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First Highway in the UAE was a Game of High Stakes

Sami Zaatari, Gulf News
May 11, 2016

Travel across the UAE these days has been greatly eased thanks to the construction of world-class highways that connect the country, but for the first such highway built from Dubai to Ras Al Khaimah in the 1960s, the story was anything but simple.

Back then the UAE was made up of seven different emirates, known as the Trucial States, with Great Britain largely responsible for the security and development of the area. As such, any development plans for the Emirates outside of Great Britain’s domain was seen as a political threat, which is precisely what happened when the Arab League announced their plans to construct the Dubai-Ras Al Khaimah highway.

“The story of this road is one of high intrigue that involved King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, and the Egyptian President Jamal Abdul Nasser, all of whom played a role in the lead up to its construction,” said Matthew Maclean, visiting scholar at the Al Qasimi Foundation, who delivered the talk at New York University Abu Dhabi on Tuesday.

Maclean has extensively researched the history of the road by accessing and going through historical archive documents, some of which are still classified by the British government. He said the construction of the highway came in the context of a changing Middle East post the Second World War, with the inhabitants of the then Trucial States looking for better economic prosperity and development.

“In late 1964 Egyptian President Jamal Abdul Nasser announced that the Arab League would offer aid to the Trucial States, and sent a delegation to study the needs of the region, which was received by cheering crowds in Ras Al Khaimah,” he said.

One of the main development projects that was created was the construction of a highway linking Dubai to Ras Al Khaimah, with the Arab League opening up an office in Dubai to oversee their projects.

“The British feared the Arab office would become a sphere of spreading propaganda [against the British], and so the main task of British diplomats in the spring of 1965 was to prevent this from happening at all costs.

“They would also open their own office, and this office would be charged with overseeing all development projects in the region, as well as overseeing the personnel who would work in these offices to ensure that they were politically trustworthy. [The British] believed this would be a good mechanism of getting local support and to ensure some British control,” Mclean explained.

British efforts to ensure control over the development of the highway included preventing Arab League officials from visiting the UAE, according to Maclean.

As time went on, the Arab League announced an official boycott of the British office on July 9, 1965. Meanwhile King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, who also backed the boycott, announced plans to build the Dubai-Ras Al Khaimah highway, which so far had not undergone any construction.

“The British were happy for King Faisal to develop the road so long as the development funds went through the British development office,” Maclean said.

“King Faisal told the British that he would respect the Arab League boycott of the office, and would fund the road independently… and a new behind-the-scene struggle began, this time between King Faisal and the British.

“The British wanted construction to begin immediately to fulfil the requirement of having an immediate visible impact. As the fall of 1965 came and went, and no progress being made, the British decided they would build the Dubai-Sharjah section of the road themselves, and they built that road in 1966.

“This spurred the Saudis into action. So in May that year King Faisal awarded the contract to the Sharjah-Ras Al Khaimah section of the road to the Saudi construction firm the Bin Laden Company . . . and the road was built between 1967 and 1969.”