x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The big, big police challenge

The massive expanses of land and sparsely scattered population of Al Gharbia present unique challenges to the officers covering its 60,000 sq km.

Ali Musalem S al Mahri, right, and Mohamed al Muhari of the Western Region Police's rescue team, have an array of tools to rescue trapped motorists.
Ali Musalem S al Mahri, right, and Mohamed al Muhari of the Western Region Police's rescue team, have an array of tools to rescue trapped motorists.

TARIF // The police car radio crackles into life as an officer reports he is investigating a lorry that has been pulled over on the E11. Moments later he calls back. All is OK; the driver has simply stopped for a nap.

It is a tiny incident painted on a massive canvas. Huge expanses of desert, seemingly endless highways and isolated pockets of people make policing the vast Al Gharbia, also known as the Western Region, a challenge. It accounts for more than 80 per cent of Abu Dhabi emirate, but only eight per cent of its population. Within about 60,000 sq km live just 106,000 people. Yet despite the vast distances and sparse population, the police take pride in working closely with the community.

"For the last 20 years, we have worked like community police here," said Col Ajeel Abdullah, deputy director for police stations in the region. "We know the families and, for example, we might go to the funerals of people who have passed away. There is a strong connection between the people and the police. It is our job to make people feel safe and happy." The police directorate's responsibilities also include islands such as Sir Bani Yas and Delma. In the past decade, police work has moved away from the border with Saudi Arabia.

A year ago, the UAE Armed Forces took over coastguard duties from the police, several years after they took over patrols of the land borders. "There is still a strong partnership between us, the army and the community, and we focus on all areas," said Col Hamed al Dhaheri, director of the Western Region Police Directorate, which has more than 2,000 police officers. Keeping the roads safe is one of the police's most pressing concerns, Col Abdullah said. All day, every day, thousands of lorries and cars stream along the E11, the main artery linking the UAE with the rest of the Arabian Peninsula and beyond.

Between 1,100 and 1,900 lorries cross from Saudi Arabia into the UAE every day through the Ghuwaifat border, about 360km from Abu Dhabi. "It is the only entrance via land into the UAE and Oman for lorries and other cars," Col Abdullah said. "We have a big challenge to secure this road, so we have many police patrols, for traffic as well as general security." Abu Dhabi Police are drawing on the experience of 50 former British officers brought in to offer coaching and mentoring. The UK team, which flew in three months ago, is helping the local officers to tackle some of the area's biggest problems including road accidents and careless driving.

During the past year, police have stepped up efforts to reduce road accidents in the region with more speed cameras and patrols. According to Major Ahmed al Shamsi, director of the Western Region's traffic police department, in 2007 there were 80 fatalities on the region's roads and 51 in 2008. In 2007 there were 126 serious injuries from road accidents, falling to 75 in 2008. But Major al Shamsi said there were still too many injuries and deaths.

"We have to begin with every person, to educate them at schools and universities," he said. "But one of the real problems is the road, which has only two lanes. There are also not enough rest areas along the way." The Department of Transport plans to upgrade the motorway, adding more lanes and street lights, and better road maintenance. According to Major al Shamsi, sleepy drivers and certain weather conditions - such as sandstorms or fog - are major causes of accidents.

The roads become even more hazardous around holidays, when many families return to their home countries, while others enter the UAE. "Last year, for example, there was a huge accident when someone was shocked by the fog, put on his brakes suddenly and seven cars hit him," Major al Shamsi said. "Some families have died on these roads." Each traffic patrol is responsible for about 30km of the motorway, Major al Shamsi said as he drove his red-and-white patrol car around the coastal area between Mirfa and Tarif, checking in with his teams via radio.

The aim was not to issue fines, he said, but to make the roads safer. Sometimes patrols come across young people driving without licences or under the influence of alcohol; other times motorists simply need assistance on otherwise isolated stretches of road. "There are no towns in some sections, no places to repair their cars, just God and us," said Major al Shamsi, who has been working in the region for 15 years.

Although much has changed in that time, the region has retained a traditional way of life. This has influenced the police's approach, Major al Shamsi said. For instance, in the town of Mirfa, backstreets bear the tyre marks of daredevil car stunts. "When I catch one of these young people I take them to my office and give them advice and tell them that they could hurt someone," he said. "I show them pictures of bad accidents, so that maybe they will take my advice.

"If we just give them a ticket, they will maybe just go and do it again." Whenever an accident is reported, the closest police station responds, with the headquarters in Tarif acting as a control centre. The directorate is responsible for 260km of the E11, but there are some 4,100km of roads in total that the police have to patrol, according to Major Hamdan al Mansoori, director of the investigation affairs section.

Just down the road from the headquarters in Tarif is the main police workshop and traffic department, where patrols are dispatched and "mobile workshops" are based. The customised Toyota pickups are stacked with spare parts, tyre-repair kits, extra fuel and water and numerous other items to help distressed motorists. A team of mechanics drive around in the 4x4s, on an average day responding to six requests for help.

"People are very happy when we come to help them, especially when they have families and they are stuck, far away from anyone else," said Mohammed Yasin, a mechanic from Bangladesh. And travellers can get lost in the unfamiliar desert environment, sometimes without knowledge of the area or necessary supplies such as a GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver. "If people go deep into the desert, or even out on the sea, they need to tell us what they are doing," Col Abdullah said. "People need enough gas and water, for example, if their car gets stuck or breaks down in the dunes."

Police urge travellers to take the right equipment and inform the local police station of their plans in case of an emergency. The police also have rescue personnel available to deploy for emergencies across Al Gharbia. In addition to 22 ambulances, the police recently were issued with two field hospitals ? buses fully outfitted as hospital wards. Instead of seats, inside are stretchers, oxygen masks, medical equipment and supplies.

Heavy-duty hydraulic rescue tools are carried in the back of an emergency response vehicle parked nearby, used to cut open vehicles if someone is trapped inside. Four quad all-terrain vehicles painted in the red-and-white Abu Dhabi police colours are kept for desert emergencies. They are particularly useful for scoping out an area from the top of some of the region's highest sand dunes around Liwa, Major al Mansoori said.

"Sometimes we use them for emergencies or other times for community police work [such as] going to give people safety information," he said. "Sometimes we also use the bikes against crimes, if we need to watch an area." Although policing Al Gharbia calls for unique approaches, the region also suffers from the same crimes that occur in any other part of the emirate, Col Abdullah said. Petty theft is a minor problem, and there are isolated cases of domestic violence.

"We have stealing, fighting and drinking-related problems here as well, but not too much," he said. zconstantine@thenational.ae