x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The road that unites the Emirates

Feature On a five-day journey John Gravois discovers the E11, the tarmac artery that runs through the heart of the UAE - from the desolate eastern border to the glittering modernism of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Ligesh KP works at a popcorn stand in Safeer Mall's Space City. He moved to Sharjah a year ago from Kerala.
Ligesh KP works at a popcorn stand in Safeer Mall's Space City. He moved to Sharjah a year ago from Kerala.

On a five-day journey John Gravois discovers the E11, the tarmac artery that runs through the heart of the UAE - from the desolate eastern border to the glittering modernism of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

The longest road in the UAE appears on maps as a solid blue line stretching from the Saudi border in the west to the border with Oman in the far north-east. It runs parallel to the Trucial Coast for some 600km, traverses six of the seven emirates along the way, and is labelled simply "E11".

The road is a main pilgrimage route towards the holy cities of Mecca and Medina; a transport artery that sends cargo overland as far as Bulgaria; a corridor for the transport of materials in one of the greatest building booms in history; and a commuter link for some of the fastest-growing cities in the world. But ask someone to direct you to the E11, and the chances are that they'll shrug. The road is known mainly by its local names: Al Wahda Road in Sharjah, Sheikh Maktoum Road in Abu Dhabi, Al Ittihad Road in Umm al Qaiwain and Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai. Nor is it the smooth, unified entity suggested by the map. It is a tissue of highways, stitched together by a patchwork of local roads, detours and diversions. Between cities, it is remarkably easy to lose altogether. The road, like the UAE itself, is a place in search of a sense of place.

I was looking for a sense of place, too. And E11, despite its fractured nature, seemed to provide the only lens wide enough to see the Emirates in a single frame. So at the height of summer, I drove from the western edge of the country to the road's opposite end in the east. At moderately high speeds, it would have taken about five hours. I took five days. At that rate, the country just begins to make sense.

The road starts at the Al Gweifat border post - a low-lying collection of buildings in a snarl of roadworks, on the remote and "unfinalised" border between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The place gives new definition to the term "middle of nowhere", while managing to have a decent duty-free shop. The duty-free is presided over by a small team of men in identical grey suits and green-and-white striped ties - men from India, Pakistan, the Sudan and Ethiopia, who resemble a group of extremely courteous castaways. (One of them, a short, blinking Sudanese salesman named Khalid Mohammed Omer, has been gearing up to take a dental qualification exam in Abu Dhabi for eight years.)

The shop is busy during Ramadan, they tell me, full of pilgrims on the road to Mecca. But it is quiet - very quiet - during the rest of the year. Business comes mainly from lorry drivers stopping off to buy cigarettes, along with a smattering of Saudi weekenders and locals from the nearby desert hamlet of Al-Sila, who browse the shop just for something to do. The duty-free clerks gather around and wave me off as I set out on my journey. For the first 130km or so of the route, the desert is a mesmerising, all but featureless expanse. And so, while I drive, a little history.

the road follows what might seem the most obvious path across the western region of Abu Dhabi, hugging the Gulf coast. But in a country traversed and re-traversed by generations of Bedu, it follows a route with almost no precedent. "It was an area marked by its lack of water and difficulties to cross by camel in the old days," says Mohammed al Fahim, the author of From Rags To Riches, an intimate account of Abu Dhabi's development since the 1950s.

Abdhullah Darwish, an Emirati civil engineer who helped build the road in the early 1970s, remembers the landscape then was mainly sabhka - flat desert salt marsh - that required heavy stabilisation before it could be paved. Interestingly, scientists speculate that organic matter trapped in that very coastal sabhka millions of years ago may have supplied the source of the Emirates' modern wealth and expansion: oil.

On December 14 1963, the first load of crude from Abu Dhabi's onshore fields left the Emirates from a newly built shipping terminal on the Jebel Dhanna peninsula, about 100km east of the Saudi border. Abu Dhabi's then ruler, Sheikh Shakbut, seemed not to appreciate the moment's significance: after his representative returned via sand track from witnessing the event, the Sheikh's only question was: "How much was the taxi?"

Jebel Dhanna is the first major landmark I reach. The historic oil terminal still exists, but has been upstaged in recent years by the nearby Danat Resort - a self-contained desert playground of fitness facilities and beach cabanas that neatly encapsulates how oil wealth has transformed the nation. At the swim-up bar around lunchtime, Stefan Niebelung of Kimsee in Bavaria, a heating engineer, is enjoying his honeymoon on a sub-aquatic bar stool next to Alexandra, his wife of two weeks. Before this trip, the fair-skinned, wide-eyed couple had never left Europe. But where have they really travelled now? Beyond the ride from the airport, Niebelung says, they haven't ventured outside the resort.

