Transport is Dubai’s major flaw. The fevered race to build has meant the city’s growth has far outstripped its infrastructure. Weight of numbers means that in older parts of town, like Deira, Karama and Bur Dubai, traffic is at a permanent crawl. Even the vast, 12-lane Sheikh Zayed Road can become a car park between 7.30am and 9.30am and 4pm and 8.30pm. Unfortunately, so far, the opening of the Dubai Metro has not made the extreme difference many were hoping for.
These issues are made worse by driving standards, which are generally poor (the UAE licence is not accepted in Europe). People lack lane discipline, have no understanding of stopping distances, and many appear to believe that indicating is a sign of lily-livered weakness.
It can be a blood-boiling experience, but remember – obscene gestures can lead to a minimum of six months in prison and a fine of Dhs5,000. See You and the Law on p22 for more on this. So, simply take a deep breath, plan your route in advance and expect the unexpected.
Swapping your licence
If you are 18 or over, and have a passport, residence visa and driving licence from any of the EU countries, GCC, the US or Canada, Japan, Turkey, Switzerland, South Korea, Singapore, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, you can swap your licence for a UAE equivalent. This can be done at any Traffic Police licensing office (see www.dubaipolice.gov.ae for locations). Popular spots include Jumeirah Beach Road, Deira City Centre and Police HQ off interchange four of Sheikh Zayed Road. The process takes around an hour and costs Dhs110, plus extra for typing.
You will need your passport with valid residence visa plus copies; your current licence (with copies); passport photos (at least three) and evidence of a successful eye test by a registered optician (most centres have one nearby). Be patient; polite smiles tend to work better than expat hissy fits.
Currently, you cannot convert car and motorbike licences at the same time, even though the application form contains a box marked ‘motorcycles’. Even if you tick this box, your licence will most likely be returned minus the motorbike details. This means you then have to re-apply and, of course, pay further application fees. It’s unclear whether this is a glitch in the system or a revenue generator, but it happens to almost everyone, so don’t lose your cool. There have also been a few stories of women being refused bike licences, as the policeman on duty feels it’s too dangerous for them. Stick to your guns and insist on speaking to the boss. Otherwise, come back on a different day.
Learning to drive
The RTA doesn’t recognise licences from all countries, meaning you may need a minimum of 40 half-hour lessons, even if you have been driving without any problems for several years. Holders of provisional licences from recognised countries may be subject to less that amount. The waiting lists for driving lessons can be fairly long, and there are limits to how many lessons can be taken each week, so expect a lengthy wait (and a hefty payment). However, if you’re willing to pay an extra wedge of money, you can get ‘VIP’ treatment, and skip the waiting list. Rules change regularly, so call the RTA on 04 203 6666 (or visit www.rta.ae), for up-to-date information.
Until recently, there were lots of independent instructors. But since a clampdown on dangerous driving, the only way to learn is with a large, government sanctioned school. Your learning car is likely to be a Nissan Sunny or a Toyota Corolla, and you can choose to learn in a manual or an automatic. Schools have a structured, professional teaching system and female instructors for women.
The driving test
The driving test has been a highly debated topic for many years. The practical element is something of a lottery, with the driving part only lasting about 10 minutes. Traffic police seem to fail people randomly and with little explanation. Rumours that a cap exists on the number of people who can pass in one day have never been confirmed.
Before getting that far, you’ll need to pass a mock test. If you do well, the school will apply for your proper test. You must then attend a one-hour lecture on road signs and safety, which allows you to get your test application stamped. You can then take part in the multiple choice theory test. This takes place in a room divided into men and women. You sit in front of a computer screen and choose your answers from a variety of options. Although not particularly taxing, you do need to score 10 out of 10, so take your time.
Once the theory test is out of the way, you need to try the parking test. This involves a fairly simple reverse park. However, this is one of the main areas where people trip up, so get practising. When all of this is completed, you will be allowed to take the main test – your driving school will apply for you. Auto test slots are easier to get than manual tests and there are more male testers than female testers.
When your test finally comes around, you will be sharing the car with three other hopefuls. Each person drives for about 10 minutes. You will be expected to perform a number of lane changes and do a U-turn. Once back at the centre, you will then sit in a waiting room. If you are unlucky enough to fail, there is no system of appeals – just take your form, go home and sulk. Do not argue with the examiner, as you might get them again next time. If, on the other hand, you pass the test, then your licence will be issued to you at the test centre. Once again, you will need ID.
How to pass
The language barrier is one problem that many people encounter. If you cannot understand your instructor, request another one. During the test, make an obvious head movement towards the rear-view mirror to show the examiner you are actually checking behind you. Finally, try to practise in a variety of different cars. The test car will have a different clutch (if manual) and brakes to your learner car. The quicker you get used to driving different cars, the easier the test will be.
Buying a used car
There are now a large number of reputable dealers selling quality vehicles at a reasonable price. Whoever you buy from, do your homework. Check the Gulf News classifieds to get an idea of local market value. Insist on a decent warranty and try to get the garage to include a service or check-up in the price. Avoid buying privately until you know the market better. It is very easy to get ripped off. If you do buy from a dealer, consider getting the car you like checked by an independent specialist. Right-hand drive cars cannot legally be driven in the UAE.
