RAS AL KHAIMAH // On Friday afternoons, the road through the rural settlement of Al Ghail near RAK's southern border is busy. The usual convoys of lorries to and from the nearby quarries are not the reason; on Fridays they lie idle in their compounds. The cause of the activity is, in fact, the local teenagers who, once a week, take control of the roads.
After Friday prayers, the boys of the village drive to an empty lot beside the main road and park their cars on the red sand. They sit, talk and unwind for a few hours before heading back to spend the rest of the afternoon with their families. The boys gathering there with their friends are almost all under the legal driving age of 18. One such is Ali Abdullah, who pulls up with his friends. He is 13 and only just tall enough to reach the faux-fur-covered steering wheel of the 4x4 he is driving.
While it may be shocking to some, underage driving is a reality of village life, a simple necessity. As boys mature in these rural areas, they are expected to help their families, whose older male relatives often stay in Abu Dhabi or Al Ain during the week to work. But the risks of underage driving were made all too clear earlier this month when two brothers, Rashed and Obaid al Mazrooei, were killed in a head-on collision with another 4x4. Rashed and Obaid were 15 and 16. The driver of the other vehicle was 16.
The brothers were on their way to Al Ghail Youth Club, just a few kilometres from their home. The tragedy sparked renewed discussion in Al Ghail over the issues surrounding underage driving. But the practice is so widely accepted it may take years to change, said an aunt of the brothers, Shaikah Fadel, 24, a teacher in Ras al Khaimah. She prays some families will learn from the deaths of her nephews.
"I noticed some of them, they took the car from their kids, but the others are still driving. I think it didn't affect them that much." Families are generally happy to let the boys drive within a few kilometres of the village but not beyond and many families are opposed to suggestions of lowering the legal driving age. They fear the youngsters would be at a greater risk if they were free to drive on the UAE's motorways and in the cities.
"In Dubai there will be traffic," said Abdullah al Mazrooei, 17, who lives in Al Ghail but is not closely related to the two brothers who died. "Anyone who has a licence, he knows he can go anywhere." "At 16 they are not thinking too much," said Saeed Rashed, a 25-year-old from Wadi Koob, who works in the army. "They don't have concentration and they will speed. Lessons would be good but they're still small boys."
However, many boys consider they have the right to drive near their village; they see it as part of their coming of age - even a duty. "Every man is working; they come here only one day or two days a week," said Abdullah, the youngest of 13 brothers and sisters. Like other boys his age, he is not allowed by his family to drive on major roads. But he can run errands within the village, such as driving to the store to collect groceries, taking his grandmother to the family farm or dropping off his friends at school.
"Because my brother is working, he can't come here every day. My sisters, my aunts, my grandmother and grandfather can't drive," he said. In conservative rural areas it is still considered preferable for men or boys to drive instead of women. "Young ladies, they are not allowed to drive here in this society," said Ms Fadel. "If they are over 20 and she is finished [with] college, she can. In the town, women are driving but just here in the village they did not reach that point." That situation is common.
"It's not the same as the city," said Saeed al Mazrooei, 25, from Wadi Koob and a clerk at the RAK Municipality, who learned to drive at the age of 13. "In the city, there's more traffic, but in the village it's all track roads and not much traffic," he said. "All the people in the village work in Abu Dhabi or other locations so the children drive to help the people with the housework." "At 14, 15 they start [driving]," added Ali Rashed, 23, also from Wadi Koob, who works for the army. "But look, they don't go far and they don't go on main roads."
However, this month's fatal accident in Al Ghail made people pause for thought. "After the accident, most people are not driving," said Ali Ahmad, 17, who learned to drive three years ago. "Just a little, not like before. Their families are scared of accidents now." Ali has limited his driving since the accident and has stopped driving to school with friends. Following the deaths of the three youngsters, RAK police set up an aggressive campaign two weeks ago to target children who drive. The message is clear: underage driving will not be tolerated.
Patrols have focused on rural areas in the south where underage driving is most common. Previously, when officers caught underage drivers, the teenagers were usually sent on their way with a mild rebuke. But the campaign is altogether tougher: police estimate that 85 cars driven by underage drivers have been confiscated since the programme began. "We have patrols all over Ras al Khaimah," said Col Nasser Muradad, the director of the RAK Traffic and Licensing Department.
"Now we are looking at where the problem is coming from, and the problem is coming from the family, not the young people." Col Muradad said officers have had meetings with parents and children across the emirate to discuss the dangers of underage driving. The solution, he said, would only be found through greater community awareness. Abdullah Rashed, 17, is one of the boys who recently had his car confiscated for 60 days.
He is frustrated that it has been taken but because driving makes him feel "very happy", he continues to drive his father's vehicle. And while the community may be the key to stopping underage driving, it seems peer pressure has little effect. "Nobody would understand if I stopped someone [underage]," said Mohammed al Mazrooei, 27, who is not related to the boys killed in this month's accident. "He would tell me it's not my business and go."