July 13, 2008

The Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the greatest driving road in the world. Stretching for 7.3 miles and climbing nearly 4,000 feet, it boasts 60 corners and a surface so smooth that it would flatter a racetrack. It could easily be described as the eighth wonder of the world, but almost nothing is known about its creation.

The road is cut into the Jebel Hafeet mountain, the highest peak in the United Arab Emirates, the oil-rich Persian Gulf state. The mountain spans the border with Oman and lies about 90 minutes' drive southeast of the thriving city of Dubai. It looks down upon a dusty, desert landscape that belies a nation of astonishing wealth.

An unknown history
The view beyond the Mini's hood could have been rendered by a computer game designer, after a Red Bull too many. Three lanes of immaculate highway — two up and one down — are carved into the limestone mountain in one continuous squiggle.

Desperate for more information, we seek out the manager of the Mercure Hotel that opened at the top of the mountain three years ago. Rajesh Kapoor reckons that the road "was completed about a dozen years ago. I think the architect was Swedish because we had a Swedish guest stay who claimed that her husband was responsible for it." But that contradicts a claim made in a natural history guidebook that says the road was built in 1987.

Official sources suggest it was built as a honey pot for tourists who travel from nearby cities to sample the mountain air. But with the exception of the surprisingly mediocre hotel, there's almost nothing here. The road culminates in a huge car park, but the tatty café is unworthy of custom.

Perhaps the real, unspoken reason for the road's existence is to be found a mile from the hotel. There, sitting on top of the mountain, is a huge palace belonging to Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the current ruler of the Emirates. His face also adorns a huge banner announcing the entrance to the road and it's under his watch that it was constructed. This incredible feat of engineering is actually no more than a giant driveway. It's enough to make Bill Gates green with envy.

The streetlamps, of which there must be 500, are tuned to light not only the road, but also the adjacent rock. At Le Mans, 230-mph racecars must light the Mulsanne for themselves, while here in the Emirates, an empty road is slow-roasted by a million watts.

Further down the mountain we find a series of lurid tire marks, suggesting that we're not the only enthusiasts taking advantage of this motoring nirvana. The appearance of black paint on one of the border posts even suggests that some might have been trying a little too hard. Our friendly hotelier reckons that Land Rover's test engineers have been using the mountain for hot-weather testing and that the residents of Weissach (Porsche) will soon be paying him a visit.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan spared no expense when he commissioned the Hafeet Mountain Road. It would be easy to dismiss such extravagance as vulgar, but that would be to demean the majesty of the achievement. In every sense of the word, this is the world's greatest drive.


Anonymous said...

Now that was a hellva post...

Scott said...

I feel a little bit smarter. Thanks Jeff!

Anonymous said...

My sister lives in UAE and there all good for nothing, lazy, and fat. Plus no BOOZE in the entire place, and good luck finding a pork chop!

Nads said...

That road's in the new Land Rover ad, I saw it last night.

Anonymous, my wife was talking about taking a job in Dubai, I said "fuck that" I like my freedom a little more than a temporary infusion of cash.