Registering your vehicle
In order to legally drive your car, it must be registered in your name. Dealers will do this for you, but if you buy from a private seller you will have to do it yourself. You and the seller of the vehicle will have to visit a police testing and registration centre (see www.dubaipolice.gov.ae), or, a more convenient and quicker way is to stop at one of the selected Emarat (04 343 4444; www.emarat.ae) or Eppco (www.eppcouae.com) petrol garages, where you can take care of everything in one place. The whole rigmarole will take around two hours, costs about Dhs400 and includes a test for road worthiness. If you are simply re-registering your car, for just Dhs200 more you can save yourself the time and hassle as someone will pick your car up, test and register it, and bring it back to you.
You will need copies of your passport, valid residence visa and UAE driving licence; a letter from your work confirming that you are an employee (this is legally required but hardly ever asked for); valid insurance (for one year); the seller needs to bring the registration card and copies of their passport and residency visa. The seller also needs to settle any fines held by the car (you can go to www.dubaipolice.gov.ae and enter the registration number to check they have done this beforehand).
Renting a car
Long term, buying tends to make most financial sense, but it can be a weight around the neck of those unsure of their new surroundings. Renting is a good option for anyone finding their feet, and means no hassle with car repairs, depreciation or running costs.
If you go with a smaller company, make sure you read the small print. Most of the small renters are reputable, but you do need to make sure you know what you’re signing for. As with anywhere else in the world, make sure you check the car thoroughly before accepting it. If it has a scratch and you do not identify it, it will be charged to your card when you return the car. Make sure it has a good spare tyre and that all of its instruments work.
Insurance cover in the event of an accident can vary considerably from company to company, so check the small print. Remember, you are new to the roads of Dubai, and road virgins are usually the first to get into fender-bending difficulties.
Car rental firms
Most major hire companies have offices at the airport and at hotels. Drivers must be aged over 21 to hire a small car, or 25 for a medium (two-litre) or larger 4x4 vehicle. Prices range from Dhs75 per day for a small manual car, to Dhs1,000 for something like a Lexus LS430. Monthly fees start at around Dhs1,800 for a smaller car. Motorbikes are not available for hire in Dubai.
You will need your UAE driving licence (if you’re a Dubai resident, your national licence if not); original passport (plus copy); a credit card.
In the event of an accident, you must call Dubai Police to the scene. Insurance companies will not pay out without seeing an accident report. When the traffic cop arrives, he will judge who was to blame. Keep calm and state your case clearly and politely. Few traffic policemen speak English well, which can put you at a disadvantage if you don’t speak Arabic (and even more so if the other driver does).
A green form will absolve you of responsibility and should be taken to your insurance company. A pink form puts the blame on you; the other driver can then charge their repairs to your insurer.
The policy on moving cars after an accident remains a little unclear. In theory, after a minor prang in which no-one was hurt, cars can be moved away from traffic. But most drivers will not move their cars, for fear of weakening their imminent argument with the Dubai Police agent.
Generally, the insurance offered by car dealers and rental firms is pretty competitive. If you want to shop around, you could ring AXA (04 324 3434; www.ax-gulf.com), RSA (04 334 4474; www.rsagroup.ae), or Arabian Scandinavian Insurance (04 282 5585). Whatever your decision, ask whether the deal covers the entire region or just the UAE. Insurance restricted to the UAE will be cheaper. If you are under 25 or have only held a driving licence for a short time, you are likely to find your insurance premium will shoot through the roof.
Salik is Dubai’s automated toll system. With no booths, gates or barriers, it is designed to keep the city’s cumbersome traffic flowing. There are tollgates on Al Garhoud and Al Maktoum bridges and Sheikh Zayed Road.
You must get a Salik tag, which will automatically deduct Dhs4 from your prepaid account each time you pass through. You can get these from selected petrol stations (look for ‘Get your Salik tag here’ signs near the station), Dubai Islamic Bank and Emirates Bank, at a cost of Dhs100. If you have bought a used car and it already has a tag, you must transfer it into your name by filling out the relevant form available, again from select from the select petrol stations. If you go under a toll with no credit on your account and don;t top up within two days, you will be fined Dhs50 for each toll you went under. Don’t worry, though, you will receive a helpful SMS when your account balance is low, and you can top up at the Salik website or buy a top-up scratch card from any petrol garage. If you are renting a car, check your agreement regarding how the rental firm expects you to pay for tolls.
Petrol is cheap, and most tanks can be filled for less than Dhs60. There are 24-hour petrol stations on all major highways. Most petrol stations also have convenience stores selling snacks and drinks.
Many areas in the city centre have introduced paid parking in a bid to reduce congestion. Prices are reasonable (Dhs1 or Dhs2 for a one-hour stay, depending on location), but this hasn’t made it easier to secure a space. Paid parking areas are operational at peak times (generally from 8am to 1pm and 4pm to 9pm), and it’s free to park there outside of these hours and on Fridays or public holidays.
You’ll be fined Dhs200 for illegal parking, Dhs150 for a ticket that isn’t displayed properly and Dhs100 if you exceed your time limit. Generally your car hire company will pay any fines for you and charge them to you at the end of your lease.