Tropical storms are such a rare occurrence in the Gulf of Oman that until this week, the last one to make landfall there was recorded more than 130 years ago. While the kind of low-pressure weather systems that tend to breed cyclones are a common occurrence in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, rarely do they venture very far north. But Cyclone Shaheen, which developed out of a weather system in the Bay of Bengal, arrived on the northern coast of Oman on Sunday, creating havoc of a kind unseen in years. Solidarity with Oman during this time is felt throughout the UAE.
Recovery is now underway, mostly in the worst-affected Batinah region, after the storm brought on heavy rain and winds of up to 120 kilometres an hour. It killed at least 11 people and forced more than 5,000 into temporary accommodation. The clean-up operation may cost more than $100m. Iranian rescuers have also retrieved the body of one of five fishermen who went missing in the waters surrounding the country’s border with Pakistan.
The approach of cyclone Shaheen put the UAE on high alert this week. Warning messages were broadcast in 19 languages, part of a strategy that involved more than 100 local and national entities. In Al Ain, residents were warned that they may have to work from home and schools briefly switched to distance learning, as part of precautionary measures. In the Northern Emirates, public gatherings on beaches were restricted. A broad social media campaign tried to reach as many residents as possible, reminding them of the danger that even slight rain poses; in downpours, police warn that accidents on the UAE's roads typically happen every two minutes.
In the end, the Emirates avoided all but slightly increased winds and some wet weather. On Monday, the country's National Crisis & Emergency Management Authority (Ncema) announced that the storm had "faded", although it said it would continue to monitor the situation.
In 2007, category-five Cyclone Gonu – significantly stronger than Shaheen – hit the UAE after travelling overland across Oman from the Arabian Sea. In March 2016, schools were closed due to another major storm, which saw winds of up to 120kph. Other parts of the Arabian Peninsula experience extreme weather events, too. In 2018, cyclone Sagar, which formed in the Gulf of Aden, killed at least 31 people. It gave nearby Somalia a year's rain in a matter of days, displacing tens of thousands of people.
This underscores the need for bodies like Ncema, as well as Oman’s National Committee for Emergency Management (NCEM), to prepare for such situations, even when they are unlikely to happen. Ncema, moreover, has played a critical role in managing the Covid-19 crisis and showed its preparedness again during Shaheen.
The pandemic is still a bigger immediate concern than storms, which only rarely bring major disruption to the UAE. But after this week's difficulties, a silver lining is greater recognition of the country's ever-developing ability to not just respond to disasters, but prepare for them, too.