Floods, hurricanes, snow and a plague of locusts - take cover from the UAE's wildest weather
It's not all sunshine and palm trees when winter comes around as history shows
Everyone alive at the time is said to remember where they were on the day US President John F Kennedy was assassinated.
But from Sharjah to Abu Dhabi, November 22, 1963 has gone down in history for one of the most destructive storms in the country’s history.
Torrential rain and winds close to hurricane force devastated the region. The flimsy palm frond homes were ripped apart, boats sunk at their moorings, while wind-driven waves pushed the deep inland. The death toll is not recorded but must have been considerable.
Despite its deserved reputation these days as a winter sun destination, destructive weather in these months can be a familiar part of life in the emirates.
On the floor there was a vast block of ice… made of thousands of hail stones
Susan Hillyard, Before the Oil
That these storms are less destructive today is not that they have abated but because modern buildings and infrastructure are design to cope with them.
The Abu Dhabi Corniche today is seen a pleasant place for an evening stroll, but its construction, in the late 1960s, was a defence against flooding which previously inundated large parts of the old town in bad weather.
The Great Storm of November 1963 was especially damaging because Abu Dhabi had no port at the time. Instead goods were unloaded from ships directly on to the beach, and unprotected as the sea swept them away.
Vital supplies, including construction equipment, were ruined or badly damaged.
In Sharjah, a photograph of the rain streaming down the tin roofs at the RAF base shows the power of the downpour, which also left the runway useless.
But it was in Dubai where the storm hit hardest. Those homes not destroyed were left knee deep in floodwater. At the new Dubai International Airport, some light aircraft and gliders were tossed around like toys.
Heavy rain in the UAE can be the result of cyclones, which generally occur in October and November but can happen in other months.
Developing in the Indian Ocean they are most destructive when they hit costal Oman, but have also been costly in terms of lives and property in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Cyclone Gonu, the strongest ever recorded in the region and Oman’s worst natural disaster, killed about 80 people when it struck the Arabian Peninsula and Iran in June 2007, with ten passengers missing after a boat sank in Fujairah port.
Stories of wild weather in the region in the past centuries are often anecdotal, with serious record taking not beginning until after the formation of the UAE in December 1971.
There are enough accounts, though, to show the impact weather had on the lives of ordinary people.
One of the earliest records is John Gordon Lorimer’s Gazetteer of the ... Gulf, a once secret series of reports commissioned by the British Government of India and first published 1908.
Assessing the climate of the region, Lorimer noted “Bad weather generally begins after the middle of December, and January and February are cold and boisterous.”
In 1883 and 1884, he writes of “heavy gales in the spring…occasioning several wrecks”, while a storm in 1886 virtually destroyed the town of Bander Abbas on the Iranian side of the Arabian Gulf.
Six years later, another massive storm hit the coast from Abu Dhabi to Ras Al Khaimah, “unroofing houses, blowing down date trees, wrecking vessels at sea and destroying boats on the beach".
The winter of 1904 to 1905 was “unusually cold and severe” with ice down to the coast on the Iranian side of the Gulf.
Another report compiled by British officials in Muscat records a storm on January 15, 1912 that “broke” at least 30 boats and killed the brother of a local official when his house collapsed.
A cyclone in October 1948 saw more than 15 centimetres of rain fall on Salalah in Oman in just a few hours, and then swept across the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. Further heavy rain in the early months of 1949 provided ideal breeding conditions for locusts and led to massive swarms hitting the UAE that year.
We know that a number of major storms occurred from the mid 1950s. In her account of life during that time, Susan Hillyard, the wife of the BP representative for Abu Dhabi’s off shore oil exploration, records several in her book Before The Oil. One includes being caught in Dubai Creek in the oil company dhow. The 1957 storm was so severe those on shore feared the couple were lost. Making their way back to shore they passed an overturned dhow. All seven crew had drowned.
In Dubai, she found a huge hole in the roof of the British Agency. “On the floor there was a vast block of ice…made of thousands of hail stones.
“Outside, where there had been a whole suburb of barastis, there was but one…otherwise the devastation was complete. Not only had the wretched people [lost] their houses but all their belongings too.”
Extreme weather did have its benefits, at least in Abu Dhabi, filling the rain barrels with precious drinking water.
Another storm played a part in one of the worst disasters in the Arabian Gulf.
The shallow Dubai Creek was particularly prone to flooding between Bur Dubai and Shindagha and dangerous for shipping in storms.
Warnings of a bad weather in April 1961 forced the passenger ship MV Dara to move into the Arabian Gulf to ride it out. In the early hours of April 8, an explosion, mostly likely caused by a bomb, and subsequent fire led to the deaths of 238 people, including relatives of passengers who had been unable to get back to shore because of the rough seas.
Not all bad weather spells death and disaster. On rare occasions, low winter temperatures and precipitation have combined to bring snow to the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah, much to the astonishment of the wider world, which associates the UAE with palm trees, camels and above all desert heat.
Snowfalls have been recorded on the slopes of Jebel Jais at least four times this century, including 2004, said to be the first in living memory, and 2009 when a 20cm fall was reported. Snow was seen again in February, 2017 in enough quantities for people to build a snowman.
It was recorded again this year, with hail at lower levels, as temperatures dropped briefly below freezing on mountain tops.
The Great Storm of March 2016, is still fresh in memories and a reminder of nature’s power. Under unnaturally darkened skies, winds of up to 130 kilometres lashed Abu Dhabi and Dubai, sending building debris tumbling through the air while rain overwhelmed drainage systems and turned roads into rivers.
Such weather events rarely cause great damage or loss of live in the UAE today. But what of the future? A 2017 report for the Emirates Wildlife Society-WWF warned that by 2060, hotter summers and more flash floods triggered by rainfall that is 200 per cent higher than normal could be expected.
It seems that wild weather is here to stay.
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Published: January 2, 2021 04:30 PM