Why Are Dubai and Abu Dhabi's Roads Some of the World's Most Dangerous?

The oil-rich United Arab Emirates, like Saudi Arabia and Libya, have poor policing, lots of money, and maybe too much machismo

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On the road between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Police and firefighters work at the scene of a 2008 pile-up that killed three and injured 277 / Reuters

When Blackberry service went down for three days last week, traffic accidents fell by 20 percent in Dubai and 40 percent in Abu Dhabi, according to officials from the two cities. The United Arab Emirates, where both cities are located, has the eighth highest national accident rate in the world, with 37.1 killed in traffic deaths per 100,000 people per year, about five to ten times the rate of the developed world. Even the dramatic drop only reduced UAE traffic death rates, for a brief but celebrated three-day respite, to about that of Kyrgyzstan or Burundi.

Clearly, Blackberry texting- and emailing-while-driving is a major contributor to the UAE's notoriously dangerous traffic, but it's not the only contributor. Using your smartphone behind the wheel is unsafe anywhere, but why is it so perilous in the oil-superrich United Arab Emirates? And, for that matter, why is driving there still so dangerous even during a blessed Blackberry outage?

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."

The popular 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.

One 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!"

Traffic 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.