© 2018 Elsevier Ltd Al Ain, located in the United Arab Emirates, is an example of medium-sized desert city with rapid urban growth guided by two master plans from the 1980s. The present study is an empirical contribution to analyse the spatial-temporal land-use and land-cover (LULC) dynamics from 1984 to 2014 applying three different tools: i) a Base Map of Al Ain Town Planning from 2014 combined with four Landsat images to extract the main LULC changes; ii) a landscape analysis using spatial metrics to determine processes of sprawl; iii) statistical analysis of census data at district scale to obtain a better understanding of changes. Results show an intensive urban sprawl mainly, between 1984 and 1990, with an increase in residential land and in services, very clear in the Western sector as proposed by the 1980s Master Plan. Urban compaction was observed in the Centre and Downtown sectors whereas in the Northern and Southern sectors the urban pattern was leapfrogging and associated to the main roads. Simultaneously, and as a particularity of Al Ain, an intensive process of agricultural sprawl occurred, mainly from 1990 to 2000. The increase was very isolated in the Eastern sector, quite associated to linear patterns in the Northern and Southern sectors, restricted to the north and south in the Centre sector, where vacant land was available, and sprawled throughout the Western. Finally, according to the statistical analysis, the residential increase was more associated to Emiratis, public and private houses, foreign women and religious facilities, whereas the increment of commercial services was more linked to foreign workers, privates houses and religious facilities.