Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 24 August 2019

Why driving in Dubai has given me a green light to a whole new city

After years of relying on cabs and the Metro, I've accepted that getting behind the wheel is the key to seeing the best of the UAE

Driving in Dubai puts the whole city, and its myriad attractions, within easy reach. Sarah Dea/The National
Driving in Dubai puts the whole city, and its myriad attractions, within easy reach. Sarah Dea/The National

This week I saw a different side to Dubai; mostly from the E77. After more than three years of living in the city, we've finally bitten the bullet and rented a car – and the keys to our Renault Duster have opened up more than just the drivers' door, they've opened up a whole new UAE.

It’s been a long road (pun intended) to getting behind the wheel since moving to the country and, truth be told, I’m still not the one grasping it.

My UK licence has expired, meaning I have to go through the rigmarole of learning to drive from scratch, a lengthy and bank-draining process that is still likely weeks away from being finished. (Despite gaining my licence 15 years ago, the prospect of having to parallel park under pressure doesn't leave me confident that I'll pass first time.)

However, my fiance finally traded in his New Zealand licence, and on Friday we pulled on to Sheikh Zayed Road in the front seats, rather than in the back of an Uber or encased in a Metro carriage.

We all know horror stories from UAE roads; indeed, the instructor at my recent theory lecture highlighted just how many crashes take place in the Emirates each year. With roads inhabited by drivers from dozens of countries around the world, each with their own individual interpretations of traffic rules, it was a tense first 30 minutes in the car. Such palm-sweating was mostly due to my fiance, who, after driving on the left side of the road for half his life, kept teasing the right side of the bumper along bollards as we looped the roads around Ibn Battuta.

To familiarise himself with driving alongside other motorists, we then took a tour less pertinent to my interests, one that encompassed every construction site he's worked on since moving to the UAE. I'm now, despite my protestations, well-versed in the engineering process behind the Royal Atlantis' sky bridge, as well as Expo 2020's trellis. Weaving between the myriad road cones, diggers and cranes on Expo Road, like some kind of contractors' slalom, certainly tested his co-ordination and reaction times.

Quips aside, there's no denying the advantages of having a car in Dubai. Unlike somewhere such as London, it is a city that wasn't seemingly designed with pedestrians in mind. No longer can I walk between meetings or coffee dates; instead I have to take the Metro and a cab to traverse between neighbourhoods less well-served by public transport.

And there’s little wonder, for as a city that’s grown at an exponential rate over the past few decades, dripping down the coastline from the Creek since the 1970s, Dubai has expanded to fill a vast amount of space. It was not a metropolis masterplanned all at once, instead it’s an amalgamation of years of innovation and entrepreneurship from residents and leaders alike.

Hatta Dam will be the site of a new hydro-electirc power station. AFP
Weekends spent in Hatta are no longer a lofty dream. AFP

That approach has resulted in a sprawling city, where, rather than concentrating attractions in just one key area, hidden gems are dotted across the emirate, just waiting to be uncovered by those able to wield a decent knowledge of Google Maps.

Last weekend, we also ventured to the cafes of Al Quoz for some of the best cold-brew in town, picked up a wealth of fresh fruit and veg at a tucked-away supermarket in Jebel Ali, and zipped down to d3 that evening for Tokyo-style pizza at Akiba Dori. Staycations at hotels in the middle of the desert are no longer out of reach, nor are winter walks in the tracks of Hatta, or Fridays spent snorkelling in the Fujairah waters.

Here, it seems, a car is more than just a way to get from A to B, it's a portal to the many wonders, curiosities and slices of worldly culture we're lucky to live among. If I can master the art of parallel parking alongside them, then that long-awaited taste of freedom shall also be mine.

Updated: August 8, 2019 01:34 PM

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