Sheikh Zayed Road - a Road with Two Names

This road did not exist in 1971. Vehicles travelling between the two towns followed sand tracks along the beachline with the ever present risk of becoming lost or stuck in sand.
No Mobile Phones to call for help!
Breaking down meant staying with the vehicle and hoping help will came your way.
Travellers relied on taxis. Taxi drivers knew these sand tracks and avoided potential problems.

1965 account (abridged) of driving a Landrover from Dubai to Abu Dhabi.

Topped up petrol tank, checked oil and water - set off towards Abu Dhabi. Later than yesterday so sun higher and hotter - didn't provide same navigation information plus harder to see tracks with no shadows. I pressed on - passed through the border - not interested in me!

Watched temperature gauge - higher than yesterday. Problem was engine was new, not yet run in, so started to overheat. Stopped to let it cool down - topped up radiator with my drinking water. Had to stop again as day got hotter - wondered if there was any extra water anywhere. Not seen other traffic but sure I was going in the right direction but so many little used tracks. Began to have doubts. Low dunes and hummocks of dried up vegetation blocked any chances of seeing anyone even if they were on nearby tracks.

Recognised a low rock where I had turned slightly. Made a point of remembering it. Track disappeared after a few kilometres. Retraced my route and stopped. It was very hot. Now sweating - but not from the heat. It was dead silent. Only sound was ticking of my cooling engine. Drank some of my water - not much left - wished I'd brought more. Climbed onto car roof. Looked around. Everywhere looked the same. Started driving slowly to stop engine boiling. Low on petrol too so stopped to top up from 5-gallon. Jerrican felt light. It was empty! Had rubbed against bodywork and devloped a leak. No spare petrol! How stupid! Heard of people being found, desiccated like mummies, when they'd tried walking out of the desert. Not seen anyone since Dubai. Maybe I was on the wrong track - maybe heading into the Empty Quarter. What a fool! Alone, thirsty, hot in middle of nowhere with very little petrol and even less water. I was 24. Not fair! So much I wanted to do! Think! Time to get a grip. Only 10 or 20 Kms of petrol left plus about a pint of water AND my DayGlow Orange Decca Survival Guide Book - I could use that for signalling. Main thing - stay in shade of my vehicle. Lot easier to spot a vehicle than a body! Moved Landrover to highest ground. Could still only see sand and scrub. At least I was more visible. But there was nobody - nothing. Listened hard. Did I hear an engine? Not sure. Maybe not. If I did how could I signal? Wouldn't hear my horn - might see smoke. What could I burn? I had a lighter. There were twigs but not enough to make smoke. Landrover seats were probably filled with foam. Could burn these. They would produce lots of smoke. Did I hear an engine? Jumping onto the roof I could see a cloud of dust! It was a pickup truck. I waved to the driver. He stopped. Pickup carried two people and a load of cardboard boxes. They understood my English. "I've run out of petrol" They sympathised. "I don't have much water either." Pickup had plenty of both. They were sensible people. Money changed hands. They were going to Abu Dhabi too. I wasn't lost after all! I was on the right track!! Followed them as far as Muqta crossing then waved goodbye and was soon home.

"How did it go?" I was asked. "Oh, OK. No problem." Didn't mention anything to anyone, after all, it was just another Day working for Decca!

United Arab Emirates united the seven Trucial Coast States in 1971 but individual States' Laws were not unified. Customs Duties differed in each State. Dubai's Duties were lowest of any. Dubai's Traders took advantage by smuggling goods (and probably people as well) overland into Abu Dhabi where duties were higher. They used Landrovers to do so! They drove at night without headlights over the desert into Abu Dhabi to deliver their goods to Traders who made a greater profit by avoiding Abu Dhabi Custom's higher Duty. Dubai was happy since both Dubai Government and Traders made money. Politically neither State wanted to build a connecting highway.

In late 1960s Sheikh Rashid ordered a Troposcatter Telecommunications Station to be built atop Jebel Ali (Jebel meaning Mountain) - Dubai's highest point. There was no road access so a rudimentary road and track were built from Dubai to Jebel Ali. This was the first road in this area and forerunner of Dubai-Abu Dhabi Road. In 1972 Sheikh Rashid announced a new town, port and airport complex to be built at Jebel Ali. A Signboard erected in the sand said simply "JEBEL ALI NEW TOWN". There were no buildings in that area apart from the Communications Centre atop Jebel Ali. This well worn track was referred to as a "Road". UAE's first Constitution provided for a new Capital City located between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. No decision had been taken to build this new Capital City. Sheikh Rashid may have thought his Jebel Ali New Town could become that Capital City. His Jebel Ali New Town and Airport were never built but work started on Jebel Ali Port in 1976 together with Jebel Ali Village to house construction people. His intent was to make Jebel Ali an Industrial Area. Dubai-Abu Dhabi Road took on new significance as the link to Dubai's new Industrial Area. But Jebel Ali Port was not a success initially and the Industrial Area did not develop. It took 30 years before Jebel Ali Port became important to Dubai as Sheikh Rashid originally envisaged.

