Dubai battles flood waters as historic storm causes chaos

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An intense storm has caused travel havoc across the United Arab Emirates, forcing the cancellation of flights at the world’s second-busiest aviation hub and leaving passengers stranded as flooding disrupted roads and public transport.

The UAE has experienced its heaviest rains in the 75 years for which it has kept weather records, according to meteorological authorities. One Emirati man was reportedly killed in flash flooding in Ras Al Khaimah. In neighbouring Oman, where dangerous storms are more frequent, more than a dozen people were reported killed.

In Dubai, operations at the airport, a global travel hub, were severely disrupted, while vehicles were submerged in poorly drained slip roads and tunnels, highlighting the vulnerability of the region’s financial centre to extreme weather.

Flood waters cascaded through malls on Tuesday, while in the most violent periods of the storm, furniture was hurled from balconies while the sky turned green. The rising waters flooded villas in the city’s desert outskirts, where residents were canoeing and jet-skiing along submerged roads. 

Dubai officials are concerned about the growing frequency of large-scale storms in the city, where drainage systems are overcome during periods of heavy rainfall. Scientists have predicted that climate change will make the lower Gulf region hotter, more humid and more prone to flooding.

A government body that oversees cloud seeding — which the UAE uses to manage precipitation — was forced to deny its involvement in the extreme weather. The National Center of Meteorology told CNBC news that it had not deployed pilots before or during the storm.

Although sunshine prevailed by Wednesday, Dubai airport, the world’s second-busiest aviation centre, advised people “NOT to come to the airport, unless absolutely necessary”, and Dubai airline Emirates suspended check-in for passengers until midnight on Wednesday. In-bound flights were diverted as the storm raged on Tuesday night. 

Flooding on Tuesday covered large parts of the UAE’s road network, leaving standing water on Wednesday. Public transport has been severely disrupted, with many metro stations in Dubai closed on Wednesday. 

Government employees and students have been told to stay at home, while waterlogged golf courses remained closed.

The oil-rich UAE is seeking to reduce its dependence on exports of fossil fuels, the biggest contributor to global warming. Dubai hosted the COP28 climate summit last year, where a historic agreement was reached to establish a “loss and damage” fund for poorer nations and to “transition away” from fossil fuels. Abu Dhabi is currently hosting an assembly of the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Marissa Grobler, consul general of Namibia to UAE, was caught in the centre of the storm’s destructive impact in the desert region between the cities of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.

Located in one of several areas that received twice the nation’s average annual rainfall in one day, her family slept in a bathroom overnight as high winds tore off the roof of her newly built home.

“A concrete wall came down, smashed like Lego, and debris destroyed our cars,” said Grobler, who runs a quarantine facility for endangered species. “Parts of our roof are literally on another farm one kilometre away.”

Her neighbours, a group of workers, were now homeless after their less-secure buildings were completely destroyed, she said. By Wednesday, phone and internet connectivity had been restored in her neighbourhood but electricity remained down.

At Grobler’s facility, a large aviary was broken apart while other animals, including meerkats and gazelle, either drowned or escaped when walls collapsed. “It’s crazy. I have never seen anything of this magnitude,” said Grobler, who has lived in the UAE for 23 years and grew up in neighbouring Oman.

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