In the near future, a Hyperloop will get you from Dubai to Abu Dhabi in just 12 minutes. but where’s the fun in that?
Looking for a bit of perspective? The 148th floor of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, is a handy place to start. Some 800 metres above the dust-brown earth of Dubai, you truly begin to understand the United Arab Emirates’ heady ambitions. For a fairly small nation (slightly larger than New Brunswick, with roughly Quebec’s population) that’s in its relative infancy (not yet 47 years old), the UAE is breathtaking in its sheer hunger for tomorrow—its unbridled commitment to a vision of a sci-fi future that then, all of a sudden, crystallizes right in front of you.
This shimmering needle, abutting musical fountains and the world’s largest mall, was built in a mere five years and opened in 2010. From up here, you can see past the sail-shaped Burj al-Arab, a “seven-star” hotel off the coast, all the way to the high-rises clustered around the picturesque canals of the Marina; the enormous man-made island of Palm Jumeirah; new metro lines with stations like giant brass armadillos.
And everywhere, still: construction, more construction. This, in one panoramic nutshell, is the story of Dubai, and its eponymous brother-slash-rival city in the neighbouring emirate of Abu Dhabi. Within living memory, both were mere fishing villages: simple, if centuries-old, trading posts known for pearls and seafood, in a desert land of nomadic tribesmen who cared little for the colonial powers and their ideas of borders. Then came the oil. Now, the UAE is a master class in crafting dreamscapes out of dirt—building faster, bigger and more audaciously than anywhere else on the planet this side of China.
Which is why it’s not surprising that these two key cities of the UAE are soon to be connected by a Hyperloop. This radical, under-development transportation concept will see pod-trains operating inside a vacuum tunnel, generating such high speeds that the 145-odd kilometres between Dubai and Abu Dhabi will be inhaled in just 12 minutes. And that’s among the more down-to-earth of the UAE’s long list of plans, which range from flying taxis and police hoverbikes all the way to a simulated Martian colony in the desert.
“THE NEIGHBOURHOOD IS THRIVING WITH HORDES OF EXPATS, WHO MAKE UP A STAGGERING 85 PERCENT OF THE UAE’S POPULATION”
But where does all this leave a car-crazy nation? The UAE buys 400,000 new cars a year—about the same per capita as the state of New York—and even the briefest ride along the whooshing, arterial eight-lane Sheikh Zayed Road offers up a host of low-slung Italian supercars, growling American muscle cars, and V8-engined off-roaders. This is a country where the automobile holds pride of place, where driving matters. So what better time than now, then, to harness a set of wheels that subscribe to this ethos, and savour the pleasures of the open road before it all becomes a hypersonic blur?
Before I can do any of that, though, I’ve got to negotiate bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic. My gleaming Soul Red Mazda3 inches down King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud Street in Dubai’s Marina, the slow pace allowing me to power open the sunroof and gaze up at the impressive lineup of massive towers parading by. Despite the fact that the entirety of my surroundings did not exist at all before 2000, the neighbourhood is thriving, with hordes of expats (who make up a staggering 85 percent of the UAE’s population) drifting in and out of crowded rows of shops and restaurants. Dubai’s rulers, the Maktoums, clearly had the right idea: build it and they will come.
Dubai may have a bit of a reputation for being flashy, even tacky—a glittering pleasure palace built on shifting sands—but this is not entirely deserved. Yes, most of the city (south of the “old town” by the Creek) is much too new to have earned the cultural cachet of, say, Hong Kong. But the place works—and dangles loads of opportunity in front of anyone who dares to grab it. It’s certainly one of the most dynamic cities in the Middle East, transformed with admirable drive into a regional economic engine within just a few decades. And if you can fashion a bunch of superlatives along the way…well, why not?
Dubai’s Ozymandian skyline recedes quickly in my rearview mirrors as we head southeast towards the desert. Abu Dhabi is two hours to the southwest along the busy E-11 highway, which runs 560 kilometres all the way from the northern emirate of Ras Al Khaimah into neighbouring Saudi Arabia in the west. But this is a compact enough country that we can come up with a fun day trip out of the longest way around—via Al Ain, by the Omani border, and the adjacent allure of the twisty Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road, before looping back northwest.
The UAE’s roads are of generally excellent quality, with nary a pothole, and once beyond urban areas, lightly trafficked. The Mazda3’s Skyactiv engine purrs in delight and opens up to a brisk pace along the E-66 road, which soon enough goes from three lanes to two as mounds of pale sand begin to creep in and then dominate my peripheral vision. I put the windows down, letting the warm air rush in, bringing with it the scent of slow-cooked land and the song of controlled combustion.
Would I rather be in an airless tube being zapped along at the speed of ignorance, however blissful? No sir, I would not. By now we are deep into the Dubai desert, slowing down only to divert around semi-built new traffic circles. Among the shrubby dunes stand rows of towering electricity pylons, like a line of giant soldiers marching through the sand, perhaps heading in the same direction as the road, towards Oman. We, however, turn off into dirt roads at Lahbab, for a flying visit to the Royal Shaheen falconry breeding, training and safari centre.
