By Matthew Corcoran, Writer & Multimedia Producer
Humanities Research Assistant Matthew MacLean studies the spatial transformation of the UAE and Trucial States in the second half of the 20th century, in particular how the development of the UAE's infrastructure — housing, roads, and ports — made possible the emergence of Emirati national identity.
What is the history of road building in the UAE? When — and where — were the first modern roads built? Who built them?
The first modern (paved, asphalted) road was built in Habshan, in the western region of Abu Dhabi Emirate, by the oil company for its own purposes before Sheikh Zayed came to power. The local people used it too once it was built. But at that time, most "roads" were just tracks over the sand, and drivers would follow the tracks left behind by the other cars, of which there weren't many. From Dubai to Ras al-Khaimah the easiest way was to drive on the beach because that's where the sand was most firm. I've read and heard conflicting reports of whether people had to wait for the tide to go out in some places on that route. But one place you definitely had to wait for the low tide was where Maqta Bridge stands now, connecting Abu Dhabi to the mainland. It is said that Edward Henderson, the oil company representative and then British diplomat, read Shakespeare while waiting for the tide to recede multiple times. In the British National Archives there's a 1955 map prepared by the British military which shows the unpaved tracks across what was then called the Trucial States, and it also is displayed in the Mahatta Museum in Sharjah. Remarkably, many of today's highways are built along the same routes that people took back then.
The first paved road built with the intent of people using it — other than city streets in Dubai itself — was between Dubai and Ras al-Khaimah, and construction started in 1966-67. This road was a political project to create greater unity among the Trucial States. The British had to show they supported development projects, but it was Saudi Arabia that had the money and built the road. Ironically, many of the diplomats engaged in the road project felt it wouldn't be used much. After all, in the late 1960s, there were less than 100 cars in all of Ras al-Khaimah emirate — the British kept track of these things. But of course, this became one of the main arteries of travel along the coast for decades and remains part of today's E11 highway.
How have roads changed life in the Emirates over the past 40 years? Have they changed where people live? Where they work?
Older neighborhoods — the likes of which can still be found in parts of Bur Dubai and Deira, the old city of Ras al-Khaimah, the abandoned town of al-Jazeera al-Hamra, and some parts of Dibba — were built to be walkable. Homes were small and close to each other. A street or alley was called a sikka — probably the best-known example of this today is Sikkat al-Khail, near the Gold Souq in Dubai. These were narrow and helped maintain privacy, but it was impossible to maintain the level of privacy one finds today. Many but not all people worked not far from where they lived. Many families migrated seasonally, usually on foot, between different sources of livelihood. The old neighborhoods were called the freej, and in Ras Al-Khaimah today you can see some stores and small businesses which still carry the names of older neighborhoods, names which are no longer on maps. Starting in the 1960s and 1970s, with the introduction of modern urban planning, neighborhoods became centered around the car and were no longer walkable. So roads greatly changed the social fabric of Emirati society and of how people interacted with each other. Of course many are nostalgic for the days when one met one's neighbors and visited each other on foot.