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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

It's not the destination, it's the car you drive to get there

Hatchbacks give way to SUVs – but negotiating the UAE's intricate roads are the downside of a huge car culture, writes Deborah Lindsay Williams

In the UAE, the big car is king. Reem Mohammed / The National
In the UAE, the big car is king. Reem Mohammed / The National

It looked like an intricate lacemaking pattern – loops, swirls, a criss-cross bit at the end – but was in fact a set of directions. According to our GPS, if we followed that complicated latticework correctly, we’d end up at the restaurant in Dubai where we were supposed to have lunch last week.

Our instructions took us on a shortcut – or what purported to be a shortcut – through a construction site full of dust and potholes. It didn’t seem like a road we were supposed to be using but others were clearly getting the same instructions because there were two cars jolting along ahead of us. We all emerged at the far end of this “road” slightly worse for wear and were greeted by construction workers standing at the ready with hoses to rinse the sand off our cars. I took a picture of this impromptu car wash and posted it to Instagram, where my “driving in Dubai” reference joined hundreds of others.

Driving in the UAE terrified me when I first moved to Abu Dhabi and I say that as someone who drove for years in Boston, a city notorious in the United States for its drivers, who could politely be described as passionate but imprecise and quite loud: horns, yelling, the occasional rude gesture. Boston’s streets are quite narrow in most places, however, which means that despite all the hullabaloo, no one drives very fast, unlike here, where the wide streets and multi-lane highways invite a kind of speed that when I first moved here, took my breath away.

In the years after Boston, as if in driver rehab, I became a car-less New Yorker and existed that way happily for decades but then had to re-adjust to being a driver when we came to Abu Dhabi – an adjustment that was surprisingly difficult. I had expected that the move would involve adjusting to different cultures, but I hadn’t included “car culture” on that list.

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We tried, when we first arrived in Abu Dhabi, to resist the lure of car culture but after one too many incidents of being stranded somewhere with nary a taxi in sight and groceries slowly melting into a puddle on the pavement, we gave up. In a concession to our New York sensibilities, we rented the smallest car we could find: a tiny white Yaris. It was like driving a golf ball and I was sure that at any moment a Hummer would roll right over us and never even notice.

The golf ball gave way to a bigger hatchback, and then a bigger one, and now I drive an SUV. My New Yorker self is vaguely horrified that we drive such a big car while my Abu Dhabi self thinks my car is quite petite compared to the Tahoes and Pilots and Armadas that crowd the parking lots. That’s another sign of my successful adaptive behaviour: I know the names of all those cars, even if the cynic in me wonders whether the folks at Nissan realise that most of us know the word Armada from history class because of the story of the huge ships of the Spanish fleet by that name sinking, defeated by bad weather and the smaller, more nimble ships of Queen Elizabeth I’s navy.

I am a reluctant convert to car culture, which means that on the one hand, I love driving around with the windows down and singing aloud to old pop songs (much to my children’s chagrin). On the other hand, as I speed along, I notice there are very few bike lanes, an absence that further ensures that cars rule supreme.

We did, by the way, finally make it to the restaurant. The food was delicious but when we left, we got lost: we zigged where we should have zagged and did a few extra loops on a roundabout before we finally untangled ourselves and found the road home. That’s the paradox of car culture here: we can drive fast but it’s going to take a while to get to where we want to go.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi