Saturday, March 29, 2008


I've seen the bridge and the bridge is long, and they built it high and they built it strong. Strong enough to hold the weight of time. Long enough to leave some of us behind. And every one of us has to face that day. Do you cross the bridge or do you fade away?
I listen to these words often as I travel up and down SZR going to work and returning home. While the words are sung by Elton John the image they conjure up is that of the planned Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Crossing, the sixth bridge to span Dubai's Creek and a bridge destined to become one of the most striking landmarks in Dubai.

It seems today that Dubai is a city where a new bridge opening is announced every four months. Within the past year or two we've had the widening of Makhtoum Bridge, the construction of the Floating Bridge, the opening of the Business Bay Bridge, the re-construction of Garhoud Bridge and now the announcement of the 6th crossing, the grandest of them all. Each of these new bridges or widening projects has represented a major construction feat in and of itself, the Business Bay crossing, for example, comprising 13 lanes.

The Floating Bridge is also quite remarkable. It seems to have been put together in about a year's time, has 6 lanes and actually floats on the the water's surface while being joined to the shore on either side. A span is even opened at night to allow boats to pass.

$100 a barrel of oil buys plenty of toys (not to mention bombs, madrassahs, and board seats in US companies).

I.e. just one more extravagance in oil-rich Dubai. This derisive comment appears following an online post extolling the virtues of the new bridge. While Dubai could hardly be any further removed from the kind of radicalism that produces the bombs of terrorists, its wealth, only partly attributable to oil, is certainly financing its multitude of building and infrastructure projects. That, however, should not detract from what will no doubt be an architectural and engineering wonder to add to Dubai's ever futuristic cityscape. If built to plan, the bridge should rank as one of Dubai's most recognizable and appealing landmarks, only second to its new 160+ story Burj Dubai tower (U/C) and ahead of the its iconic Burj Al Arab Hotel .

It will have 12 lanes and a dual metro track running through its center. Its length will be 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) including 2 arched spans. The larger of these spans will be 205 meters in height and 667 meters in width, to make this bridge the largest arch bridge in the world. Tribute should go to the bridge's designers as the render depicts the most magnificent of structures (details). As the melodic percussive notes in the Elton John ballad lead to the opening verse, "I've seen the bridge, and the bridge is long...," the beautiful image of the Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Crossing comes to mind as a new symbol for Dubai.

It will be Dubai's Brooklyn Bridge or Golden Gate. Indeed, it will become Dubai's Sydney Harbor Bridge with an opera house to boot. The entire surrounding area, like so many parts of Dubai, is scheduled for a total transformation, to include a massive Sydney style opera house and a collection of dancing towers, the tallest to rise some 100 stories.

Where’s [sic] the environmental impact statements for the, carbon footprint, snail darter, spotted owls and all the other must haves before projects like this can be started?

Another commenter raises this interesting question. One reason Dubai is getting built on such a massive scale is that the rulers, who authorize such projects, may do so by fiat. This, however, does not mean environmental impact studies are not done. Studies are done and some recommendations are followed, especially now as Dubai appears more and more prominently on the radar of international observers. That said, the site of this construction is on the edge of a large bird sanctuary, extremely rare in a region covered with harsh desert terrain. The government asserts that it will carry out these feats of construction without destroying this amazing natural habitat. Time will tell.

The time frame for construction, according to New York architecture firm FXFowle which designed the bridge, is from the present till early 2013. By that time three or more metro lines will have been constructed, along with additional Creek crossings and the extension of the Creek itself to the Arabian Gulf, thus turning most of central Dubai into a virtual island.

The song's lyrical bridge takes on a cautionary tone,
And the bridge it shines, all cold hard iron saying, "Come and risk it all, or die trying."
And the online commenter waxes, "If the current 'Disneylandia' (to use a non-word) over Dubai ends, the city will end up being one of the world's prettiest failures."

No, Dubai won't fail--oil prices are not going to fall. Dubai, in fact, prospers because, rather than in spite, of the turmoil that afflicts nearby countries. Dubai is the safe haven that the wealthy, with their wealth, flock to. Adverse conditions in distant economies as well, mean that the oil riches of surrounding emirates and states get parked in Dubai's flourishing markets--primarily real estate.

Friday, March 28, 2008


Here is my theory. The government conspired to minimize and obfuscate the scale and extent of the 11 March highway tragedy. There are a couple of strong indications of this. One, no mention was made (allowed) in the media of the approximately 80-car pile up that took place near Al Rahba. How can something of this magnitude go unmentioned even if the 200-car pile-up at Ghantoot was obviously a more dramatic story?

