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Traffic jams drive Dubai residents to despair

November 2, 2005

By Miral Fahmy

DUBAI (Reuters) – Dubai’s drive toward global acclaim has
taken a wrong turn.

This tiny Gulf city once boasted about its world class
facilities linked by smooth-running highways, but now gridlock
is making things miserable for residents who came here in
search of an affluent and comfortable lifestyle.

Economists and experts say the congestion that jams the
streets for several hours a day could also dent Dubai’s
aspirations to transform itself from being the star of the
wealthy Gulf region into a global business hub.

“This is going to affect the nice, shiny gloss on
everything that is in Dubai,” said Londoner Davyd Farrell of
online newsletter Gulf Traffic (www.gulftraffic.com).

“This horrendous traffic is a waste of time, a waste of
energy. One of the reasons I moved to Dubai, having spent a lot
of time on commuting in London, is to get away from this,” he
added. “If I was to think about opening an office in Dubai, I
would think very carefully about its location.”

With a total area of just under 1,500 square miles, Dubai
is a bit bigger than Luxembourg and boasts wide, U.S.-style
highways and interchanges.

About 1.4 million people live in Dubai, which is part of
the United Arab Emirates and the Gulf region’s trade and
tourism hub. Officials estimate the population is rising by at
least 120,000 a year.

Eighty percent of residents are foreigners, lured by
tax-free jobs that pay better than those back home. Dubai’s
liberal atmosphere and high-quality lifestyle add to the
attraction for bankers, business people and other
professionals.

But out on the streets, buses crammed with construction
workers battle for road space with armadas of Toyota sedans,
sleek Ferraris and hulking sports utility vehicles.

Seemingly perpetual road work and construction projects add
to the chaos that some residents say reminds them of a
miniature Manhattan — at least as far as traffic problems go.

But unlike many of the global cities it is striving to
emulate, Dubai has a public transport system that is limited to
a few buses that residents say hardly run to schedule.

High temperatures and stifling humidity rule out walking
and the absence of dedicated lanes makes cycling extremely
dangerous. With taxis seen as expensive, residents say they
have no real alternative to their cars.

“The whole idea of migrating here was to achieve a
peaceful, comfortable and good life,” said Indian financial
analyst Sanjay Kamath, whose 29 mile commute to work takes more
than 1-1/2 hours. “But this traffic is damaging the Dubai
dream.”

Alistair Barley, operations manager for a major British
retailer who has been in Dubai for seven years, said the
traffic puts a damper on doing business here.

“It eats a lot of my productive working day,” he said. “I
spend a lot of time sitting in the car instead of visiting
stores. My staff already work nine hour days and if you add two
hours a day to and from, half their day is gone.”

GROWING PAINS

Steve Brice, chief economist at Standard Chartered Bank,
said gridlock was one of the “growing pains” of Dubai’s
economy, which expanded at a rate of 17 percent last year.

“We’re going to have to live with congestion,” he said. “It
is a factor businesses look at, but it’s only one factor.”

Government officials acknowledge that traffic congestion
has grown at the same breakneck speed as the city, gripped by a
construction frenzy fueled by a booming local economy.

Municipality figures show the number of cars registered in
Dubai will exceed 368,000 by year end. An extra 60,000 vehicles
enter the city from other emirates every day.

“Dubai is one of the fastest growing cities in the world,
so this is a natural consequence,” said Brigadier Nasser Al
Sayed Abdul Razzak, head of the city’s Supreme Traffic
Committee.

“We know traffic is an inconvenience but one that is
necessary to make Dubai the great city that we envision.”

Abdul Razzak said the government had set aside 6-7 billion
dirhams so far this year to expand the roads and bridges. Dubai
is also building a 14 billion dirham metro, due to open in
2009, and Abdul Razzak said there were plans to improve the bus
network and maybe introduce highway tolls.

“The problem will not be solved immediately,” he warned.
“But we expect a revolution in road works in the next few
years.”

Poor driving skills — speed limits and lane discipline are
largely ignored — also snarl traffic and make car accidents a
leading cause of death in the UAE.

But residents and traffic experts say the main problem is
the apparent lack of a master plan, and this allows major real
estate projects to be built before access to them is sorted
out.

“There is a serious lack of strategic planning here,” said
university professor Erika Berner, an American who has driven
in some of the biggest and busiest cities in the United States.
“Dubai is a young city and should have figured it out. It’s not
an excuse that other cities have this problem.”

Investment bank EFG Hermes says residential projects worth
at least $50 billion, and including 85,000 homes, will be built
over the next four years.

Brian Scudder of Oryx real estate advises customers to
check out the road networks before buying a property. “The vast
majority will be serviced appropriately,” he said. “But it will
get worse before it gets better, and it will get better.”

(Additional reporting by Richard Dean)




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