Transport infrastructure is the biggest obstacle to development in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), according to a recent study released by the National Bank of Dubai (NBD). Respondents from Sharjah were among the most dissatisfied with transport links.
Sharjah has embarked on an ambitious overhaul of its road network over the past six months, with several projects of over Dh700m ($190m) currently underway. Projects include the expansion of the King Abdul Aziz Road, the construction of the Sharjah Ring Road, and a Dh500m ($136m) plan to build a double-deck expressway at Al Wahda Road.
Currently 110,000 vehicles a day are estimated to use Al Wahda, making it one of the most congested roads in the emirate. The new road will bypass the two most crowded junctions, allowing free flow for motorists, while several existing roundabouts will be replaced with signaled intersections.
However, the ongoing works are having an impact on the local economy, as the NBD study reveals. Shops located along the precinct where works are being carried out are experiencing drops in footfall of more than 50%, and a fall in turnover of almost two-thirds. Local residents are reporting major traffic jams at detour points. The road works are expected to last up to three years.
Part of Sharjah's difficult situation - and indeed the UAE as a whole - stems from a lack of alternatives to the car for moving about. Public transport is virtually non-existent, with residents using either taxis or their own personal cars. This trend contributes not only to heavy traffic, but also to pressure on land for parking spaces. And, with Sharjah currently enjoying a construction boom and many vacant lots that were previously used as parking spaces now closed off, residents face long walks to their cars.
The government of Sharjah is attempting to remedy this situation by encouraging the use of public transport. Late last year a contract was signed between KGL Passenger Transport Services of Kuwait and Sharjah Public Transport Corporation to provide bus services for an eight-year franchise period. General Manager of KGL Sharjah Fahad Al Awadhi, told the press, "The project aims at operating a wide bus transportation network in Sharjah that will cope with the emirate's large growth in population over the past few years."
The service is anticipated to cover 19 routes, with 142 buses capable of carrying 80,000 passengers per day. The first three routes are expected to come into operation this quarter, while the remainder is expected by the end of the year.
Besides local transport, plans are afoot to further develop the UAE's intercity connections. The long-planned 350 km national railway network, which will link Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah to Ghewaifat via Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, is currently under development. More immediately though, the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) is looking to further extend its bus network. 125 new buses, including 55 Volvo luxury buses, are expected to enter service within 2008, with the RTA intending to extend its service across the Gulf Cooperation Council. The new additions should take the number of buses on the UAE roads to 2500 by 2009, according to the authority. Inter-city buses have proved a success in the UAE - mainly due to a lack of any alternative. Last year 10m commuters used intercity buses on 16 different routes.
For the more remote Northern Emirates, facing their own mini-booms without the resources of their larger neighbours Dubai and Abu Dhabi, infrastructure development is likely to remain the largest challenge to sustained growth. It seems that the federal government is aware of the issue though: barely a month after the release of NBD's report, Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the UAE, announced the allocation of Dh16bn ($4.3bn) of federal funds to the Northern Emirates for the development of infrastructure - including transport.
Full details are yet to be released, though Sheikh Hamdan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, minister of public works, has conducted a study to determine areas most in need of development. The funds are likely to be concentrated on alleviating the pressures of rapid growth: constructing new road networks, housing, sewerage and drainage. For rapidly-expanding emirates such as Sharjah, the help is just in time.