The Best Hotels and Resorts in Africa and the Middle East: The Gold List 2024

Bab Al Shams reveals herself slowly, her sandstone exterior – an ode to traditional Emirati forts – half-hidden by spindly date palms and sand dunes. In a city that so often leans into excess, the grande dame of Dubai’s desert resorts works her magic with restraint.

For almost two decades, UAE residents have made the 45-minute pilgrimage from the city up Al Qudra Road – past outlandishly shaped man-made lakes, swirling cycle paths and endurance horse-racing tracks – to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and indulgent weekends at Bab Al Shams. The city may be creeping closer, but this is still the place we come to get away from it all. The resort’s much-photographed infinity pool, which drops off into a vast sandy expanse in a paradox of elemental opposites, is the draw for many. For me, it’s the quiet, which is all-enveloping and absolute. The resort comes into its own as the sun sets, the silhouettes of sand dunes framed in pinks and mauves; bamboo torches -flickering along the perimeter and lanterns creating a play of light and shadow in outdoor passageways.

Now Bab Al Shams is fresh from a 10-month, no-holds-barred renovation, with new bragging rights as the first property in the Rare Finds Hotels & Resorts collection by the Kerzner group (Atlantis, One&Only). The exterior remains largely unchanged, the deep solid walls, arches, alcoves and geometric patterning lifted directly from the UAE’s vernacular architecture. But interiors have been transformed by a deft hand, the gilded ornamentalism that characterises the country’s Arabesque-inspired resorts forsaken for a lighter touch. The lobby, once a warren of dimly lit, compartmentalised spaces, has been opened out and brightened up. In my terrace garden room, instead of dark woods and heavy upholstery, nods to tradition come in delicate mother-of-pearl detailing on arched mirrors, brass studs on cupboard doors and majlis-style seating in a corner nook. Teal accents flit from headboards and furniture piping to diamond-shaped mosaic tiles in the rain shower.

The hotel is unassuming, but not devoid of spectacle. At Al Hadheerah, a colossal open-air restaurant, nightly performances accompany the Arabian classic dishes: a belly dancer, whirling dervish, musicians, singers and even a re-enactment of a Bedouin -caravan with camels and horses crisscrossing a bordering desert plateau. Cooking stations serve lamb salona and chicken biryani, and the spirited Egyptian chef de cuisine takes great delight in showing guests the underground contraption used to prepare his seven-hour slow-cooked lamb ouzi. More sedate meals are served at the Mediterranean-inspired Zala or Pan-Asian Anwā, a prime sunset spot.

Bab Al Shams remains loyal to her desert environment. In the newly opened standalone spa, home to male and female hammams carefully crafted from green-veined Cipollino Nuvolato marble, some treatments use De L’Arta, a locally grown skincare line featuring Tetraena qatarensis, a shrub found in abundance around the hotel. On a recent visit, a morning safari took us through Al Marmoom Desert Conservation Reserve, over powder-soft pale-yellow dunes, past camels feasting on desert grasses, regally horned Arabian oryx, skittish gazelles and the season’s first migratory flamingoes. Indian rollers flitted between ghaf trees and lizards scuttered off into hidden burrows. It was a reminder, as Bab Al Shams has always been, that there is immense natural beauty in the UAE, if you only stop to look. Selina Denman