Two, it would appear that there are a number of other patches of scorched roadway on both sides of the Abu Dhabi-Dubai highway, much smaller, but similar to the massive patch of scarred tarmac at the site of the 200-car crash. These include one, some 10 kilometers before the Ghantoot crash site (Dubai bound), and two others on the Abu Dhabi bound side of the highway, one not far from Ghantoot and another not far from the Al Rahba crash area. I had travelled this highway daily for 3 months prior to the 11 March tragedy and never noticed these patches of burnt tarmac. It appears, therefore, that there were fiery crashes at at least 3 other points on the highway.

Although I can only speculate on whether any other fiery crashes occurred, there is little reason to believe that, had these accidents indeed occurred, they would have been reported by authorities. The approximately 80 crashed cars that I drove past that morning failed to merit mention so why should a few other small crashes here and there get acknowledged? Scattered patches of extremely dense fog could have led to numerous smaller accidents all along this stretch of highway and along other highways as well. In fact, a newspaper reader that day commented in an online post that there was a 14-car pile up in Abu Dhabi's Western Zone, near Tarif. Unfortunately, the true extent of carnage that took place on the roadways of Abu Dhabi on 11 March 2008 will most likely never come to light.

Official reports had said that there was a 200-car pile-up on the Dubai bound highway at the Ghantoot exit, resulting in some 30-burnt cars, 300 plus injuries and 3 deaths. Wow, that is a big story, which had plenty of dramatic photos and video footage to accompany it. Such an event was hard to keep under wraps, so it made the headlines. The authorities, it would seem, would take advantage of all the attention this event garnered to keep a lid on reports of any other incidents. Their strategy worked. I only know about the separate pile-ups involving 80 cars because I was there. I know about the 14-car pile-up on the Tarif road because I came across a comment online. I can only speculate on the three other possible fiery crashes along the Abu Dhabi - Dubai highway.

What about other crashes that did not result in fires? What about other possible incidents along Abu Dhabi's other highways?

Why Not the Truth?

Image... reflex... Abu Dhabi is not Dubai. It is conservative and it is used to obfuscation. It's hard for an old dog to learn new tricks. Does it really make sense to downplay the dangers of fog and less than careful driving? All news is bad news, I suppose, is a dictum that the powers-that-be pay homage to. That would have certainly been the case in an Abu Dhabi that began in the 1970's its rapid transformation from scattered tribal communities to an urban metropolis. The family (the ruling tribe) would control everything including the news, as any good feudal leadership would do. Some 30 years later, this manner of leadership is on the wane in the UAE, but it still exists.

Although the rulers still rule by fiat, other voices can be heard and the leadership's focus appears above all (more so in Dubai than in Abu Dhabi) to be on the development of a modern prosperous economy, which is likely to benefit all, not merely the rulers and their clans. Nevertheless, many of the old bad habits persist, among them the effort to keep critical and unflattering reports out of the press. The reflexive reaction is to deny that anything else happened on the highways that fateful morning.

Had the melee occurred on the Dubai side of the border, I believe a more complete picture would have emerged. Read the local dailies, for example, and note that the nation and crime pages report almost exclusively on events in Dubai. What about Abu Dhabi--is it so much more safe and quiet here? Do domestic disputes not take place, do workers labor in tranquility, are petty thieves and crime gangs non-existent? There is a lingering climate of secrecy and press manipulation in Abu Dhabi, much stronger than exists in a Dubai which seems to have had, even historically, a more open and liberal climate.

As a case in point, on the morning of 26 March many in Dubai found themselves rising to the powerful blast of an explosion on a warehouse site. A mushroom cloud rose into the sky and a large portion of city skyline was shrouded in black. Reports of the extent of the tragedy were largely unfettered. It was being reported that 80-100 warehouses were burnt resulting in as much as 600 million AED (163 million USD) in damage. I cannot imagine that any similar degree of unfettered reporting would have taken place had this tragedy occurred in Abu Dhabi.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

the Fog

It still bothers me--the circumstances around the 11 March highway melee. There are two things that trouble me. One, the apparent cover-up of the extent of what happened. The other, the cause. I will start off with the easier of the two to analyze--the cause.

People's knee-jerk reaction, you see, is to blame the drivers. The UAE, among its residents at least, is notorious for its wild, reckless and arrogant drivers. So, why blame mother nature when it seems there is a more likely culprit. My experience on the roads of the Emirates over the past several years, however, tells me that drivers are becoming more careful and indeed more adept at driving. Five or six years ago, a crashed car on just about any weekend night along the Abu Dhabi-Dubai highway seemed quite the norm. Now, it is quite rare that I see one, even though the number of cars on the road have increased several-fold.

