190421 salik toll gate
A Salik toll gate. Photo for illustrative purposes Image Credit: Gulf News archives

When I first came to Dubai to live more than 13 years ago, one of the first purchases I made was that of a good, solid, and reliable used car from a dealership on Sheikh Zayed Road.

I was warned then by co-workers and others that I has to ensure that my Salik account was topped up. And like any new expat arriving in the city, I had no idea what Salik was, how it worked or indeed how it was charged. All I knew was that when I passed through a Salik gate, it would be automatically charged to my account.

I think I was too busy taking in the new city, the architecture, the sheer scale of the city as it rose higher and expanded — the Metro was still being built along Sheikh Zayed Road, its stations appearing like giant robotic armadillos waiting for sections of suspended track to be fed to them from cranes that put the rails in place around the clock — to fully understand what Salik was or how it worked.

So driving that car, I heard beeps at alarming regularity. My late wife and I decided then that those beeps must be Salik kicking in. But there seemed to be a lot of them as we sped around the city on its new motorways, looking at apartments, buying furniture and getting settled in to expat like in our new home of Dubai.

It was Dh4 a beep — and there was a lot of beeps — but it took several days to finally click in that those beeps were the speed warning fitted to the car, sounding every time we exceeded 120 kilometres per hour.

Salik was first introduced with two toll gates, one at Al Garhoud Bridge and the other at the Mall of the Emirates. Warnings from co-workers to me were based on their forearmed knowledge that two more gates, at Al Safa Park and on Al Maktoum Bridge, were to become active within days.

Those of us who lived in the city back then easily remember how many drivers would go to great pains and exited off highways — I seem to recall there were even sighs warning that such-and-such exit was the last before a Salik gate — to avoid paying the Dh4 tolls.

The Gulf News office wasn’t too far from Sheikh Zayed Road and I remember suggesting several times that we try and count how many vehicles passed a given spot on the highway to try and guesstimate just how much Dubai’s Roads and Transport Agency (RTA) garnered from the Salik system. It was obviously impractical and certainly not scientific and could never be anywhere near accurate. I should have known better and my thinking was corrected.

Now, however, there will be a greater body of financial knowledge associated with the automated tolling system with news last Saturday that Dubai plans to list the Salik system on the Dubai Financial Market. The announcement was made by Sheikh Maktoum Bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, the deputy ruler of Dubai.

The move is part of a concerted shift in Dubai to diversify the government companies that are listed on the market, Sheikh Maktoum tweeted, and Salik becomes the second candidate announced in the past month among 10 government-linked companies that are slated for listing as part of plans to boost stock market activity.

Dubai Electricity & Water Authority (DEWA) was the first, and Dubai Holding was considering taking business parks operator Tecom Group public too, Reuters reported last week.

Salik, with its windscreen tags, its seamless ability to collect tolls from vehicles as they pass through the eight gates in the system now, and its quick adaptation of automated billing and ease of topping up accounts, is just one highly successful example of the innovative technology adapted by the RTA as it developed what is arguably the world’s best integrated public transport and roads system in the world.

And modern. And efficient.

Earlier this month, Mattar Al Tayer, the Director-General of the RTA, spoke to a prestigious gathering of transport and road planners and told them that between 2006 and 2020, Dubai had saved a staggering Dh210 billion in terms of fuel, time and effort saved on its modern highways network. Over that same time, the RTA had spent Dh140 billion on its transport network.

To a large part, Salik has accounted for building modern roads, the world’s largest network of driverless trains and a public transport infrastructure that any large city in the world would give its right arm for.

The work “salik” in Arabic means “open” or “clear” — which is certainly true as there are no tool bother, barriers of physical gates to slow drivers down. And unlike other toll systems in use in on turnpikes or motorways in Europe, Asia or the United States, where long lines often slow traffic to a crawl, the simple stick with its RFID technology that sends an instant message to sensors in the gates over the road, the toll transaction is seamless.

If anything, it’s Salik’s simplicity that is its success. There are text messages warning that your account is low, topping up is easy. I mean, the tags themselves are largely indestructible — and you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever tried to peel a Salik tag off a windscreen from a car that you’re selling!

Make no mistake, listing Salik on the market in Dubai is an investment that can only go one way. If only investing in the market was as easy as topping up your Salik account!