Abu Dhabi Road

Basic Road construction between Dubai and Jebel Ali began in 1970 and later extended in 1973 by Dubai Government to reach the Dubai/Abu Dhabi border. Abu Dhabi's Government built their part of the road down to the same border. The new Dubai-Abu Dhabi Road was a two lane highway with no road lighting. Driving that road at any time was risky but more so at night, dusk or sunrise when the drivers' vision was limited. Driving standards and road discipline were poor. But the real and ever present danger was wandering Camels. They roamed freely and frequently onto this busy road. There were many accidents, particularly at night, mostly fatal for Camel and driver. Many lives were lost.

"At that time (in 1973) it took four hours to travel between the two cities along a pot-holed road lined with the remains of wrecked cars. At my last visit 12 years later, this had become a four-lane limited access expressway."-A Visitor's comments.

United Arab Emirates was anything but united in its early days. There were differences in attitudes and practices. UAE's Customs Departments and Duties were not unified. People and goods travelling by road and transiting Dubai/Abu Dhabi border had to stop at each of two Custom's Posts for Custom's checks. Dubai's Check Post checks were almost non existent but then their Customs Duty was almost zero. Abu Dhabi were more enthusiastic with their Checks as they had higher Customs Duties.

Border Stand Off !!

By 1978 the various individual State Armies were loosely "unified" into UAE's Defense Force. UDF was divided into Regional Commands. In reality each Command was a State Army loyal to their State Ruler. In 1978 Sheikh Zayed tried to appoint his 18 year old son as UDF's Commander in Chief. UDF's Western Command was formed from Dubai's Defence Force. They rebelled against The President's decision and refused to take orders. Consequence was an immediate "Stand Off" leading to the closure of the Dubai/Abu Dhabi Border and Dubai Abu Dhabi Road. Western Command took up defensive positions along Dubai's border. Remainder of UDF took up position on the opposite side of the Border. Dubai/Abu Dhabi Road remained closed for six days! "Stand Off" ended when Sheikh Zayed rescinded his order. Sheikh Zayed had wanted rapid integration. Sheikh Rashid believed gradual integration was the better way forward given the differing development stages of UAE States. Political Statements supporting Sheikh Rashid's view were published in Dubai's newspapers and read out on radio and television in Arabic and English. Sheikh Rashid's name was never mentioned but the message and sentiment were clearly Sheikh Rashid's. This was Public Politics without any "Window Dressing" or "Spin". It was the first and (to date) the only time this has happened in UAE. Sheikh Zayed acceded to Sheikh Rashid's view, dissolved UAE's Federal Council and appointed Sheikh Rashid as Prime Minister. Sheikh Rashid was an energetic Prime Minister. He started to make things happen.

New hospitals, schools, roads were built under his direction. Dubai/Abu Dhabi Road was further developed into a major arterial road and took on a greater significance after Sheikh Rashid announced Jebel Ali Port in 1978 and opening of Jebel Ali Free Zone in 1980. Dubai Abu Dhabi Road was now a key distribution link for goods and materials from Dubai's Twin Ports of Jebel Ali and Port Rashid. Dubai's growing trade meant imports through Dubai's Ports were now reaching Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq to the north, Oman and Yemen to the South via Dubai Abu Dhabi Road. Later development of various Cities and housing complexes increased traffic flow. The Dubai road section became inadequate. It was still a dual carriageway road with roundabouts difficult to negotiate and dangerous.

Sheikh Rashid's Decline

In the mid 1990s Dubai's Government announced a major upgrade of the road including realignment to by pass Jebel Ali Free Zone. Flyovers were to replace roundabouts. Most major roads connecting Dubai with other UAE States were known by their destinations. The road to Abu Dhabi had become the "Abu Dhabi Road". Places like the Jebel Ali Hotel displayed their address as "Off the Abu Dhabi Road". Dubai and Abu Dhabi Road probably never had an official published name. Road signs (where they existed) simply showed the road's destination. Sheikh Rashid became ill and eventually died in 1990.

Sheikh Maktoum became Ruler of Dubai and the road upgrade completed in early 1990s. Public speculation was the upgraded road would be named in memory of Sheikh Rashid. But Dubai's new Ruler Sheikh Maktoum announced the road was officially named as "Sheikh Zayed Road" in honour of UAE's President. That name only applied until the road on the Dubaiside of the Abu Dhabi border! In a reciprocal move the road on the Abu Dhabi side was named "Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Road". Sheikh Maktoum had lived in Abu Dhabi for several years after a "falling out" with his Father. The upgrade proved inadequate. For cost reasons flyovers were built as single carriageway crossovers. These quickly created traffic queues that spilled out onto the Sheik Zayed Road causing more hold ups and accidents. Dubai Municipality eventually replaced flyovers with road bridges and upgraded the road further to meet Dubai's growing Traffic needs.