The nations of the Middle East and North
Africa -- particularly the countries with the greatest oil wealth --
have some of the highest traffic death rates in the world. Often, these
states even top the poverty- and war-torn nations of South Asia and
Central Africa, where one might expect drivers to exercise a bit less
caution. But shouldn't countries with so much money and so few people --
Libya and Saudi Arabia are also ranked highly -- have clean, clear,
open, safe roads?
It turns out that the profusion of oil wealth
(not to mention some cultural factors) might actually make the roads
more dangerous. Individuals, who often live off lavish subsidies, are
accustomed to seeing the government as something that gives out money,
not as a regulatory and policing body. The governments, which draw their
legitimacy and power from oil rather than from people, have less
incentive to implement harsher driving rules, which might prove
unpopular. I asked on Twitter why UAE traffic is so bad and got some
interesting responses from residents, natives, and expats who've lived
in the area.
"Bad driving, little to no police enforcement, and
notional speed limits (via camera radar) of 100mph (until Dubai
border)," wrote Jonathan Shainin, an editor formerly based in the
region. "When I was there, you could drive 159kph without triggering AD
radar cameras -- which are anyway easy to spot."
neglect for rules in general and on the road in particular was a common
theme of explanations. Journalist Tom Gara cited a "Combination of no
policing, fast cars, above-the-law attitude among citizens, large
population from crazy driving cultures." Those "crazy driving cultures"
might include Saudi Arabia, where a law forbids women from driving; women are statistically safer drivers, and male-only roadways might exacerbate machismo-fueled road rage.
Emirati woman named Feyaza Khan, also a journalist, sighed, "People
ignore the speed limit, don't think seatbelts are important and text
while driving." Another, Shaahima Fahim, added, "Most streets are
highways which would account for the speed. Road pride/one-upmanship
would explain reckless abandon."
"Lots of youth with cars way too
hot for them to handle," wrote Cecily Hilleary of Voice of America. "I
spent five years praying for my life on highway from AD to Dubai!"
isn't the only part of life in the United Arab Emirates that's
different from much of the rest of the world. Prominent Emirati
journalist Sultan Al Qassemi joked, "Many of us are disappointed the
financial crisis ended so fast. Roads were great until this year." The
return to somewhat-normal flows of capital in and our of Dubai and Abu
Dhabi means more young Emiratis are getting their hands on super-fast
sports cars. Well, one hand, anyway -- the other hand is probably still
thumbing away at a Blackberry.