I leave this artificial oasis and continue on my way, stopping next at an Adnoc station about 70km past Ruwais, an oil company town founded in the 1970s. Nasruddin Khan is sitting and sweating high up in the cab of his petrol tanker, pausing to wipe his forehead with a towel. We exchange hellos, shouting over the engine noise. He has just filled the station's tanks and now he's about to head back to Ruwais. The petrol comes straight from the refinery there, he says. We say our goodbyes, he shuts the door, and the lorry pulls away, leaving me to wonder where else in the world does petrol travel less than 200km from ground to pump?

Back out on the road I see a column of smoke to my right. Turning off on to a track, I find myself staring at car tyres stretching off into the dunes, acres of them, piled two metres deep. The sun is sinking through the smoke. It's an opera of waste. Then a maroon Mercedes stretch limousine rumbles past. I find the car and its owner - a stout, bearlike Emirati man in a white khandoura - kneeling in the sand trying to pry apart two pieces of wood with a wheel wrench.

When I ask him what he's doing, he flips open his mobile phone, dials a number, says a few words in Arabic and then hands me the phone, beaming. "My son," he says. "York University, England." Translation ensues. The thoroughly puzzled son in England eventually relays to me that his father is salvaging wood to build a pen for the family's brand new falcon. As soon as I repeat the word, the man grins and nods. "Deer falcon!" he says. "Not small!"

The following day, as I approach the city of Abu Dhabi, the road widens, and electricity pylons give way to rows of date palms. The desert no longer looks as if it is winning so easily. But the city proper lies 20km off the road to the north-west. Or at least, it does for now. Abu Dhabi city connects to E11 via four feeder roads that fan out from the southern tip of the island and join the motorway at points along a 40km span, forming a rough triangle in the desert.

At the moment, that triangle contains the airport, a few half-completed housing developments and not much else. In the future it will contain what is known as the New Abu Dhabi. Plans for the expansion of the city locate the centre of the shining new capital right in the crux of those fanning roads. When the dust settles, E11 will go from bypassing the city to forming its edge. A two-hour drive away, Mohammed Nafees is smoking a cigarette beside me on the balcony of an eighth-floor luxury flat in the Dubai Marina Towers. Nafees, an estate agent, has agreed to show me this palatial flat despite my warning him that, at Dh300,000 a year, there is no question of my renting it. With no need to push a sale, he is pensive. Below us, the road - now officially Sheikh Zayed Road - is a tangled knot of flyover lanes, ramps and merging vehicles.

Nafees, 57, is from Pakistan. He looks every bit the archetypal estate agent - the reassuring conservative haircut, the casual short-sleeved button-down shirt, the chinos, the mobile phone on a belt-clip - except that he has a long beard dyed orange with henna. "I arrived 30 years ago," Nafees says. "I remember when Sheikh Zayed Road was just two lanes with no lights, and camels crossed the highway."

The years have been good to Nafees, who worked his way up from entry-level hotel work in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, before moving into estate agency. "I can say this is the best place to live," he says. "In Pakistan maybe I could have died by now." But in a way, Nafees's problem is that he has already died in Pakistan. Unsure whether he will be able to maintain his residency in the Emirates as an old man, he has to consider the possibility of a permanent return home. It is not a happy thought.

"After 30 years," he says, "nobody knows who Mohammed Nafees is." Back on Sheikh Zayed Road, the sun is setting, and traffic has congealed into a slow-moving mass. Next to me, tourists in a taxi are craning their necks to look at Dubai's spectacular cityscape. I start doing the same. Cars creep along and we stare up at the twin lines of skyscrapers. In 1822, M Houghton, a Briton visiting Dubai, wrote: "The town is a miserable assemblage of mud hovels, surrounded by a low mud wall in which are several breaches, and defended by three round towers, and a square castellated building, with a tower at one angle much dilapidated, and having only three or four guns mounted, which are old and rusty." As I pass the Burj Dubai, the irony hits me. A billboard slides past. It says "Dream Big".

The next morning, under the giant arch of the Dubai International Financial Centre, Suhail Azzam is smoking a cigarette on a black marble bench, a Blackberry at his fingertips. An impeccably dressed investment banker in his mid-20s, Azzam comes from Palestine by way of Saudi Arabia, the University of Colorado and Wall Street. He is, in other words, a kind of metaphor for Dubai - an Arab thoroughly embedded in the cosmopolitan, international elite, who no longer has to forsake the Arab world to take part in it. When I ask about his family, Azzam points to the two sides of the Financial Center arch.

