The dramatic drop in Dubai's property rental prices over the past year has persuaded many people who work in Abu Dhabi to move to the neighbouring emirate and commute daily, a journey of about 120km each way. With rail services between the two cities still a distant prospect, the only realistic transport option for this growing army of commuters is a three-hour, behind-the-wheel round trip on a busy road infamous for its grim accident statistics.
Many motorists who face the daily rat race are finding their general well-being affected by more than just the risk of being involved in a high-speed collision. Regular, long-distance travel by car can have potentially serious physical and psychological affects, according to experts. Bouts of tiredness and frustration are the norm, but psychologists say the long-term effects of the stress of commuting can run deeper.
Additionally, many of those people who travel daily from Dubai to Abu Dhabi and back are forced to overhaul their lifestyles. Drivers must set off at dawn to be ahead of the worst of the traffic, and many have to curb their social activities and spend their limited free time catching up on household chores that pile up during the week. "It is a lifestyle change and you have to go with it," said Sasan Saeidi, 35, an Iranian-Canadian and the deputy managing director of an advertising agency. She has been doing the commute for two months.
"It affects everything in your life, from your outings to your spending patterns," she said. Shadi Nasreddine, a 28-year-old Jordanian, has been commuting for four months and is ready to end the three hours a day on the road. "I am planning on moving to Abu Dhabi because of the commute," said Mr Nasreddine, a television executive working in the capital. "Yes, there are less options, and the facilities in the buildings are not like in Dubai, and rent is obviously a huge issue.
"But on the other hand, it is very risky driving every day on that road, especially when I have people commuting with me, which adds to the responsibility." Lifestyle aspects that many people take for granted such as free time and leisure activities are considered luxuries by the Dubai-to-Abu Dhabi commuters. Daily routines have to be amended, not only to fit a schedule but to prepare mentally for the trip.
Samer Arzouni a 28-year-old Lebanese promotional producer who does the journey with Mr Nasreddine, has to get up at 5.30am to arrive at work by 8. "It does affect my weekends, especially Thursday nights," he said. "If I can't take a nap when I get home, then I won't go out, and even on Saturday nights I'll make sure I'm home by 9pm as I have to wake up early the next day." The option of going out after work in Abu Dhabi is not conducive either, as it would mean arriving in Dubai late at night. "All I want to do when I finish work is get the drive home over and done with," he said.
For Gerry Considine, 30, a structural engineer and player with the Dubai Hurricanes rugby team, waking at 5.30am to get to work in Abu Dhabi up to six days a week is forcing him to give up his passion. "I only play rugby when I can now, and I'm missing out on training because I get back so late," he said. On his day off he catches up on shopping, laundry and sleep. "Because I get back so late during the week I can't do anything else; so literally I work, and on my one day off I run errands," he said.
The long journeys can be detrimental to personal lives, according to Dr Melanie Schlatter, a health psychologist at the Well Woman Clinic in Dubai. "New marriages, families, for example, don't have time to invest in the relationship because they are coming home late or leaving early," she said. "It is a general upheaval of the work day which all adds up, and what happens is that people end up forgoing their basic needs, such as exercise, sleep or eating correctly.
"It takes a lot of mental energy and concentration, and stress and worry can come out in physical pains. Driving should not be taken lightly at all." Relief may be on the horizon. Analysts say that as more rental units become available in Abu Dhabi, prices will come down, perhaps allowing more workers to live in the city and give up the long commute. A market report by the property-services company Asteco said almost 1,000 new apartments came onto the market in the last quarter, mainly in off-island locations such as Musaffah, Mohammed bin Zayed City and Khalifa City.
Louise Wong, 29, a Singaporean who works as a business strategist for a property developer, was paying Dh60,000 per year for a studio apartment in the Muroor area of the capital. Seven months ago she moved to Dubai Marina, where for Dh55,000 she rents a one-bedroom apartment with access to a pool and a gym. She said despite the commute - she typically leaves for work at 7.30am, and returns home about 12 hours later - her quality of life improved after moving to Dubai.
But parts of it are stressful, she said, especially being flashed by speeding motorists. "Also, if there's a big accident it can be really tiring, especially in fog or rain," she said. Tanya Haroun, from Syria, moved to Jumeirah Lake Towers in Dubai three months ago after living for more than four years in Abu Dhabi, where she is a public relations and marketing manager. The 26-year-old said she accepted the commute as a necessary burden to live in Dubai, where she found the rents are lower and the social opportunities better.
"It's annoying but I don't mind it that much," she said. Ms Haroun said most evenings during the week she stayed at home, partly because she has to get up early each morning to do the commute. "If that's the price I have to pay to live here, I don't mind," she said. @Email:email@example.com * With additional reporting by Daniel Bardsley and Jen Gerson