The falcon is so intimately tied into the heritage of this land that it appears on everything from banknotes to road signs to brand names. The UAE has the world’s biggest falcon hospital and even holds an annual falcon beauty contest. Falconry was originally developed by Bedouin tribesmen as a hunting method—a symbiotic, seasonal relationship that saw the keen predatory instincts of this magnificent bird channelled to provide its handlers with valuable protein in a harsh environment. Today, falconry is practised for sport and tourism, and it’s indeed a visceral thrill to stand amid the golden dunes, as a white-robed handler gently removes the falcon’s hood and unwinds the leg strap, and then watch the sleek brown bird rocket off towards its prey, like a living bullet from a shaman sniper.
Back in the Mazda, we hurtle on towards Al Ain, the poetry of blacktop winding through the sandscapes of Abu Dhabi Emirate, often punctuated by the sight of SUVs and quad bikes indulging in a bit of dune-bashing off to the distance. Al Ain, when it arrives, is such a different-looking city from Dubai—uniformly flat, flush with greenery, and (aside from rambunctious lane-changing manoeuvres at the plethora of traffic circles) very laid-back—it’s hard to believe they are both in the same country.
The birthplace of the nation’s founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, Al Ain sits atop the gushing aquifers of the Buraimi Oasis, which have attracted human settlement for millennia. We stop by the beautifully preserved Al Jahili Fort, an 1890s-vintage fortification that, like others in the region, has successfully defended Buraimi from bandits and raiders. In those times the desert terrain was so untamed that vehicles had to gingerly follow the tracks of camel caravans.
What we have in store for the Mazda3, however, is anything but ginger. For all Al Ain’s charms, what we’re really here for is the mountain that looms nearby—or more precisely, what’s on it. At 1,249 metres, Jebel Hafeet is not the UAE’s highest peak (that’s the 1,934-metre Jebel Jais, to the northeast) but it has something the others don’t: the Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road. One of the world’s best driving roads, the 11.7 curvaceous kilometre road lures everyone from pro cyclists to supercar owners. It doesn’t lead anywhere—there’s a hotel at the summit—which is even more heartwarming: this road exists just to be driven.
A short drive on the busy highway out of Al Ain, past dusty industrial units, brings us to the base of Jebel Hafeet. The range stretches a few kilometres, and into Oman, but the peak lies within the UAE. The walls of reddish limestone rise dramatically off the ground, and the first dark sweeping curves of the Mountain Road invite us in. The two ascending lanes (and one descending lane) are gloriously smooth, with an exciting mix of corners ranging from constant-radius to tightening on you sharply. Occasionally, you can pull off into a parking lot to fully drink in the view of Al Ain and the verdant patch of hot springs known as the Green Mubbazzarah, increasingly far below. But with just a handful of other vehicles on the mountain at this time, my urge to stay out and hog the tarmac wins out.
“AS I DRIVE THROUGH ABU DHABI’S CHANGING NEIGHBOURHOODS, AGAPE AT THE VISIONS TAKING SHAPE, NOTHING SEEMS IMPOSSIBLE”
What follows is a long afternoon of revelling in the sheer pleasure of driving an automobile, but particularly, of enjoying the connection with a responsive one. After a while, the mechanics of it all simply blend into the purity of me flowing up and down the road. The Mazda3 is a joy to push through the bends, with Sport mode holding the revs up, and, in Manual mode, a nudge of the paddle shifters cueing the torque-y engine to bark excitedly as the car’s jaws prepare to chew into another apex. The well-weighted steering wheel makes reeling in the perfect line through each bend a reflexive action, while the chassis stays reassuringly composed. The Mazda3 can undoubtedly do this all day. I, alas, have someplace else to be.
Now pointed northwest under a hot, pale sky, the rest of the journey is another session of brisk highway munching, until the nearly forgotten sight of cloverleaf flyovers announce the approach into Abu Dhabi. Then, thick and fast, come reminders of which country you’re in. One minute it’s the imposing marble domes of Sheikh Zayed Mosque; the next, it’s the improbable Capital Gate tower, leaning four times more than Pisa’s. At one end of the Corniche seaside promenade is the distinctive cluster of shiny-metallic, gently curved Etihad Towers, flanked by the Emirates Palace hotel, a crystal-and-gold-drenched celebration of opulence. Though it came a bit late to the party, Abu Dhabi—with some 94 percent of the UAE’s oil reserves, the real hand on the till of the nation’s wealth—now seems determined to be bolder than even Dubai, which is some feat.
Much of modern Abu Dhabi city sprawls across a group of islands, the best known of which, thanks to hosting F1 races, is Yas. But there’s also the new financial centre on Al Maryah, the towering residences of Al Reem, or the upcoming Cultural District on Saadiyat, already home to the brand-new, stunning Louvre Abu Dhabi museum. As I drive through these changing neighbourhoods, staring agape at all manner of visions taking shape in steel and glass and concrete, nothing seems impossible. Not even the promise of 12-minute Hyperloop journeys. But as the Mazda’s ruby nose nuzzles the sapphire seafront at journey’s end, it strikes me that sometimes, maybe even visionaries ought to take the long and winding road.