The UAE, and particularly Dubai, are on a mission to prove to the world that anything they set their minds to can be achieved. Under the leadership of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the transformations happening in Dubai are so significant that some can even be seen from space.
Take for example Dubai’s coastline, which a few years ago was only 70 kilometers in length. Now, with the development of hundreds of artificial islands shaped like the world or a palm tree, Dubai will have hundreds of kilometers of sandy coastline at its disposal. And that is just the beginning. There are plans to create another palm island the size of the city of Paris, and if all goes well Dubai will transplant the universe to its shores. On another front, Dubai’s building boom is proceeding at such a break neck speed that 17% of the world’s cranes are at work in the emirate. A milestone was recently achieved when the Burj Dubai became the tallest skyscraper in the world, surpassing Chicago’s Sears Tower while still a ways to go before completion. Besides redefining the natural contours of the desert, Dubai has created snow where once only sand existed. If you want to put on winter clothes and ski in the middle of summer, where temperatures top 50 degrees Celsius, then the indoor Ski Dubai is the place to go.
Not to be outdone, the richest of the seven emirates, Abu Dhabi, also has its own agenda. Though not as grandiose as Dubai, Abu Dhabi wants to be seen more as a cultural hub. In 2012 it will have its own Louvre Museum, a state of the art complex that will showcase many of the original works currently housed in Paris. Beside the Louvre, Abu Dhabi will also have its own branch of New York’s prestigious Guggenheim Museum.
With all the successes there are bound to be a number of setbacks. On a global scale, according to the World Wildlife Fund, the UAE leaves the largest ecological per capita footprint in the world. This means that each of its residents uses up more resources than any other person in the world. On a more local level, there is another world record that the Emirates should not proud of. Per capita, the UAE has the highest number of road fatalities
When I was a junior high school student in America, a friend of mine, whose father was a policeman, used to pass around a magazine called California Highway Patrolman (CHP). It was the equivalent of a monthly trade magazine for law enforcers that showed detailed photographs of car accidents across California. Even though all the photographs were black and white, the pictures were nonetheless quite graphic. Most of the photos were taken by the police for their own records. The sight of all those horrific wrecks had a profound effect on me and most probably made me a little more careful when I was finally old enough to drive.
Today, the local press in the Emirates is beginning to look more like the highway patrolman magazine of my youth than a daily newspaper. Headlines like “UAE Road Accidents Claim 21 in 72 hours” or “Driver Burnt to Death after Truck Collision in Dubai” are just a sample of what the reader is hit up with every morning. And it’s not only limited to newsprint. Turn on the radio at any time of the day or night and you will hear between songs a stream of traffic updates, some sent in by motorists, telling you which roads to avoid because of accidents. “Avoid Arabian Ranches Roundabout because a bus has overturned” or “Traffic coming into Dubai on Sheikh Zayed Road is backed up all the way to Jebal Ali because of a multi car pile-up.”
The reason for the high death toll is simple: there are just too many vehicles on the roads and increasing at a phenomenal rate. In spite of the dozens of new four-lane bridges and freeways, traffic problems are still horrendous. It seems that no matter what the authorities do to ease the flow, they cannot keep ahead of the mounting vehicles on the road. Add to this the fact that many drivers do not obey the rules. They drive too fast, pass on the right hand side, use their cell phones, travel too closely behind the car in front and do not take precautions when the roads are flooded or visibility is impaired by fog. The numbers tell the rest of the story. In 2007, a total of 1,056 people were killed in traffic accidents, while 878 died in 2006 and 829 in 2005.
Recently, the Emirates broke one of its own records. On a foggy morning in March, 250 automobiles were involved in a massive accident which killed three and injured more than 300 on the Dubai-Abu Dhabi highway. Of the 250 cars, 60 caught fire and the scene looked more like a massive car bomb explosion somewhere in Iraq than a simple traffic accident. Beside the cars, there were 12 buses involved in the accident as well.
No matter how much the Emirates try to impress the rest of the world with their achievements, the bottom line is that life for those who have to battle on the roads every day is becoming intolerable. With billions of dollars in development projects expected in the coming years, and the millions who are bound to flood here in search of work, the Emirates should think of banning automobiles all together and using their resources to come up with an alternative way of transport that has yet to be discovered. This way they will truly dazzle the rest of the world with an innovation that will prove useful to humanity.
Norbert Schiller is a Dubai-based photo-journalist and writer.