Thursday, August 17, 2006


Although I am not a car buff, it is easy to see that cars are a big deal in the UAE. It is predictably men and particularly the younger and richer ones that are into the latest hot wheels. The UAE is a good country to be in for the car enthusiast. Any popular model can be bought in showrooms and others can be ordered. Prices, without the taxes added on as in other countries, are generally lower. The locals especially know where to go to get good deals, especially on used and imported models.

Road conditions are excellent. Multi-lane highways stretch between the cities, along with wide boulevards (in Abu Dhabi) and freeways (in Dubai). Traffic is often congested, but for the speed demon this offers the additional thrill of dodging traffic while swerving across lanes. Off road driving is also popular, across desert terrain with or without dunes. It is not only US drivers that love SUVs. They are among the most common vehicles on the roads here too.

The down side to the great popularity of the automobile and all the on road and off-road opportunities is a high accident rate, often due to speeding. Young Emiratis are disproportionately represented in casualty numbers. The less sporting driver, like the daily commuter, has to always beware of the high-flying SUV or luxury car bearing down on his tail with high-beams flashing wildly.

Troubling Statistics

The number of drivers and cars on the roads in the UAE is rapidly increasing, especially in Dubai. A combination of more people having the means to buy cars and poor public transport options force people to go independent. The government of Dubai is at once constructing more roads and more efficient road systems, while improving existing and introducing new public transport facilities. Whatever is done in the way of public transport, however, the public in the UAE will remain hooked on the automobile, with increasing traffic and pollution levels.

In the City

Driving in Abu Dhabi tends to be a stop and go affair. Traffic lights are spaced at regular and frequent intervals. Whether the lights are in sync or not, one tends to move in spurts. Dubai, on the other hand, has gone the way of expressways. Were it not for the sheer density of traffic the expressways in Dubai would be a racer's paradise. They traverse up and down through tunnels and over bridges, turning this way and that, lanes merging in and breaking off. When the current phase of construction is complete along Sheikh Zayed Road, the main expressway, drivers will be able to course their way through what will appear to be a maze of flyovers.

Joining the Club

Buying, owning and taking care of one's car is generally a straightforward affair. Loans are readily available through banks and except for the annual registration there is little in the way of taxes or duties. The actual procedure for registration, however, can be a nuisance. The same for insurance, where fortunately or unfortunately all drivers are treated equally. Rates vary little, whatever the driving record of the insured and whatever the agent used.

Of course, another necessary expense is fuel. Sold by the Imperial gallon, prices had been cheap, at around US $1 per up to about a year ago, when they were dramatically increased by about 60%. Even an oil exporting nation has to pay the rising tariff on oil--so we are told.

Individuals are not allowed to wash their cars themselves. The idea it seems is to keep running water and soap off of roads and parking lots. Car owners, either pay watchmen at the flats they live in to discreetly (and illegally) wash their cars using as little as a small bucket of water, or they drive them through the many automatic car washes.

The biggest issue with regard to driving for many is getting a license. Except for those from a number of Western, Gulf and a few other selected countries, attendance at driving schools and testing is required for licensing. The process can easily run up to US $1000. For many laborers, getting a license is seen as a ticket to a better job and a higher standard of living--that is higher for the famlies they provide for back home. Although the government tries to restrict them from availing this option, most find ways to get around the impediments.

On a Personal Note

Though not a car buff, like many I was driven to take the plunge and buy and car. My personal choice has been the Peugeot, which offers a variety of inexpensive models, some with excellent gas mileage. The 206 price tag and style suit me just right. The place to buy in the UAE is Swaidan Motors in Dubai. Fixed prices mean no haggling or worrying that you might be missing a better deal. They do, however, offer promotions like free servicing, free insurance, etc.

The agent to speak to is Norbert. He's on the ball. On my latest purchase he spotted oil on the floor where my just delivered vehicle had been parked. I was immediately alerted, offered another vehicle and given a convertible to use while I waited for the new one to be readied. It would have been much easier (for the dealer) to let me drive off with the oil leak and force me to rely on the warranty for any corrections. Anecdotal, but still a sign of a good dealer.

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See also A Word A Day (in the UAE) post, Transportation.

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