Shaikh Zayed Road in 2017, with the Burj Khalifa visible in the distance. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Residents who have lived in the emirates for decades remember a time when travel within the country was a long and unpredictable exercise fraught with adventure, and necessitated stops at border posts to get their passports stamped.

The situation is unimaginable to anyone making the trip between Dubai and Abu Dhabi today, when it’s easy to head down to a meeting in another emirate in the morning and return in time for a late lunch.

The road had not been tarmacked, so many became stuck in the sand tracks, and it was easy to get lost. In addition, at the border between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, there was a formal customs post where inspectors would unload and check the contents of your vehicle.

The two emirates were fiercely independent and ran their own police, customs and security forces, while developing their own separate economies. The unification of the federation had yet to start, so the development of what is now the E11 highway represents the story of the country’s coming together and the rapid development that was to follow, as the UAE’s longest road that now stretches from Ras Al Khaimah in the east to Saudi Arabia in the west.

Abdul Salam Shaik arrived by boat from India in the early 1960s, and remembers Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi as distinct entities. “The travel time ran into many hours,” he tells Reach by Gulf News.

Now in his 70s, Shaik is speaking from his son’s apartment in a high rise located on the Dubai stretch of the E11 highway, now called Shaikh Zayed Road, after the former ruler of Abu Dhabi and President of the UAE. He recalls how the journey from Dubai to Abu Dhabi was often problematic.

“Sometimes when we travelled, we literally lost ourselves. There were frequent changes in the sand tracks, and all the vehicles then went around in circles until someone found the route again.

If we reached the Maqta crossing after sunset — and this happened to me a few times — we were provided some water and dates and asked to stay overnight in tents. We were only able to enter Abu Dhabi island the next morning, after a border security guard had resumed duty.” As recently as 2010, the old watchtower at this point was the most distinct landmark on the route from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. It can still be seen, dwarfed by bridges on either side.

Over the years, two equivalent sights on the journey in the other direction came up. “My parents tell me that sighting the tall, white Dubai World Trade Centre symbolised their entry into Dubai, but when I was a child, my personal signpost was the old Hard Rock Café,” says Rand Abdul Jabbar, Director of Centre for Architectural Discourse, hinting at the expansion of Dubai in the course of a generation.

“Since my earliest days in the UAE, such was our obsession and fascination for this road, that it was an easy decision to make it the subject of our first project,” she says of her print and film project E11, a contemporary documentary covering the road that runs across the country.  

“The E11 is a notable and enduring symbol of the diversity of the UAE,” the Iraqi-Canadian architect says, citing the staggering variety of architecture, topography and geography she has documented alongside her Emirati friend and fellow-architect Meitha Al Mazrooei.

Yahya Jan, President and Design Director – Middle East at Norr Group, believes that the E11 is not merely a symbol of unity and diversity but also of the astounding growth that the UAE has witnessed over the past 45 years. “When I arrived in Dubai in 1994, I was fortunate that my residence and office were both on this stretch of the E11,” he says from his office on the penthouse floor of City Tower 2.

“Shaikh Zayed Road in those days was not the densely populated stretch it is today; I would leave my apartment at Sky Towers and simply cross this road to reach my office in minutes.  As a new architect in Dubai 21 years ago, I wondered why they had built this road.”

However, his opinion changed dramatically when the new road was officially opened in 1996, and Jan went on to design two of the most notable buildings on the same stretch, Jumeirah Emirates Towers and the Shangri-La Hotel. He now sees the road as a symbol of urban design and contemporary cityscapes.

The oldest bank in the country says its corporate story reflects the national success story of the E11. Half a century ago, operating under the name Bank of Oman, Mashreq started operations in Deira and Bur Dubai, in what was the independent emirate of Dubai, followed by two branches in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. After the federation of the UAE in 1971, Mashreq grew in size and scope to cover all seven emirates. The bank now serves both ends of the E11, and throughout its long journey across the country, with the furthermost branches on the road located at NBB Worker's City in Mojumaat Hameem, approximately 60km west of Abu Dhabi city, and the Al Nakheel Branch in Ras Al Khaimah at the other end.

Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, CEO of Mashreq, draws attention to the marked difference between a time in the past when road trips to Abu Dhabi involved carrying his passport, and today’s bustling road that stretches from border to border with ease. “Our visionary rulers, Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi and Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum of Dubai, sensed the need of the people, and they drove this project together.

“The E11 joined the country: it brought us closer together, doing business became easier, and the tangible activity along the road spells out its success today. In much the same way that the E11 has endured, thrived and grown to be a great unifier across this nation, the growth at Mashreq has run parallel alongside it. We grew together, endured many changes in the environment and today, both are living symbols of a unified country.”

