 1925-31. Return to top


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