Sandstorms sweep across region

Drivers cautioned as fine sand blown from Iraq lowers visibility but leaves Dubai surfers relishing the conditions.

People cover their noses and mouths during a sandstorm that left a layer of dust over cars in Abu Dhabi.

DUBAI // A strong sandstorm reduced visibility throughout the region on Thursday, causing some disruption in cities and parks but delivering near-ideal conditions for surfers who scurried to the beaches. Clive Stevens, the duty forecaster at the Dubai Meteorological Office, said the shamal started in Iraq and northern Saudi Arabia on Wednesday morning and later spread across the entire Arabian Peninsula. "In Kuwait they were reporting 100-metre visibility and 30-knot winds," he said. The storm moved on to Riyadh, reached Bahrain at about 11am, and then battered Doha in the mid-afternoon, he said. It hit Abu Dhabi at around 9pm on Wednesday night and Dubai around midnight. Visibility in the capital yesterday was down to 500 metres, he said, while in Dubai it was around 1.5 kilometres. "Most of the fine dust is picked up over Iraq; it is silt from the Euphrates Basin," Mr Stevens said. "One interesting thing has been the change in temperature. On Wednesday it was 32 degrees in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and on Thursday it was 22; a 10-degree drop is a lot in such a short space of time." Offshore, the wind was reaching speeds of up to 65kph, he said. In Dubai, surfers took advantage of the strong winds and headed to Burj al Arab open beach at dawn, drawn by waves as high as two meters in some places. "It was huge and messy with breaking all over," said Doreen Berg, a German expatriate. "The waves were so fierce that I couldn't get out to where the first break was taking place." Andrew Jones, a recent arrival from the US West Coast, was looking forward to the winter swell. "It's pumping out there and you get pounded every three to four seconds by an incoming wave," he said. "Today is messy because the winds that bring the waves also disrupt them, but when the wind drops later tomorrow then there will be perfect surfing conditions." Kirk Duthler, media and communications section head for Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort, said visibility in Al Ain was down to 500m. "The wind is not so bad, maybe gusting to about 25 or 30km, but there is no rain," he said. "The visibility is awful, I can't see the mountains, but it's not any different to having a foggy morning." If the storm continues through the weekend, he said, the resort might expect as few as a quarter of the usual number of visitors. "But the oryx are quite happy," he said, "and the birds are still flying around, so the animals are not bothered by it all." Police from several emirates warned motorists to be particularly careful. The Sharjah Police's traffic department said there had been at least 23 accidents in the emirate yesterday because of poor visibility, while Col Sultan al Nuaimi, deputy director of Ajman Police, cautioned drivers to be careful when turning on their high-beams in a dust storm. "Some motorists panic when they cannot see and put on full lights; this is very dangerous," he said. * With additional reporting by Yasin Kakande and Daniel Bardsley