Driving through the tiny village of Nahwa in the United Arab Emirate of Sharjah, you’d be hard-pressed to notice anything unusual.
The local architecture and landscape looks pretty similar to that found all over the Hajar mountains, a rocky ridge that runs all along the eastern seaboard of the UAE and Oman.
To discover Nahwa’s very special attribute that it shares with only one other place on Earth, you’ll have to take a close look at a map. Zoom out on your phone and you’ll see several donut-like concentric circles appear. These represent national borders stacked on top of each other.
That’s because Nahwa is one of only two counter-enclaves that exist in the world.
What’s a counter-enclave?
So, an enclave you’re probably familiar with. That’s a portion of one country’s sovereign territory that’s entirely surrounded by land belonging to another country. Famous examples include Vatican City and San Marino, both microstates inside Italy. A counter-enclave adds a further layer of complexity: it’s an enclave within an enclave.
Nahwa is part of Sharjah in the UAE, but it’s inside the Omani enclave of Madha, whose borders are fully enclosed by three of the UAE’s emirates: Fujairah, Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah. It’s like Matryoshka dolls, but with countries.
Madha sits about halfway between the Omani mainland, some 50 kilometers to the south, and the rest of the Musandam Governorate, an exclave of Oman on the shores of the Strait of Hormuz, to which it belongs.
To complicate things even further, as well as being an international counter-enclave, Nahwa is also a domestic enclave within the UAE. That’s because it’s part of the Khor Fakkan district of Sharjah, which is separated from its own emirate’s mainland by the territory Fujairah and Ras-al-Khaimah.
The other counter-enclave
So, when did Nahwa’s geography get as twisted as a Christopher Nolan movie plot? At the roots of this complex territorial setup is a decision taken by the inhabitants of these hamlets sometime in the first half of the 20th century.
As the rulers of this region started to consolidate borders to give rise to independent modern nation states, the inhabitants of Madha swore allegiance to the sultan of Oman, while those of Nawha opted for the Al Qawasim rulers of Sharjah.
Old allegiances are also at the root of the world’s only other counter-enclave: Baarle-Nassau / Baarle-Hertog, on the Dutch-Belgian border.
When, in 1843, Belgium and the Netherlands agreed on the demarcation of their common border, the Baarle sector proved difficult to ratify due to the pre-existing arrangements dating back to the Middle Ages.
Therefore, the border was apportioned between the two countries pretty much on a property-by-property basis. The result is an intricate border layout that created several enclaves and counter-enclaved plots of land, some of them just a few square meters in size. We’re talking about what amounts to a full-on enclave archipelago.
The administrative complexity of Baarle and Nahwa, however, pales in comparison to what was, until very recently, the most dramatic case of counter-enclaves anywhere in the world.
Until 2015, the year India and Bangladesh signed an international treaty to simplify their common border, the Koch Bihar area contained hundreds of enclaves, dozens of counter enclaves and a truly unique case of a counter-counter enclave (also known as third-order enclave), Dahala Khagrabari. In this Matryoshka-doll-style border spot, a plot of Indian land was located within a Bangladeshi counter-enclave, itself located within an Indian enclave within Bangladesh.
After India and Bangladesh exchanged territories, only one Bangladeshi enclave remained, Dahagram-Angarpota, which is linked to its mainland by a narrow land corridor that India agreed to lease to Bangladesh.
Life in Nahwa
There’s no apparent need for such a corridor in Nahwa, as there are no physical barriers or passport controls of any sort when crossing the Omani border at Madha and, then, the Emirati one at Nahwa. The same is true if you continue westwards, as you again cross the Emirati and Omani borders before re-entering the UAE mainland.
“We are all like one family here,” one local told me while filling their tank at Madha’s gas station.
Perhaps the closest you get here to a tangible manifestation of the changing jurisdictions is the line at the pumps, which hug the border line. The constant stream of cars coming from the Emirati side in order to take advantage of better fuel prices makes Madha’s gas station one of the busiest spots in town.
The border layout is, undoubtedly, this place’s most distinctive feature and a powerful draw for visitors from all over the world, but you don’t need to be a border geek to enjoy a trip to Nahwa and the surrounding area.
The rocky, almost lunar, landscape of this narrow mountain valley makes for an interesting contrast when driving from the densely populated, resort-strewn coastline just a few miles away.
The landscape may be majestic, but – you have been warned – the state of the road, not so much. Although it is in good condition until you reach Al-Nahwa, as soon as you leave this village behind it turns into a dirt track running through rather uneven terrain that, at some points, is barely passable by regular cars.
In fact, the ruggedness of the road is in part due to the wadi drainage channels and mountain streams that crisscross the area. It is precisely the presence of water that has made it possible for palm groves and agriculture to flourish at the bottom of the valley and it has also ensured the continuous habitation of this area for many centuries.
The old hamlet of Nahwa, however, was abandoned in the 1990s. Most of the 300 or so inhabitants of the counter-enclave now live in New Nahwa, a modern village built on higher ground a few hundred meters off the main road.
A line of Emirati flags leaves you in no doubt about the sovereignty of the Al Nahwa Archaeology Center, one of the few structures you come across by the roadside when travelling through the enclaves.
This recently inaugurated facility aims to offer a glimpse of Nahwa’s heritage as well as services to visitors. From there, several trails take you to points of historical interest in the surrounding hills, such as the remains of old watchtowers as well as some ancient rock carvings.
From this point it is barely four miles and another stretch of Omani land until you rejoin the UAE road network at the recreational area of Wadi Shees and, a bit further to the west of it, the motorway leading to another multinational entrepot, albeit of a very different sort, the urban continuum formed by Sharjah and Dubai.