Creating the Union

Stretching almost 560 kilometres from the Al Ghuwaifat border post with Saudi Arabia to the west, up to Al Jeer, the border post with Oman to the east, the road that eventually became the E11 was first conceived in the mid-1960s, both as a commercial artery and a symbol of political unity among the independent emirates that were part of the Trucial States.

The story of the E11 seems to begin almost as soon as the emirates, led by Abu Dhabi and Dubai, signed an agreement to form a single nation. In February 1968, Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan and Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum met at Al Sameeh on the border between the two emirates (currently on the Shaikh Maktoum Bin Rashid stretch of the E11, named after the former ruler of Dubai and Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE) and reached an understanding on unification. The historic Al Semha (Seeh Al Sedera) Agreement was the first step towards the Union announced on December 2, 1971.

At the time, paved motorways connected Abu Dhabi to Al Ain and Dubai to Ras Al Khaimah, but the new country’s two biggest cities could be reached only by dusty tracks. It took approximately four hours to travel between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, with frequent disruptions caused by camels and car wrecks. “There were no directions and no guarantees, no one to help if the vehicle got stuck in the sand, and every journey depended on weather and visibility,” explains Shaik. “I used to pay 3 or 4 red rupees [Indian currency in use before the dirham] for each trip from Dubai to Abu Dhabi in a packed Land Rover that served as a taxi, often sharing the vehicle with cattle and water containers.”

Shaikh Zayed Road as it is now. The change in tarmac colour indicates the Dubai-Abu Dhabi border on the E11 at Seih Shuaib. Stefan Lindeque/Gulf News

Construction of the new highway began in 1972, and a single carriageway soon connected the cities in each direction. In Abu Dhabi, the new road began at Mafraq – Arabic for junction – in an area still known by the same name. In Dubai, it began at the First Interchange, popularly known as Defence Roundabout. Today, a subtle change in tarmac colour indicates the Dubai-Abu Dhabi border on the E11 at Seih Shuaib.

A second carriageway was planned in the late 1970s to accommodate a perceived increase in volume of traffic. In the 1990s, the Dubai section of the E11 was renamed Shaikh Zayed Road in honour of the President, and in response, Abu Dhabi renamed a section Shaikh Maktoum Bin Rashid Road, in honour of the then Prime Minister.

Since then, the E11 has been upgraded several times to create the eight-lane highway that now connects travellers between Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Metaphors and meanings

Lined with contrasting expanses of modern cityscapes and small towns, coasts and deserts, the road assumes different names in distinct sections. In fact, it has grown to become a physical metaphor for the history and story of the country itself.

Shaik is emphatic that E11 is an enduring symbol of unity. “When I came here in December 1962, each emirate was distinct, different, and this road really unified Dubai and Abu Dhabi – and the country. Today’s residents think of it as a seamless connection between cities, but some of us have seen how the connection was built, and how it grew. 

“To see this road rising from the desert and becoming the arterial highway that it is today is nothing short of a watching a dream coming to life.”

Al Ghurair also recognises what the road has come to symbolise. “The story of the UAE’s success is fascinating and inspiring – and one of its best-loved and most visible symbols is the E11,” he says. “Similarly, our ethos at Mashreq mirrors that of the country – just as anything is possible in the UAE, we at Mashreq believe we can make our customers aspirations possible through perseverance and focus.”

The E11 has many secrets and stories, Rand says, and she urges residents to discover some of them. Her favourite icons on its stretch include an abundantly decorated but abandoned mansion in Ras Al Khaimah, a 70s-style housing complex in Ruwais, and the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation.    

Jan harbours a great fondness for the E11: “A road by its very definition is flat, but this is by no means flat. It is a landmark by itself, and I am not amiss in saying it is similar to some of the greatest boulevards of our time. 

“The E11 is the spine of the UAE. But this is not its final form, it will change. If we pay heed to evolving urban design – especially bridges and underpasses that are structurally knit together – it will be more than a connector that runs from south to north; it will also be a cross-connector from east to west. It will not only be a connector for vehicles but also for people.”

Road with many names

On its long journey from Al Ghuwaifat on the Saudi border to the Ras Al Khaimah enclave of Al Jeer just before Oman, E11 has many names:

• Abu Dhabi-Ghuwaifat International Highway

• Shaikh Maktoum Bin Rashid Road

• Shaikh Zayed Road

• Dubai-Sharjah Road

• Al Wahda Street

• Al Ittihad Street

• Shaikh Mohammad Bin Salem Road

• Al Manama-Ras Al Khaimah Road