15 August 2021
On this day fifty-five years ago, Dubai Municipality announced that traffic would soon be reversed: driving lanes for one direction were to convey cars in the opposite direction; roundabouts designed for clockwise traffic were to twirl counter-clockwise. Dubai was to “join the rest of the world” by adopting right-hand driving.
In Dubai, the traffic committee scheduled the switch in just over two weeks, at 5:00 a.m. on Thursday, 1 September 1966. Thursday was the start of the weekend at the time, so there would be few vehicles on the road needing to jump lanes mid-journey. There is not much on record about how many traffic jams transpired that day.1 As some noted, it was wise that Dubai officials organized the switch before there were any more cars on the new asphalt roads, and, all parties agreed, more cars were on the way.
Michael Hamilton-Clark, at the time working for the British engineering firm Halcrow’s road-building team, shared with me some memories of the new “rule of the road.”2 He remembers the date clearly, not just because he planned the roads, but because 1 September 1966, was the day that his wife and newborn son were released from Dubai’s Al Maktoum Hospital. He recalls confusion on the road, mostly resolved through some quick shifting of lanes by those unaware of the change or merely acting out of old habit.
Drivers were already accustomed to surprises, like the appearance of new intersections or the disappearance of roads beneath unlicensed buildings. That asphalt was not yet the dominant road surface kept driving speeds down, but Dubai already felt the consequences of speed on blacktop: car crashes, sometimes in combination with increased reports of alcohol and drug use, multiplied casualties registered at the hospital.
During that same summer of 1966, US-based Continental Oil Company confirmed commercial amounts of oil in Dubai. The company anticipated not just a single well but a whole field of bounty. Dubai’s future never seemed more golden than during that summer. A US diplomat selected Dubai as the region’s “best bet.” Oil men planned to construct schools and housing for American families arriving for new ventures. With fast-build, single-family homes extending across the district of Jumeirah, the city’s future already looked more American, and therefore suitable for the greatest American pastime—cruising in big shiny American cars. By then, US-made cars dominated Dubai imports, and that was one reason the switch to the right lane made sense.
Observing British officials expressed no patriotic hesitation about the loss of left-hand driving, which was becoming seen around the world as a dwindling British particularity. In fact, they encouraged the change. With the announcement of Dubai’s future wealth, they identified Dubai’s leader as the region’s future benefactor. It was therefore the time to support his proposal.
In March, Rashid had proposed the new policy to the Trucial States Council, a quasi-governmental body made up of the seven leaders of the Trucial States and set up by the British government to encourage collaboration among its members. In the past decades, there had been criticism directed at the British government, from within and outside Great Britain, that it kept the emirates divided. It was, in fact, the British government that had named them as a geographical unit, as something apart from Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. There are examples of when the British Foreign Office sowed discord to deter unified resistance to British rule, but there are also numerous instances when British tactics in the region were attempts to construct collaboration, if only to save the British government from having to govern more.
The council was the chief example of such perfunctory efforts at unity. For British officers to discourage the act would have been to disrupt the council’s chance at success. Moreover, the topic was infrastructure, and, while American car manufacturers had demonstrated their dominance over British ones, infrastructure was still a business opportunity for the British economy.
Infrastructure is often described as the fiber between places. As one British officer noted that same year, “other development is so dependent on ease of communications,” communications here being another word for infrastructure. Hamilton-Clark was working on connecting Dubai to Sharjah, first with a single ribbon of asphalt. And in 1966, leaders were optimistic that funding from Saudi Arabia would ensure in the following year the completion of an asphalt connection from Dubai to Ras Al Khaimah.3
There was one holdout to Rashid’s proposal: Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi. By 1966, Shakhbut was for many a legendary recalcitrant. He resisted British rule and its constant prodding to convert his earnings from oil sales into British-led development contracts. Nevertheless, he had succumbed the year before to a £5.5 million contract for one British engineering firm to design an airport, a road network, and a small port—essentially the infrastructural basis of a planned city.4 In the same month when Rashid proposed the lane change, Shakhbut’s year was already shaping into his annus horribilis. He cut off ties with the firm, Brian Colquhoun & Associates, as a result of their incompetence.5 Even British officials, usually apathetic toward the ruler’s disposition, admitted that they had placed him in a difficult position. Shakhbut successfully resisted the company’s demands for compensation, but it left him feeling burned. It also revealed that the pursuit of infrastructure is not always as smooth as the future it promises.
If Rashid wanted to advance infrastructure, it was easy to portray Shakhbut as wanting to rupture it. The latter’s refusal was described as part of his character, but it highlights that infrastructure, forged of metal and concrete, was more importantly conceived by power.
There is no record of Shakhbut ever acquiescing to the proposal, but the ordinance states that Abu Dhabi was “expected to implement it soon.” Ten days before its issue, Shakhbut was removed from power in a coup led by the British government. He was replaced by his brother Zayed, a figure who, in the simplest of terms, is remembered for accelerating Abu Dhabi’s infrastructural projects. Zayed would do more than agree to Rashid’s lane change; he, not Rashid, would fund the laying of new, better-quality roads—to link a nascent country along coastlines, over mountains, and to the interior. His strategy was different from his brother’s, but infrastructure remained an expression of power through imagined connections.
It’s not clear whether there was a momentary breakage on the road between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where cars and freight trucks had to change lanes as a result of Abu Dhabi’s delay. Still, the possibility of such a discernible border reminds me of the recent fracture to the usually smooth highway flow between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, caused by the installation of a border control to enforce Abu Dhabi’s stricter Covid-19 policies.
The UAE highway system is one of the country’s most enduring symbols of continuity. As the great communicator, infrastructure continues to pervade through everyday life, also by means of rendered animations of Hyperloops stitching together a nation, even an entire peninsula, through technology and comfort. In this way, infrastructure can cast new versions of national and regional identities. But just as Shakhbut knew and acted, and just as many have recently experienced on their approach to Abu Dhabi, infrastructure can be commanded to idealize shared customs and rules, just as much as it can be designed to reinforce the differences and the exceptions.
1. There are famous photographs online of the havoc when Sweden, almost exactly a year later, instituted the switch.
2. Michael Hamilton-Clark had reached out to me to tell me I’d misstated the year in Showpiece City. I mistakenly wrote 1961 on page 122; I’ve made a note for a future edition! He also noted there was noticeable confusion in the denser districts of Bur Dubai and Deira, where additional regulations also assigned narrower roads one-way directions.
3. In this recent article in the Abu Dhabi daily, the National, historian Matthew Maclean offers some commentary on the connections made through infrastructure.
4. £5.5 million would be the equivalent of about $140 million today.
5. See the National Archives (UK), FCO 8/185540.