A new road between Fujairah and Dubai has its upsides, but only if the eastern emirate balances economic potential with development risks.
New Fujairah-Dubai road drives a development challenge
Last weekend, I drove the new Fujairah-Dubai motorway for the first time. Not only does it cut half an hour or so off the journey, but apart from the climb up through Wadi Farfar out of Fujairah, it's also a pretty easy drive. The mountain heights have lost the feeling of remoteness they had when I first visited them, but there's still some pretty dramatic scenery along the route.
Friends of mine in Fujairah who travel to Dubai four times a week find their lives much easier, as must people in Dubai and Sharjah who want to pop over to the east coast for the weekend. So far at least, the heavy lorry traffic seems to be confined to the old, longer road.
At first glance, the new road seems to be very much a positive development, apart perhaps from the penetration of a once-remote area. The shorter journey will make it easier for Fujairah residents to reach the Gulf coast, while Fujairah's shops and tourism industry should benefit from increased business.
The thriving Free Zone, once heavily dependent on its proximity to the second-largest oil bunkering port in the world, will now become more attractive as a place for other businesses, and the airport, which is still rather quiet, may well see an increase in traffic as well. That's all to the good.
But if one looks into the effect of the new road a little deeper, there are other aspects that are not unequivocally positive. With less passing traffic on the old road, the popular Friday market just outside of Masafi is bound to see a decline in business.
An increase in traffic in Fujairah emirate, and along the coastal road running north to south, will also put additional strains on the local infrastructure. More significant, perhaps, will be the effect on rents in the city of Fujairah and nearby coastal towns. With Dubai only an hour or so away, it's now well within commuting distance.
Whereas once Fujairah lacked a large supermarket and shopping malls, it's now outfitted with both, while the Fujairah Private Academy offers excellent education for primary and secondary pupils. Given the choice between living in a crowded Dubai suburb, with a 45-minute commute to work, or on the east coast, with only an additional 15 minutes on the journey, I know which I would choose.
People who regard an active nightlife as essential might still prefer the bright lights of the big city, but many families might find the quieter life in Fujairah more attractive.
Rising rents, an increase in the demand for water and electricity, and the need for health services - these are all part of the downside of the road's completion, aspects which the Fujairah Government is already examining closely.
There's another consideration, too. The local economy will certainly be given a boost, but can this be translated into more jobs for the rapidly growing number of local graduates? At present, many of the brightest young people in Fujairah gravitate to the bigger cities on the Arabian Gulf coast in search of fulfilling employment. It would be good if new, meaningful opportunities could be opened at home.
Fortunately, of course, Fujairah has a number of strings to its economic bow. Tourism is developing, activity at the port is expanding, the bunkering business is growing rapidly and some time this year, with luck, the new Abu Dhabi-Fujairah oil pipeline will be operational, although perhaps not as soon as is being suggested.
Other major projects related to the shipping business are also under consideration. All of these will create new jobs and will also help to ensure that the shortened travel time doesn't just turn Fujairah into a dormitory suburb.
On balance, in my view, there's no doubt that the new road is beneficial for Fujairah and for neighbouring parts of the east coast.
Its effect, though, will be far more complex than simply cutting a few minutes and a few kilometres off the journey. I wish Fujairah well in tackling what is a major challenge.
Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in Emirati culture and heritage