"My dad works in this building, I work in that one," he says. "Everybody's here. Who isn't? Everybody's coming to Dubai." Then he adds, almost as an afterthought, "Everybody hates this place, by the way. It's got no depth or culture. It's like plastic land, and who knows when it's going to melt. But I love Dubai. This has never been done before. You're living in something that's happening for the first time."

Heading north, I lose the road between Dubai and Sharjah and then find my way back to it just as accidentally. At Sharjah, the road looks like a slow river after a flood, crammed with flotsam. So I decide to wait out the traffic at the Safeer Mall near the edge of town. Like Sharjah itself, the mall is scruffy and undistinguished, but it has the most elaborate children's indoor amusement park I've ever seen.

space City takes up almost the whole top floor. The walls are painted with dark cosmic murals, an intergalactic battle weaving through the rides and games and into the food court. And if you come up the escalator at just the right time, you rise through a fog of dry ice and lasers. Mary Grace Villadares is supervising the ball pit. In the afternoon doldrums, only one bored-looking little girl is playing there. Villadares is a 29-year-old Filipina. "I have a four-month-old in the Philippines," she says. "Sometimes I cry, because if I see children, I miss my baby."

At night, Al Wahda Road - E11's incarnation in Sharjah - is bustling. Car horns blare and pedestrians spill off the pavements, the white fluorescent glow of discount shops lighting their faces. In internet cafes, every cubicle is occupied. Down an alley that leads to a mosque, I see my first Emirati graffiti: "Wahda Boyz". There is a feeling of close quarters here unlike Abu Dhabi or Dubai. And indeed, close quarters are what Sharjah offers to people who can't afford life in the boomtowns. On a plywood construction wall by the side of E11, a thousand photocopies bloom, written in Tagalog and English, Russian and Hindi - all of them advertisements for workers' accommodation.

"Single bedroom flat fully furnished with cooking facility, for South Indian executive bachelor to share with 2 others." "Room 4 rent Pilipino only couple or bachelor bed." And one, perhaps inadvertently honest: "Bad space available Near City Center." I call the number posted on an advertisement offering space for a Filipino family. A Mr Ali answers and tells me to meet him behind the Golden Fork restaurant across the street in 10 minutes.

When he appears - tall, paunchy, moustachioed - Mr Ali does not seem bothered that I am not, nor do I resemble, a Filipino family. He leads me to a nondescript apartment building. A tiny, wobbly lift takes us to the fourth floor - and to the flat Mr Ali aims to rent for Dh 2,000 a month. Inside, everything is covered in dust, and only a few lights work. An old white ceiling fan lies in a heap in the middle of the living room. The kitchen is large and dilapidated, with thin, dented metal cabinets. The flat is surprisingly big: four bedrooms and two bathrooms, but its size falls into perspective when Mr Ali tells me he expects to rent the place to two, or maybe three families.

"Nobody takes one flat per family," he says. When I ask him why Filipinos, he shrugs: "It's easier to share if it's all Filipino." Outside on the narrow balcony, there's a good view of Al Wahda Road, the same road I could see from the chic balcony in the Dubai Marina Towers - 40km and Dh 276,000 away. Heading out of Sharjah, I lose the road again. A detour leads me through a labyrinth of 90 degree turns, hugging the walls and gates of villas. There are no signs for E11, but soon I find myself in the drowsy seaside town of Ajman.

In the morning, I visit the port where dhows are being loaded: sweets and chewing gum on one set of pallets; lumber from Chile on another. "Ajman hasn't changed much," says Raza Ishak, captain of the Bhakti Sagar, the largest dhow in port. He's been piloting boats here since he was 14, so he should know. The wooden fleet here mainly brings coffee, food and textiles to Somalia. Pirates are a constant worry, and the dhows return loaded with charcoal - Somalia's chief export. It sounds quaint compared to the world-moving colossus down the coast that is Dubai Ports World.

Back in Sharjah I'd met a nattily dressed restaurant manager who explained to me: "The man who's thinking of the future needs to start something in Ajman now. Ajman will be like Dubai." But from where I'm standing, the only sign of development is a single, shiny new seaside hotel. Other than that, the town looks charming, sleepy and provincial. As it turns out, that's because I'm standing in the wrong place.

Out on the motorway all becomes clear. Billboards, banners, flags and kiosks all advertise real estate billed as "100% Freehold", with focus-group-friendly names like "Ajman Uptown". No image is more ubiquitous than that of Omar Sharif - poster model for the Al Zorah development. He is everywhere, folding his arms, looking dashingly over his shoulder, holding his chin, giving drivers the same emboldening grin as they zip by.

A little further north, the tiny emirate of Umm al Qaiwain begins with a feeling of déjà vu. After several kilometres of blank sand, four office blocks appear abruptly on the side of E11, alone in the desert: city buildings, but no city. I've seen this before. Then I realise: this looks just like a famous snapshot of Dubai from 1990 that's been endlessly recycled on the internet. Yellowish and grainy, it shows a brief row of office blocks standing in an open desert along a motorway. Alongside it, a more recent photograph always appears, showing that same little row of buildings - the Dubai World Trade Centre - now dwarfed by the high-rise jungle of Sheikh Zayed Road. In Umm al Qaiwain, apparently, it's still 1990.

Further into the emirate, the landscape changes. The desert undulates. Plants multiply. The road curves with the topography. For the first time, I see camels roaming freely. Then off to my left, the desert drops away to reveal a magnificent basin of coastal marshes stretching for several kilometres. The water is dazzling. Birds criss-cross the surface. And perched on a slight promontory is a small palace.

Or it looks like a palace. It's actually a sales centre for Emaar Properties. The marshes, I discover, are the site of the future Umm al Qaiwain Marina, a development that will include 8,500 villas and townhouses, along with 1,200 retail and resort spaces. It will be the largest marina in the Middle East, a smiling Emaar representative tells me. Projected completion date: 2012. On a lark, I mention how the four buildings inside the border remind me of the old snapshot of Dubai. The Emaar representative says she knows the much-recycled photo I am talking about. So I ask her if there will be an "after" photograph of Umm al Qaiwain in the future that is as dramatic as the one of Dubai.

"Within 10 years, yes, maybe it will be like that," she says with a little laugh. "We're catching up." Feeling woozy, I push on to Ras al Khaimah, reaching the last city on the road at dusk. Ras al Khaimah is the most far-flung of the Emirates - the furthest from Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and often regarded as the quietest and most quaint. Yet, for much of modern history when Abu Dhabi and Dubai were precarious settlements, it was, as one 19th-century British lieutenant put it, "a most formidable town".

Indeed, in 1820, the British found Ras al Khaimah so formidable that - as punishment for the town's "piratical" tendencies - they destroyed it. Today, Ras al Khaimah is a barometer for people's feelings about the development sweeping the Emirates. For those exhausted by the boom, the quiet city framed by mountains is a breath of fresh air. But for people who thrive on the boom, it is suffocating.

That night at the Hilton, I share a table with two statuesque Belorussian dancers who are on a three-month performance contract at the hotel. Their names are - seriously - Lara and Lena, and they are - no, really - twin sisters from Pinsk and Minsk. Holding cigarettes between manicured fingers, they become positively giddy on the topic of Ras al Khaimah. "I like Ras al Khaimah the best, because you have oxygen," says either Lara or Lena (I'm not sure which). With girlish enthusiasm that undermines their femme fatale costumes, they rave about taking air tours of the local desert: "We fly over Oman and see mountains, foxes, rabbits - like in safari!"

Such folksy pleasures are lost on Alesia Palevechka, another Belorussian dancer who alternates performances with the sisters. A philologist and self-trained belly-dancer, she yearns to be in Dubai. "In Ras al Khaimah," she tells me over a cigarette, "I feel I'm slowly dying." The E11 ends in Sha'am, a small town nestled between the Oman mountains and the sea. The rocky landscape with its occasional palm gardens looks nothing like the rest of the route. Low shops line a stretch of the road, forming a main street.

Across the street from a building labelled "Old People Care Home", there is an electrical repair shop. When I walk past, a wiry-bearded old man pokes his head out of the door and motions me to come in. Inside, I find the shop crowded with other old Emirati men - from the home across the street, I gather - who have turned the already crowded little store into their sitting room. The shopkeeper, a slightly grouchy Pakistani man, hosts the old men without enthusiasm. I ask him if he'll translate for me: I want to ask them what it was like here before the road came in, before Sheikh Zayed united the emirates. But he refuses. "They don't know anything," he grumbles. "They were fishermen." With no means to communicate, the old men and I just sit and smile at each other. Then I leave.

And that's it, I think. A sad end to the road, and to the story: the present cannot translate the past - or else it simply can't be bothered to.