Part three of our special series on the 40 year history of logistics in the UAE: Roads and rail
By Jon Cuthbert and Len Chapman
Prior to the 1970s, Dubai had very few cars and even fewer roads. In fact, driving a car on Dubai’s roads was a hazardous undertaking as camels wandered freely, leading to nasty (and sometimes fatal) crashes for the unwary. In 1971, vehicles could travel between Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah along a modern single carriageway tarmac road paid for by Saudi Arabia. However, if you were travelling to Abu Dhabi, it was an entirely different proposition.
There was no road and only four-wheel drives, trucks and taxis used sand tracks along the beachline to travel between the two cities. Individual travellers relied on taxi drivers being familiar with these sand tracks, but if a car became bogged or lost, there was no help on hand to pull the vehicle out. Nicknamed ‘Ships of the Desert’, Landrover’s were the vehicle of choice in what was the beginning of modern overland trade with Abu Dhabi.
Because Dubai enjoyed lower customs duties compared with other emirates, Dubai traders often smuggled goods over land at night without headlights to avoid raising alarm. However, in the late 60s/early 70s Landrovers were in short supply. In order to facilitate trade, some opportunists “borrowed” H.H Sheikh Rashid’s Dubai Defence Force Landrover’s during one of his overseas trips. They were eventually returned, but only after H.H Sheikh Rashid learned what had happened!
Road construction between Dubai and Abu Dhabi effectively ended the difficult land crossings to Abu Dhabi with construction completed in 1973. Both emirates constructed their part of the road to the border – a two lane highway with no lighting. An account by an observer at the time noted that it took approximately four hours to travel between the two cities with numerous car wrecks lining the verge – a vast contrast to today’s ultra modern freeway (though high-speed accidents remain a concern).
Following the opening of Jebel Ali Port and Free Zone, pan-Gulf redistribution of goods by road from Dubai took off. The Dubai-Abu Dhabi highway thus became vital for the future of the regional logistics industry. By the mid 1990s, it was widened to four lanes on each side, resurfaced and roundabouts were removed or replaced by flyovers. By the late 1990s, Abu Dhabi could be reached in less than two hours from Dubai. Today, the UAE has an amazing road network not only connecting each emirate, but also connecting the UAE with other regions. This regional interconnection facilitates the movement of cargoes and goods enhancing the UAE’s position as a trade gateway for the Gulf region.
At present, the UAE is pouring millions of dollars into road upgrades to keep up with growth and remedy hazardous black spots. The Mafraq-Ghweifat Highway Project which began in 2010, sees the highway widened to four lanes in each direction (three around Ghweifat) and upgraded to meet international standards in design and safety. The road, which stretches 327 kilometres from Mafraq to the border at Ghweifat, provides the only access route to the Western Region, including the industrial centre of Ruwais and several tourist destinations. Works on the highway are expected to be completed by 2014.
In Sharjah, the National Paints roundabout is also set for an upgrade, following the traffic congestion which has plagued Maydan V industrial area. The US$89 million works programme is designed to address the long traffic delays for motorists travelling south.
Rail transport had been talked about, but little happened until the mid 1990s. At this time, a German delegation led by the transport minister, visited the UAE looking for future opportunities for their own railway industry. From that visit arose a proposal to build a rail system to link Fujairah with Dubai, primarily to transport containers from Fujairah Port to an inland container terminal. Although the proposal never came to fruition, it caused Dubai’s Ports Customs and Free Zone Corporation to commission a feasibility study on rail links to regional areas.
Today, the UAE has established an impressive passenger rail network with an industrial network planned. The 2009 introduction of the Metro has alleviated pressure on Dubai’s roads with over 6 million commuters using the Red and Green lines in September alone, and the future development of the GCC rail network will herald a new era in regional trade. In a short period, the UAE has achieved what many countries have taken centuries. In a nation only 40 years old it can be justifiably proud of its accomplishments in road and rail.