Watch any footage of the early years of the UAE and chances are you will see a four-by-four car. Much like how the camel had been so integral to transport and logistics throughout the Gulf's history, without these all-access, modern workhorses, the country's sudden development in the second half of the 20th century would have taken a great deal longer.
Now, in the UAE’s 50th year, cars are still the backbone of domestic travel in the country. But that has gradually started to change as public transport consolidates its position in society; Busses are now a common sight in the UAE's cities and passenger numbers on Dubai's metro surpassed 200 million people in 2019.
On Tuesday, this transition took a major leap with news that Etihad Rail has now linked the line between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It has taken 13,300 workers to do so, and the route stretches more than 250 kilometres and includes 29 bridges, 60 crossings and 137 drainage channels. The project will eventually extend across the entire country, giving residents and tourists alike the chance to see all seven Emirates in a matter of hours without the need for a car. Freight will also be included, meaning the UAE's economy will be getting the huge strategic benefit of a national railway that can move goods efficiently en masse. And there is of course the environmental benefit of an electricity-powered train, a greener option that will decrease the number of cars on the road, particularly at peak commuting times, reducing the country's emissions and improving air quality.
From resident to tourist, city dweller to farmer, the project will benefit everyone. For those who choose not to drive, whether out of choice, financial constraints or because they are only in the country for a short time, Etihad Rail will offer speedy travel. For those who do drive, the scenery of the route and ease of avoiding traffic is an equally convincing reason to ride.
But this is about more than just movement. It is part of the UAE’s thinking about how urban design and mega projects can shape, in some instances even create, cities of the future that benefit diverse, growing populations. Etihad Rail joins a number of other projects in the UAE – be it a monorail in Sharjah or more pedestrianised areas and cycle lanes as part of the Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan – that create more inclusive and efficient urban environments, as well as the nation-wide infrastructure to connect them.
This a lot of change taking place very quickly, and transport takes on a particularly significant cultural role in the country, given its astonishing, some would have said unlikely, rise as a global aviation hub, and the role of carbon, the energy that powers global travel from cars to shipping, in its economic development. While fossil fuels will remain important in the years ahead, the switch to new, greener technologies is a much-touted priority of the country, framed not as a sacrifice but rather an opportunity. With this week's progress on Etihad Rail, Abu Dhabi and Dubai are one step closer to the goal. Soon, the entire country will arrive at this destination.