x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Dust storms cause chaos - but cyclone rumour is just hot air

Schools closed and motorists warned about dangerous conditions as sandstorms rage across the UAE.

Men walk near the beach at Ajman as waves batter the rocks.
Men walk near the beach at Ajman as waves batter the rocks.

DUBAI // Dust storms battered large parts of the country yesterday, forcing schools to close and halting operations at ports - and sparking rumours of an imminent cyclone.

Dozens of minor traffic accidents were reported in low visibility and light rain that swept the northern emirates and parts of Dubai.

The poor weather was responsible for a flurry of online rumours about an impending cyclone, which forecasters rejected as scaremongering.

A top trending subject on Twitter was #sandstorm, with many residents sharing a BBM alert that a cyclone would strike at around 1pm. A forecaster at the National Centre for Meteorology and Seismology (NCMS) in Abu Dhabi said the rumour had "no basis in reality".

"Many people are interested about the weather and they like to make exciting rumours," he said. "We are really suffering from these people."

When 1pm came and went without incident, many Twitter users lampooned the prediction.

"There's going to be a huge thunderstorm at 3.18pm, during which Elvis will emerge from the clouds," one user wrote.

The final round of qualifying for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis ATP Championships was temporarily halted because of the weather.

Matches were supposed to start at 11am, but the storms forced organisers to delay until 2.30pm.

Most of the dust had cleared by yesterday afternoon, but temperatures are expected to remain low for a few days.

Many schools, including Repton High School and Australian International School-Sharjah, invited parents to collect their children early. Al Barsha branch of JSS International School declared a public holiday, although other branches were open as normal.

"The school is located in an open place and we don't want our students to suffer because of the bad weather," said a staff member. "The visibility was very low in the morning and we declared a holiday."

The NCMS forecaster said the dust was part of a large sandstorm that swept over parts of Saudi Arabia at the weekend.

A spokesman for DP World said sandstorms had temporarily halted operations at Jebel Ali Port, but work resumed later in the afternoon.

The last time sandstorms hit the country, at the beginning of January, dozens of cruise ships were delayed. However, officials at Royal Caribbean International said its ship, Brilliance of the Seas, was still on schedule to leave Dubai today.

Waves off the north coast were expected to reach four metres and a warning was issued to boat owners to stay onshore.

Fishermen such as Mohammed Rashid, 33, from Ras Al Khaimah, stayed on land with his colleagues, who used the time to repair their boats and visit family and friends.

"It will be four or five days until we can go fishing," said Mr Rashid. "It is OK, we have other things to do. When I am not at sea I stay with my family and go to Carrefour."

Yousef Saadi, 28, went immediately to RAK Creek with his friends and brothers to watch the rough weather unfold.

"We are really, really excited," said Mr Saadi. "This weather only happens sometimes in this climate, so we will be inside and outside all day. Unless there is rain. Then we are only standing outside."

Ali Al Suwaidi, a pensioner in his 60s, gathered with his friends for their usual morning game of cards under a tree at the Old Ras Al Khaimah Corniche. Ignoring the sandstorm that blew around them, Mr Al Suwaidi insisted the tree he planted 19 years ago and a tarpaulin erected last month gave ample protection.

"We had wind like this before. The weather was actually worse than this, we actually had much more wind in the old days than we do now."

The only change he made to his daily routine was to wear a wool ghutra instead of the usual cotton kind.

Police in Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and Ajman issued warnings to motorists to be aware of sand banks and debris from palm trees on the roads.

Ajman police said patrols had been stepped up, while in Sharjah officers warned motorists not to rush to work.

"There is a minor accident on almost every road connecting to places of work and other emirates," said a spokesman.

In the Kalba area of Sharjah, sea levels were dangerously high, with water flowing over roads close to the coast.

"The Kalba corniche itself is fully flooded with water," said resident Saeed Mohammed. "One could think it rained heavily, but not a single drop came from heaven. All the water is coming from the sea."


* Reporting by Yasin Kakande, Fareed Rahman, Anna Zacharias, Afshan Ahmed, Martin Croucher