x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Chill factor catches out nation used to sandals and balmy nights

Shielded by the seemingly perennial sunshine, UAE residents have greeted the breezy interlude with shock, shivers and a rush to the shops to buy winter woollens.

Big chill: Two women get snug in winter clothes during a walk along the beach near Jumeirah Beach Residence, Dubai. The temperature fell below freezing in some parts of the country during the week. Jeff Topping / The National
Big chill: Two women get snug in winter clothes during a walk along the beach near Jumeirah Beach Residence, Dubai. The temperature fell below freezing in some parts of the country during the week. Jeff Topping / The National

The temperature has been dropping across the Emirates and with it all the old certainties are being discarded. The blast of sunshine when the curtains are drawn back in the morning is replaced by a trickle of sun through grey clouds.

And with the unseasonal cold comes a fashion revolution, as residents raid their wardrobes for rarely used items.

On the streets of Dubai, winter jackets with thick fur linings and cosy hats have been spotted, attire more suited to Siberian winters than Gulf afternoons. Earmuffs have made an appearance with business suits.

In the rawness of dawn, anxious mothers dress their little ones for the school run in ski jackets and woollen hats. An abaya can be accessorised with a pashmina, a kandura with a woollen jacket. Those whose budgets do not stretch to a winter wardrobe must improvise. Layers are generally the answer; a scarf wound around the head and thick socks worn under sandals.

Brits - always happy to moan about the weather - have taken their frustration online. On one online forum, a visitor called the weather "weird" and hoped it would pass within a few days. Others have been preparing by shopping - Marks & Spencers in Abu Dhabi had a variety of thick hats, earmuffs and winter jackets for sale. Normally they would look absurd. Now they seem essential. Thermal underwear - usually used in temperatures well below 10°C, and most commonly worn in subzero conditions - are also available, though only for women: the shop assistant said all the male underwear had sold out the day before.

For about a week, temperatures across the Emirates dropped to surprising lows. Average temperatures for this time of the year normally range between 14°C and 28°C; over the past week they fell to about 10°C in some places. In the mountains around Ras Al Khaimah, the temperature dropped below freezing, to about -0.6°C. It was cold enough for frost, and if the weather conditions permitted, a dusting of snow.

According to the National Centre for Meteorology and Seismology (NCMS), the temperatures were lower this year than equivalent times in 2011 and 2010. The centre said a cold air mass from the Mediterranean had contributed to the cold weather the country has experienced over this past week.

On the Corniche in Abu Dhabi, two Bangladeshi men are at work on the bike stand. They wear thick, padded windbreaks with the hoods pulled low over their heads. Sitting on the bikes, waiting for customers, they look cold. "This is the first season I am here," says Shafiqul Islam, 22, from Dhaka. "I came only six months before. I am worried that maybe it will become more cold." Islam says he works until 11pm and that the evenings are much chillier after the sun sets. "I wear this jacket too much," he says. "In Bangladesh, it is cold only two months. I hope it will not be more here."

The people on the beach are fully clothed. The saris of one family catch in the wind. No one is going in the water and to sunbathe invites pneumonia. At night, on the outdoor terraces of hotels, the best tables sit under the glow of outdoor gas heaters. In the back gardens of villas, dusty barbecues stand unused and soup and stews are back on the menu.

The better news is that the cold weather is almost over. The NCMS said on Thursday that temperatures should start rising over the weekend. By next week, the cold snap will be a mere memory. By the end of next month it will be time to think about servicing the air conditioning. The winter coats can go back in the wardrobe, the ski jackets reserved for the Alps.

Still, the chill of a Gulf winter has shown us the fragility of our sunshine bubble. If the temperature can drop below 14°C here, perhaps it can do so anywhere. If we, in the place where the sun is so friendly, are not immune, can anyone else be safe? It has reminded us of what we previously only saw on television, the vision of people wrapped up warm, of such things as thick scarves and "gloves". It has introduced the word "thermal" into our vocabulary and reminded us that while our homes have state-of-the-art air conditioning, central heating is another matter. At least it keeps the utility bills low.

We have been so ill-prepared, so easy to dismiss those northern countries and their horror stories of snow and ice. Now we are all in this together. The cruelty that Mother Nature occasionally inflicts on the north of the planet can reach us even here in the balmy tropics.