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It may be hard to picture, but before oil was discovered in the 1960s, the Gulf was not just uninhabited desert. The region has a long history, and one of the best places to learn about it is Al Ain.

Just an hour east of Abu Dhabi, Al Ain sits on the border with Oman. And what is initially most striking about it is the greenery. The roads are lined with palm trees and landscaped gardens abound. Known as the Garden City of the Gulf, it is a welcome contrast to the concrete jungle of construction and development so often seen in cities in this part of the world.

The reason for Al Ain's oasis-like feel is its natural water supply. The city's name means "spring" in Arabic and it is famous for its "falaj system", underground water channels, some of which date back to 1,000BC.  Some are still in use and the best place to see them in action is in one of the six oases in the city. Walk into one and you will see small farms that still harvest date palms today. Winding through these oases are little lanes that you can explore, taking you far from the big city bustle of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

To add to the charm of Al Ain, height limits on new buildings ensure that no skyscrapers blot out the skyline. Instead of towering office blocks, the architectural features of Al Ain are the city's forts. The largest and most well-known is Al Jahili, which was built by Sheikh Zayed the First in 1898 as a defense tower and a summer retreat. The royals would come to Al Ain to try and escape the extreme humidity of the larger coastal cities.

Al Jahili fort fell into disrepair over time but has been restored in recent years and now often hosts music concerts in the cooler months. It also has a well laid-out visitors centre and an exhibition devoted to Wilfred Thesiger, the British explorer who made the Gulf his home in the 1940s and twice crossed the Empty Quarter in southern Arabia.

Al Ain's archeological park, Al Hilli, is home to the remnants of a Bronze Age settlement that dates back more than to 4,500 years.  The park itself has pretty landscaped gardens and you can even see an example of an Iron Age falaj too.

It is also worth popping in to Al Ain National Museum for an overview of the region's history. Exhibits include pottery dating back to the 3rd Century BC and coins from the 17th Century.

The city is proving popular with foreign tourists these days but well healed locals have long been fans as well. It is the birthplace of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of the United Arab Emirates and the city has the highest proportion of Emiratis living there than any other city in the country.

The United Arab Emirates often highlights its modernity and progress to the outside world, choosing to forget that just a few generations ago, the country was inhabited by Bedouin tribes living in the desert. But as Sheikh Zayed once said, a country with no past "has neither a present or a future". Judging by Al Ain, the UAE keeps all three alive.

Katy Watson is a Dubai-based Middle East business reporter for BBC World News.

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