Easy and fast transportation are crucial assets for the Northern Emirates, which rely on the proximity of more populous Dubai to attract residents and businesses, and whose industrial development depends on the existence of a modern transport infrastructure.
Virtually all transportation between members of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is road-based. The most vital link connecting the Northern Emirates with the rest of the region is a highway known as Emirates Road. But the highway's capacity is increasingly being put to the test by ever-growing inter-emirates traffic. To cope with the upsurge, several projects are underway to improve the road. The emirate of Ajman, for instance, is pushing a new connection that would allow future large-scale residential areas (such as the Al-Zora project) to be directly connected to the Emirates Road. A third lane will also be added soon on the Dubai-Fujairah portion of the road, at an announced cost of $68m (AED 250m). Other improvements are in the pipeline.
Sharjah, directly neighbouring Dubai, must also tackle what has become a now intractable commuting problem. Every day, tens of thousands of Sharjah residents drive to Dubai for work and back - creating what has become the federation's worst traffic jam at the border between the two emirates. Fortunately, work is set to begin soon on the main road that links the two cities: the Al-Ittihad road is set to become an expressway, according to a recently unveiled government plan. At an estimated cost of $226m (AED 830m), the new infrastructure will be 16-lanes wide on some stretches and include several over- and under-passes. Since the proposed improvements are located on the other side of the border, Dubai's Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) will be in charge of the project. Belhasa Road Constructing Company and National Wheel J&P Company were awarded contracts on the project.
Another portion of the planned road upgrades is Sharjah's Al-Wahda Street, which will be transformed into a double-decker expressway. Work has already begun on the project, which is estimated to cost $130m (AED 477m) and to be completed in three years.
However, the main causes of congestion - an ever-increasing number of cars and a virtually non-existent public transport network - are not being addressed. Inadequate synchronisation between Dubai and Sharjah, and lack of information about up-and-coming projects, are also complicating matters. For instance, while Dubai's authorities have stated that the future Dubai Metro - which is presently under construction and should start operating in late 2009 - will eventually be extended to the border of Sharjah, there are no known plans to extend it beyond that point. Instead, bus routes would depart from Sharjah and drop passengers at the Dubai metro station. To address the whole issue, Sharjah Public Transport Corporation has commissioned a comprehensive public transport study, but no details have emerged, other than that it encompasses public buses and metro line plans.
But the authorities are beginning to realise the potential of public transportation infrastructures. Dubai's RTA recently announced that the fleet of inter-city buses that connect Dubai with each of the Northern Emirates' main towns will be expanded from 110 to 280 buses early next year.
But an even more attractive solution to interconnect the emirates - and, in the longer run, other countries in the region - could emerge in the shape of a train network. In late 2005, the federal government commissioned German transport consultancy Dornier to launch a feasibility study for the construction of a freight and passenger train network. The railroad would connect the seven emirates - from Al Ruwais in the west to Ras al-Khaimah in the north and Fujairah and Khor Fakkan on the East Coast. The railroad would primarily be dedicated to freight, but would also carry passengers. Preliminary findings of the study estimated the construction cost at $3.8bn (AED 14bn). The whole network would be 700 to 1000 km long, would not be electrified, and would allow 100 conventional trains to operate each day.
The government has declared it would look into public-private partnership scenarios to implement the initiative. No further details have emerged since these first announcements. However, the recent signature of a $1.9bn contract by the Saudi government to build a 2400km railway for industrial and passenger uses, might entice the UAE government to speed up its own railroad network plans.