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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

The whole world comes together on the highways of the UAE

After two years commuting from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, I understood my new home better than ever before

In some countries, people talk about the weather incessantly. In the UAE, driving is the UAE’s equivalent topic. Ravindranath K / The National
In some countries, people talk about the weather incessantly. In the UAE, driving is the UAE’s equivalent topic. Ravindranath K / The National

Back in 2009, I spent two years driving from my home in Dubai to work in Abu Dhabi. Three hours a day, five days a week, back and forth. At times it was unnerving, but often it was exhilarating – a bit like one of those video games where a mutant zombie suddenly bursts onto a quiet suburban street and confronts you with a laser gun and a rocket launcher, only in this instance, it was a white Land Cruiser bearing down at 160kph with its headlights blazing.

Occasionally, the sense of action was very real: the crumpled shell of a car that had just spun across the central reservation; a shattered white minivan on the hard shoulder, its dejected passengers awaiting treatment from the emergency services. Mostly, though, it was low-level stuff. Shunts caused by tailgating; the certain knowledge, heralded by red brake lights across four lanes stretching into the distance, that you would be late for work or dinner. It is also worth bearing in mind that I am British and would never venture to say that the UK’s roads are free from such incidents.

So, what did I learn from this experience, other than that, in the end I needed to move back to Abu Dhabi? Mainly that, like a lengthy daily commute anywhere else in the world, it was tedious and exhausting.

In some countries, people talk about the weather incessantly. In the UAE, where the sun almost always shines and rain is front-page news, driving fulfils a similar role. The scurrilous and now-defunct British tabloid the News of the World once said of its pages: “All human life is there.” Much the same might be said of the UAE’s roads, which, while at least mercifully free of C-List celebrities and adulterous politicians, offer the full range of the human condition behind the wheel.

It is often claimed that 200 different nationalities live and work in the UAE, which is several more than there are member states of the United Nations, even if you include Vatican City. In wider society, many of these discrete groups coexist with little direct interaction. However, in addition to places of worship, the nation’s roads function as a place where we all come together at − sometimes uncomfortably − close quarters. This means that on any one journey you can potentially encounter a vast number of conflicting interpretations of what is a reasonable way to drive. For newly arrived westerners, the received opinion is that the nation’s roads are to be approached with caution. The tailgaters, the four-lane swervers, the “signalling is for wimps” brigade, and the elite group who have confused the outside lane with the F1 track on Yas Island.

Over time, a more nuanced reading is called for, or at least one that is based on something more than the simple idea that many competing regional ideas of acceptable highway etiquette create chaos. Most notable is that, for all their quirks, the roads of the UAE are remarkably free of ill will. The phenomenon of road rage, so frequently observed in the West for even the most minor dispute, is largely absent here. Bad driving is not necessarily associated with bad tempers. It is a valuable lesson from UAE society of the wider virtues of self-control.

Then there are the clear tribal divisions on the highway. The slow lane belongs to the convoys of weary lorry drivers from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, who literally keep the country running. At peak times they are joined by the buses carrying construction workers. For many of us, this is our only contact with this demographic, which makes up such a large proportion of the population and, yet, remains largely hidden behind the hoardings of the nation’s many building projects. In the evenings, after an exhausting day, these men can sometimes be seen on the hard shoulder, performing the Maghreb prayer, an act of devotion that may look hazardous, but is also humbling.

In the middle lanes you will find the middle classes; drawn from all over the world, especially Asia and the Middle East. These are naturally cautious, careful people: middle managers, supervisors, IT specialists, accountants. At weekends, or at least on Fridays, you will see families, enjoying a few precious hours together. Culturally, they may be diverse, but their aspirations − and their driving styles − are remarkably similar. Steady, unhurried, staying just inside the speed limit, carefully guarding their safety and their hard-earned vehicles.

That style of driving does not always sit easily to the next tribe of motorists; the fast-lane wannabes. This can reflect a state of mind as much the choice of ride. I have seen many a Toyota Yaris out there, playing chicken with the Mercedes Geländewagens, and the Porsche 911s. To sit in the outside lane in a car that costs a 20th of the one crawling up your rear bumper is a statement of ambition. It says “I belong here as much as you do,” whatever the risk.

This analysis of the social structure of UAE traffic is, I realise, not quite the same as the conventional wisdom that driving habits reflect your country of origin. It’s true there are certain behaviours that could be culturally determined. For instance, someone who has spent their formative years crawling over potholes in traffic-choked Delhi might be forgiven if they open up the accelerator a bit at the sight of a well-maintained multilane UAE highway.

The question is whether the 200 potential driving styles of the UAE are actually a reflection of national stereotypes, or more a lesson in the country’s social fabric, in which some are in the slow lane, a smaller percentage in the fast lane, and most of us steadily progressing to our desired destination in the middle.

The changes being sought by the authorities in the country’s driving culture will surely apply to everyone, given time. Growing up in the UK in the 1960s, we bounced happily without seatbelts on the backseat of the family Rover until our parents learned better. The same learning curve about the value of such precautions has contributed to a 22-per-cent drop in fatal accidents in Abu Dhabi in just the first four months of this year. Across the country, road deaths have fallen by a third in two years. The authorities, and the police are taking an increasingly tougher line on everything from aggressive tailgating to abrupt lane changing. The recent removal of the so-called speed buffer on Abu Dhabi roads is also likely to bring a further profound change in the emirate’s driving culture.

This is the truth that I learned from 10 years on the UAE’s roads. That in every society there are bad drivers and good drivers. Most fall into the latter category, while a small minority cause mayhem for the rest. And it doesn’t matter where they are from.