Like anyplace, you will have that percentage of wild and arrogant drivers, but I would dare to say that many a UAE driver has learned lessons the hard way from mean and careless driving, and that things have been improving over the years.

It Was the Fog

On that incredibly foggy morning, I myself, had slowed down to 60 kph. There were some drivers going even slower, while only a few were going much faster. There was no great multitude of speeding drivers that might easily account for pile-ups adding up to over 200 cars. In fact, at 6:45 in the morning, when the Ghantoot pile-up occurred, there would not have been that great a number of cars on the road. On this fateful morning, regardless of who the driver was, the fog had the upper hand.

When I started off from Abu Dhabi that morning I thought to myself, "Here we go again." It was the third day running for this kind of weather. But not long before I reached the first crash site I was thinking, "Oh my God, this is the thickest fog I've ever seen in my life!" My technique, under such conditions, was to make sure that I was close enough behind any car in front of me to see its tail lights. In that way I could be certain of the length of the gap between us and could adjust my speed accordingly. But where the fog was its thickest, this was almost impossible to do. In seconds the tail lights of the car in front would disappear and leave me with no idea how much space there was between me and the next car.

Only a couple of minutes before reaching the first crash site I had already decided to pull off the highway, but would not do so until I reached the next petrol stand--about 10 kilometers away. As events would unfold, however, I would never get that chance. Reaching the initial crash site and eventually passing 80 wrecked cars, I and everyone else still moving on the road, were diverted at the next interchange and forced to return to Abu Dhabi. It was some 2 and 1/2 hours later and the fog had lifted as the sun shone brightly, but the highway onward toward Dubai remained a no-go, for all the crashed cars that littered the road further ahead.

I was also thinking to myself shortly before reaching ground zero, "Man, I'm in the clouds!" It was the fog that morning--so thick in places--which had caused the melee. Just as airport runways are closed when the fog reaches certain levels, so should the highways. Official announcements ought to be broadcast that highways will be closed from time X to time Y, thus forcing drivers to remain put.

Next post on the nature of the cover-up.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Day one, post tragedy... try New York City, early morning 9/11, 2001. Many will remember this as one of the most glorious days a city could have--weather-wise. The day after on the Abu Dhabi-Dubai highway was like that. A bright, crisp, beautiful morning. The skies at the Abu Dhabi-Dubai border were bluer and much clearer than normal. Usually one reaches the border from Abu Dhabi and notices an immediate change in the color and clarity of the sky. One wonders from where the pollution in Dubai's skies emerge, but on this 12 March morning one could clearly trace the trail of brown haze emanating from the region of Dubai's large power station and aluminum plant.

That streak of brown was only recognizable because of the contrasting blue and clarity in the rest of the sky. The skyscrapers of Dubai Marina and Jumeirah Lake Towers' districts could be seen some 30 kilometers in the distance, usually quite impossible. Crucially, there was not a hint of fog in the air.

In deed, the highway itself was almost clear of traffic. Was it the absence of the 300 or so vehicles wiped out in the preceding day's melee, that would have otherwise been plying the road at this time? It had to be the humor of fate to follow the most wretched of days with the most beautiful.

Likewise, the authorities did their best to erase any trace of the calamity that had finally come to pass. At the Al Rahba site of the 60-80 crashed vehicles there was not even a scrap of noticeable debris. There was some damage to a roadside guard rail but by the looks of it, that could have happened any time. Further along at the site of the horrific Ghantoot calamity, there was the dark, scorched highway and some debris still littering the grassy areas of the interchange.

This almost paralleled what remained of any news accounts of what had happened. The Ghantoot incident was undeniable but descriptions of its magnitude had been toned down. Online news reports the evening prior had referenced 200 crashed cars and 8 deaths, but the morning news would announce only 80 crashed cars and 3 fatalities. Meanwhile, the Al Rabha incident went completely unmentioned, as though it had never happened--as though those 80 crashed cars and the commuters involved were but a figment of an over-active imagination.

True to my concerns, it seemed likely we would never know the full extent of the calamity. I am almost certain that, on my way back to Abu Dhabi this evening, I drove over patches of scorched highway that had not been there before--two to be exact, one not far from Ghantoot and another near Taweelah. But there were never any reports of crashes or fires on this side of the highway. One will never know. Abu Dhabi authorities are concerned about the reputation of the emirate, so wish to keep a lid on what really happened that fateful morning.

This is shameful, for it means a missed opportunity to use this tragedy to instill a sense of urgency among the public and those charged with maintaining safety on the highways to change their ways. Everyone needs to learn from this incident--drivers to be more careful and the officials to implement better safety measures.

Regrettably, what follows the tragedy of 11 March is an attempt to erase it from memory and pretend that all are bright, sunny days.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008



Thick white mist, pairs of diminutive red and yellow lamps. A hitchhiker waving arms, running beside the road. Flames, crashed cars, debris-strewn highway, silence.

11-March-2008, the Abu Dhabi-Dubai highway.

What began as a normal morning soon turned into the most incredible commuter's nightmare. Alas for me, I would be among the lucky who only witnessed the tragedy rather than having joined it. The sufferers must include also those who saw the worst of it--the flaming cars and crashed cars into the hundreds.

It had started as quite a normal morning as dawn had broken and traffic had already begun to make its hasty way out of Abu Dhabi, toward Dubai. It was normal for this time of year in that the early morning streets, and the highways especially, were obscured by dense white clouds of fog. It was, in fact, the third day running for the dense morning fog, so drivers I'm sure had an added level of confidence in their ability to maneuver.

But normality began to wane when the thickness of the fog brought visibility down to near zero. Perhaps one could see faintly the tail lights of a car up ahead, to a distance of no more than 10 meters. Some drivers heeded the poor conditions, while others dared to beat whatever clock they were racing. "Just go with the flow... keep some distance between the next car ahead... but where is the next car ahead?"

These were some of the thoughts going through my mind, when suddenly I noticed the foolish/desperate hitchhiker waving his arms, running beside the road. "Wait a minute; he's not a hitchhiker. Something's afoot..." I quickly slowed down, then noticed that the traffic ahead had come to a standstill. Thanks to those frantically waving arms, I had plenty of time to stop.

I soon forgot the heroic efforts of the man or men--in fact there were two or more--waving arms to warn drivers of the dangers ahead. They weren't policemen. In my mind's eye I recall one wearing the familiar white tunic of a Pakistani laborer or driver. I can't recall what the other or others looked like. But I soon forgot their deeds when the traffic eventually inched its way to a scene of several crashed cars, one or two still in the road and a few others along the side. But there would be more, much more.

Moving slowly, stalling, then moving forward again, the four lanes of traffic finally made its way past car upon car, wrecked vehicles lining both sides of the road. I began to count as I rode by... 1, 2, 3, 6, 12, 20... then I lost count as it would appear there were 50 or 60 strewn along the highway. Just past the melee, once again traffic came to a dead halt. After an hour the stream made its way another kilometer forward, this time passing another dozen or so crashed cars.

I had never seen anything like it before. The highway was littered with fragments of glass, plastic, rubber and metal. Emergency vehicles--patrol cars, ambulances and tow trucks--rode by with sirens blaring intermittently. The fog was steadily lifting and people began to emerge from cars as traffic came to a standstill. There was not the usual giddiness one finds among spectators at the scene of a traffic accident. Most did not know exactly what lay ahead but there was among this impromptu assemblage of an audience a sense of awe at what they might expect to see. There was, too, a sense of relief that it was "not me" in the wreckage that was sure to lie ahead.

Radio reports were coming in of a huge pileup with cars aflame at Ghantoot, some 50 kilometers ahead of where we were. Surely, this was not the tailback. Even before catching a glimpse of the man waving arms, I had decided to pull off road and wait at the nearest petrol station for the fog to clear. But I would never make it to that station in Taweelah. The 80-car series of crashes occurred in between Taweelah and the preceding interchange at Al Rahba. At the Taweelah interchange traffic was forced to divert toward any heading except Dubai. I returned to Abu Dhabi, having witnessed a part, and apparently the lesser part, of the UAE's worst ever traffic melee.

I later discovered that Ghantoot was, in fact, the scene of the greater tragedy with up to 200 cars crashed and 30 or more having gone up in flames. Was the weather to blame? Six weeks earlier the country was swamped with a week of rains that led to numerous traffic accidents. At that time I felt nearly traumatized as I daily passed cars lying wrecked along the side of the road--at most I would count six in one journey along the Abu Dhabi-Dubai highway.

This time, however, it was different. The extent and scale of the disaster was unprecedented. The 125 kilometer stretch of highway was this time the scene of numerous multi-vehicle pileups. I truly believe that one contributing factor was that many drivers had gotten used to the foggy conditions, and felt no need to exercise extra caution--even as the fog became thicker than ever.

In the end, the numbers traumatized must go into the hundreds, not including the hundreds who would have sustained injuries and the dozen or so who would have tragically died. But one thing that I hope I will not forget are the heroic efforts of those running arm-wavers who are likely to have prevented many more from becoming crash victims on 11 March 2008.