The defining feature in Ruwais is the main square, which is made of two identical beige buildings that rise above the main road and meet, forming the shape of the letter A: Adnoc. The perennially empty streets are lined with manicured lawns and rows of small flowers, resembling a scene out of a Tim Burton movie. It is a rare example of that increasingly rare phenomenon, the company town.
Flags bearing the Adnoc emblem sit above intersections. The oil company's presence permeates every aspect of life. "Adnoc has their hands in everything here," says Bernd Graffunder, the team head at the Ruwais fire department. And almost everyone else echoes the idea. This is the main artery of the UAE's oil and gas production. And just outside the small town, off the motorway and down a road dotted with checkpoints where armed guards sniff out every vehicle that comes close, are the refineries. As with refineries around the world, access is often denied to anyone without the required security clearance.
With few exceptions (the butcher, the baker, the barber), everyone in the town works one of two shifts, day or night, at one of the area's oil, gas and petrochemical facilities. And though the job descriptions vary, everyone works toward the same goal: to facilitate the growth of the country. Those who work in the refineries live in company apartment buildings. They eat breakfast together and are taken to their work together in buses. If you don't have the security clearance for the refinery, you can not get on the bus. Even when they are inside the formidable structures, the employees stick to the areas they work in. There is no wandering around.
It seems impossible to leave the place after a brief visit feeling like you got the full Ruwais experience. You just can't pin down its heart. You know it has something to do with Adnoc but the force behind the city can't be identified; it's like going to see the Wizard of Oz, getting all the way to the Emerald Palace only to find it is filled with small, empty offices. But you know - you just feel - that the wizard is in there somewhere.