x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Rising fortunes in Northern Emirates

A host of projects, both planned and completed, is changing the face of the nation's north, and greatly improving the quality of life for the emirates' citizens, writes Anna Zacharias

Shaiban Al Habus, 80, in his family majlis. He says Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed is fulfilling his father's wishes in the Northern Emirates. Razan Alzayani / The National
Shaiban Al Habus, 80, in his family majlis. He says Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed is fulfilling his father's wishes in the Northern Emirates. Razan Alzayani / The National

The walls of the Shaiban Mohammed family majlis tell the story of the UAE.

There is a photo of the 80-year-old with the founding President Sheikh Zayed, and another of Shaiban with the former RAK Ruler, Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi.

Subsequent generations of ruling families and his own family photos have been added to the walls. They are an affirmation of what the early photos have come to represent: security, welfare, communication and union in the UAE.

Majlis photos of family members meeting the sheikhs were always popular, but in the past two years they have become increasingly common with the strengthening of federal and local ties.

"You came once two years ago and there were no roads," recalls Ahmed Shaiban, 36.

"Since Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed [Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces] has come there have been 300 kilometres of roads built in Ras Al Khaimah."

Royal tours of the Northern Emirates have increased since 2011 as the federal Government leads the drive to improve infrastructure, health care and housing.

These meetings provided an important chance for people to air grievances and talk about life outside the urban capital. Citizens are confident that in the weeks after royal visits, change will follow.

"Employment has improved a lot, building homes for Emiratis have improved a lot," says the family elder, Shaiban Al Habus, of the recent visits.

"Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed is a very busy man and he has other things to do but he fulfils his father's wishes by coming here and listening to people's problems."

Ahmed, Shaiban's son, says: "Sheikh Zayed used to come to the villages and speak to the tribes to ask them their problems so he could unify them, and now Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed is doing the same thing.

"It's very important for streets, for citizens, for buildings, for houses, for hospitals. This relationship is special. Before the roads were not good.

"There's been huge developments since he started coming, specifically with the roads. It's been a huge improvement."

In the time of Shaiban's generation, people asked for land, farms and water rights. Today's generation ask for roads, hospitals, electricity and housing.

The Northern Emirates once had limited electricity, poor health care and kilometre after kilometre of dirt roads.

They were a victim of rapid growth that led to electricity cuts, which occurred for years.

Four years ago there were more than 1,000 commercial buildings in Umm Al Quwain, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah and Ajman that did not have access to the Federal Electricity and Water Authority grid.

Rural roads, where they existed, were clogged with industrial traffic. Many citizens lived in houses beside industrial areas or in old houses that were collapsing.

Emiratis spoke of the disconnect between emirates, and between rural and urban areas.

This changed when Sheikh Mohammed toured the Northern Emirates in February 2011 and held majlises open to thousands.

Within weeks the President, Sheikh Khalifa, announced a Dh5.7 billion investment in water and electricity, and approved the building of 667 villas.

Clinics, hospitals, sewage treatment and hundreds of kilometres of internal and external roads were planned. "Full development" of the Northern Emirates has been pledged by 2021.

Local government has moved to support this. RAK maintains an active royal court, or diwan, where an average of 50 men discuss their local needs and issues with members of the emirate's Ruling Family.

Most discussions involve land claims. Initiatives by the RAK Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Saud Al Qasimi, offer housing and maintenance programmes aimed at widows, divorcees and those in need.

The end result is found in the orange sands of Al Dhait, a suburb of fanciful mansions funded by the Sheikh Zayed Housing Programme, where the RAK Government allocated 2,322 slots last October.

In recognition of the federal support, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, Ruler of RAK, in May renamed the South Al Dhait neighbourhood Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed City. South Al Ghail was renamed Mohammed bin Zayed City.

The RAK Government began a master plan for the city's development this summer, say land officials at the royal courts.

For many families here, the change runs much deeper than a name.

In many cases entire neighbourhoods and families have left villages where space has become scare due to growing families and growing industry. There is more segregation between nationalities but more blending between tribes.

"There was no land in Oraibi," says Sultan Al Naqbi, 33, who moved to Khalifa City from a four-bedroom house shared with a family of 10 in Al Oraibi neighbourhood.

"Here, it's not the same. Here, it's silent. Here if you want to go to the shop you have to go by car. If you want to go to the mosque you have to go by car."

The emirate has become urbanised. For Mr Al Naqbi, the move means he can expand his pigeon collection to include parakeets, cockatoos, doves and budgerigars.

Development is not limited to the city. More than half of the new plots allocated outside of RAK City were in the south last year. There were about 28,000 pending applications nationwide, from as early as 2006.

About 300km of roads were scheduled for completion last month.

Emirati businesses are expected to benefit from next year's completion of a Dh398 million RAK Ring Road that connects Emirates Road to the northern quarries and ports.

Emiratis hope that Abu Dhabi's investment in infrastructure will bring more employment opportunities closer to home.

Thousands of men migrate to Abu Dhabi each week for work because government salaries in the Northern Emirates are significantly lower. Emirati employment in tourism and industry is crucial.

"We are all the same country and there are a lot of bigger companies that can give much higher salaries and lots of people are working on military and police," says Sultan Al Qasimi, manager of citizens affairs at RAK diwan.

"There's a lot of places in Ras Al Khaimah that are employing but it depends on the opportunities of the locals to gain from their qualification."

Women also want to work. A high number have post-secondary education but cannot find jobs near home or commute to Dubai or Abu Dhabi because of conservative values.

Instead, an increasing number rely on unregistered cottage industries to supplement their income.

For Shamma Al Khatri, an Abu Dhabi Education Council school that opened in her village of Sa'adi provided her with an opportunity.

Ms Al Khatri, 25, became a receptionist 12 days after the birth of her first child, determined not to pass up her first employment opportunity in the two years since her graduation in 2008. "My little baby was only 12 days when they called me to the school and said, 'You got the job. We're waiting for you'," says Ms Al Khatri, who studied applied technology at the Women's College.

"I said OK. I didn't tell them I had a baby because, you know, I like working. I want to have this chance."

The Adec school saved children a 20-minute ride on roads filled with industrial traffic. It was built on the orders of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, after a request by Shamma's father, Sheikh Sultan Al Khatri, chief of Al Khawater desert tribe.

"When Baba [father] asks, they know that the people really need these things," says Ms Al Khatri.

Federal investment has improved life for people outside the city. Southern RAK residents are awaiting the implementation of a master plan that is being studied.

"I just want Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed to be clear about our situation, what we have here, how we live here," says Sheikh Sultan. "Abu Dhabi wants all the people to be equal."