x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

A new asphalt artery knits the country closer together

The new Sheikh Khalifa highway from Dubai to Fujairah offers awe-inspiring views of the Hajjar mountains.

Business called me to Fujairah, a great opportunity to check out the Sheikh Khalifa highway. This new road - if the hype is to be believed - cuts the journey between Dubai and Fujairah to around 45 minutes. Opened on December 3, the road winds its way through eastern Arabia's highest peaks, the Hajjar mountains.

Roads are among our most impressive feats of engineering. Few other man-made features so radically affect our lives. Promoting contact and exchange, road networks can connect us to each other in profound ways. These asphalt arteries and tarmac tributaries are like veins, pulsing with the life blood of the modern world.

I joined the Sheikh Khalifa highway after leaving the Maleha Road in Sharjah. The newness of the highway is the first thing that hits you. The surface, the markings and even the road signs are all deliciously fresh. Crack a window, and you can still smell a faint whiff of the new road surface. It was like all this newness was infectious; for a few short kilometres, my old car seemed brand new again.

There is, of course, a very thin line between new and unfinished. The Sheikh Khalifa highway to Fujairah is complete, but battalions of workers are still tweaking and cleaning up the project. Every few hundred metres, I drove past small crews of men in overalls and hard hats; some in yellow hats and blue overalls, others in green overalls with orange hats, and many other colour combinations. I suspect these differing colours hold some significance, but I could only speculate wildly about the possible hierarchy, and divisions of labour that existed among this colourful collaborative.

Whatever the answer, I knew the one job I didn't want, and that was to be the red-flag guy. This individual gets to wave a small red flag for hours at a time, like some kind of demented roadside matador. The idea behind all this commotion is to warn motorists of dangers ahead. I suspect the flag man may do more harm than good, drawing undue attention to himself and away from the impending road hazards.

As I drove on, I came across a road sign that made my inner-pedant chuckle. "Man at work", the sign read. What, just the one? Then it occurred to me, perhaps this sign might be using the word "man" as a collective noun. True enough, this road is a great example of man at work, excellently juxtaposed as it is against the mountainous back drop of nature at work.

In addition to the speed afforded by this new route, there is also the natural beauty to consider. Mountains' solidity and permanence bring to mind our own fleeting and precarious existence. These jagged erratic peaks provide a great contrast to the blue sky with its uniformity and fluffy clouds.

At one point on the journey my ears popped as if the mountains wanted to provide an audio reminder of their majesty and power. One of the most beautiful aspects of mountains is the shadows they cast, both on themselves, and on each other. As the Earth turns, these most permanent immovable fixtures continually change their appearance.

As Fujairah appeared on the horizon, I saw several mountainous slopes that had huge UAE flags draped across them; on others the flags had been painstakingly painted, rock by rock.

The highway ended as I entered downtown Fujairah. I was struck by how small everything seemed. There's none of Dubai's cloud-puncturing architecture, but most buildings seemed especially low-rise. Some of the more beautiful structures almost appeared to be making a conscious effort to be small and unassuming.

Perhaps being in such proximity to mountains has fostered an appreciation of low, flat structures? However the first question is still unanswered: did my journey take 45 minutes? Truth be told, I was too awed by the mountains to watch my clock. One thing is certain, with the Shaikh Khalifa highway opening, the UAE has just become a little smaller.


Justin Thomas is professor of psychology at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi