Jebel Jais was supposed to lead to the boom of the new, growing, oil-rich and tourist-friendly United Arab Emirates. Instead the road became a perfectly paved 22-mile symbol of the global recession, a dream for fast drivers, and a safe haven from a brutal surveillance state — all to the tune of just $80 million.
The money might not have been exactly well spent, but it’s apparent in the construction of the road itself. You will not find more perfect stretch of tarmac anywhere in the world, let alone in the UAE mountains. The whole thing looks completely alien to its surroundings. Every other road in the area is potholed and cracked and rutted, if it’s even paved at all.
An hour from Dubai’s glistening city lights and supercar flash, Jebel Jais is a perfect little ribbon of big-money modernity stuck into poor and remote rural mountains.
A lot of strange and complicated factors have to come together to result in an $80 million road to nowhere, but they all start to seem natural when you get familiar with the boom-bust technocratic petrostate that is the UAE.
This all hangs on how the UAE is set up. The UAE consists of states just like the U.S. Each state has its own sort of economy. Abu Dhabi has so much oil that it can print money in perpetuity. Dubai has less oil, so they invested in air travel and tourism and finance, hence displays of opulence like the Burj Khalifa, the tallest manmade structure in the world.
Ras Al Khaimah, the mountainous state in the north that is home to Jebel Jais, has none of these things.
The UAE had a bit of a campaign in the late 2000s to bring tourism to Ras Al Khaimah. Quite a bit of development was planned for the state. It was going to host the America’s Cup yacht race there and the state was going to build a big resort on the top of the highest mountain in the UAE. Skiing was planned at the top with the help of some artificial snow, as well as a hotel, a cable car, a paragliding launch ramp (naturally), and a golf course.
If you are thinking to yourself that it doesn’t make sense to put a golf course and a ski resort in the middle of the desert, congratulations, you have a firmer grasp on reality than the state planners in the UAE.
When the worldwide economy imploded half a decade ago, all of these tourism plans fell through. Or rather, the funding all disappeared, except for the money allocated to the road the state had planned to link up all of these tourism destinations.
And that’s this road, built with 300 million dirhams, or about $80 million U.S. dollars. It climbs to the top of Jebel Al Jais (that’s the name of the mountain, the road is named Jebel Jais). At 1,910 meters it’s the tallest mountain in the UAE, and it’s where all of the ski resort hotel paragliding stuff was planned.
So that’s why you have a road to nowhere — it was supposed to go to some big tourist-friendly stuff, but when that all disappeared in the global recession, the road was left like a skeleton without a body.
But while the physical construction of the road might symbolize the power of the state, I saw no evidence that the watchful eye of the UAE’s police control ever made it onto Jebel Jais. You understand the gravity of that statement to moment you land in the emirates, just as I did a few months ago. At the time I was the only American journalist on a press junket to drive the car that won the last Dakar Rally.
I did not come to the UAE with an exactly open mind. All I could think of was the American DJ who had just been imprisoned for 56 days in Dubai on a marijuana possession charge not long before I flew into the city myself.
A representative from the airport met me in a hallway leading off from the plane and guided me through customs. We walked through a gymnasium-sized room, stretched completely full with lines of people, almost all South Asian families and a scattered handful of dismayed British tourists. Past that we entered another hall just as big, again as full with people, and quickly strutted past everyone to a small line in an under-construction corner.
We paused a bit, just long enough for me to worry if there was truth to those rumors about the government making things “difficult” for people with an Israel stamp on their passports like me. I was quickly pushed up to the front. A gruff man had me stare into a camera, peered right into my soul, and welcomed me into the country with a disapproving frown. As I was guided out of the airport, I passed a man with a falcon on his shoulder.
At the end of my first full day in Dubai, I met an expat colleague of a friend of mine in the shadow of the Burj. He explained to me which gulf state was more conservative than the next, and which ones served as a kind of low-key getaway for their stricter neighbors. He explained what it’s like to live and work in Dubai, and he tried to describe the very authoritarian, technocratic, and almost comically Hollywood-esque methods the police use to enforce order in the country.
He told me two stories: first he recounted the American woman stabbed to death in a mall, along with how the state publicized they put out video of a massive SWAT team hunting down and capturing the disturbed killer. Then he told me another story I have had a hard time verifying. The details were lost in the shisha smoke, but it’s simple enough to retell.
It goes like this: apparently, a Russian mobster threw his girlfriend out of his hotel window. No, this is not the time that the other guy threw a prostitute out of a window and the prostitute was sentenced to three months in jail. In the story recounted to me, the mobster threw his girlfriend from a window, she died, and he fled.
The police, however, quickly heard reports of the killing, checked surveillance footage, figured out what room he had been in, figured out who he was based on what hotel room he was in, and figured out what flight he had booked to flee the country.
They did not chase the killer, they did not make any attempt to run him down. When he arrived at his gate, police were simply waiting for him there and informed him he was under arrest.
That’s how Dubai conducts its policing. Cops don’t watch traffic, they let traffic cameras placed every few blocks do that work for them. It is as much a surveillance state as anywhere in the world, and its human rights record is downright appalling. The government’s watchful eye is omnipresent from the moment you get your passport stamped to the moment you leave.
Except things are different out on Jebel Jais. There are no speed cameras. And with no cops watching for traffic, there’s no real policing at all. The closest there is to any hand of the government are the construction crews finishing the next stage of the road.
This has a very unsurprising effect on the car enthusiasts of the UAE. To them, Jebel Jais is basically a free-to-enter hillclimb racetrack with no enforced speed limits and more turns than you can count. It’s not hard to find videos of people running the road at any speed they can manage, drifting the hairpins, whatever they want. There were thick black lines when I drove Jebel Jais from when a bunch of trucks came to do burnouts across the middle of the road.
And if you drive the road, you’ll understand why.
The first trick is figuring out how exactly to get there.
To get to Jebel Jais you need to drive about an hour north from Dubai until you get to the capital of Ras Al Khaimah, which is conveniently also called Ras Al Khaimah. From there you just need to head east (direct your GPS to the RAK Hospital and point towards the mountains from there).
The city gives way to the suburbs and the mountains appear hazy in the distance.
Signs will direct you on the right way, going by a few prison-looking military compounds.
Watch out for construction...
You enter into these sort of mountain-lined valleys that draw closer until the desert floor squeezes into a canyon. The road starts as a two lane, perfectly surfaced, in these gliding hundred-mile-an-hour sweeps.
As the mountain walls pull in around you, you begin to climb uphill and you get another lane for passing on the way up.
Not that you need to because the road is virtually deserted. The only other vehicles out are the occasional SUV carrying a family up for a scenic drive and an old Toyota FJ truck going to work.
As you climb, the road begins the fluctuate with big, third gear bends.
And the further up you get, the more you are peppered with hairpins. Not quick, tight, first gear stop-and-gos. They’re second gear turns, often with kinks in the opposite direction just before the bend. There are warning signs on the side of the road alerting you that they’re coming up. And that’s very good, because the braking can be super tricky and unsettling for the car.
It’s like the whole road is designed to be a challenge for a spirited driver. Before you known it you’ve come around one more third-gear turn, an endless drop just a jersey barrier away from your fender, and it’s all over.
There’s a barricade across the road and a pull off to the right. There are two little parking spots and a single trailer selling coffee, tea, and packaged snacks.
The barrier tells you that the road is still not quite all the way to the top yet, and that construction crews will finish sometime in the future. You are simply left with the most inconceivably perfect view of the road you’ve just run. I counted eight different levels of the road and half a dozen hairpins.
You would think that Jebel Jais is purpose built for the kind of supercar you see stuck in traffic in downtown Dubai. It is sweeping and wide and smooth. Lots of places to go hideously fast, lots of hairpin exits to lay down rubber at will.
But I can tell you that you definitely do not need a supercar to enjoy Jebel Jais. Because I took this up and it was fucking fantastic.
It’s a Ford Figo. Basically, you’re looking at a previous-generation Ford Fiesta with a new face, built to be sold cheaply in developing markets. I had to go way outside of town to pick it up, one of only two cars in Dubai with a manual transmission.
Why? Because it’s more fun to be heel-toeing down to second in a left-right approach into a hairpin. It’s more fun to be left-foot braking into a wide third gear sweeper.
I did one drive up, and then another one down. Then I ran the road again. And again. Each trip takes about half an hour and I think I did five total, but I started to lose count in the heat and the sweet coffee up at the top.
I decided I had enough when the Ford’s rear end started getting a little bit too lively going downhill. I didn’t want to end up sideways off the road and down the mountain, or rolling into some Pakistani family’s Kia. I took one last coffee, water and canned pistachio break at the top before heading home.
There was the gravel turnaround, the single trailer, the men on prayer mats and the view of the mountains ahead of me and my rental car parked behind. The engine ticked away as it cooled down nearby.
I ended up getting into a conversation with one of the mothers up there, and she told me about how hard it is to find work these days in Dubai. New job openings at the oil companies are just as scarce as they were at the peak of the Recession. But as much as the state does not provide for them, it does somehow produce this road, this view, this distance from everything that they get to enjoy.
There is a happy distance up here. You feel like you are a long way from the sickly new shine of downtown Dubai and the flashing lights of its Ferrari police cars. It’s like the UAE’s brooding and ostentatious authority doesn’t quite reach up here.
What’s strange about Dubai and the UAE is that in the midst of its extreme surveillance, its autocratic government, the boom and bust cycle of development, humanity slips through as it always does.
Immigrant families might be struggling to find work in a declining oil economy, but they still get to barbecue at the top of an $80 million road built to go nowhere, built for no one in particular, built for them.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.