‘Apocalyptic’ Dubai floods shake picture-perfect city

If Dubai is the ultimate Instagram city, then this was the week the filter came off.

Over an unprecedented 48 hours, the skies over the United Arab Emirates darkened and torrential storms washed away Dubai’s picture-perfect image.

About 25cm (10in) of rain – roughly twice the UAE’s yearly average – fell in a single day, leaving much of the city’s outdoor infrastructure under water.

Jordache Ruffels, a British expat living in Dubai, told BBC News experiencing the storms was like “living through the apocalypse”.

He watched from his apartment overlooking the city’s usually tranquil marina as furniture was flung from balconies by gale-force winds and Rolls Royce cars were abandoned on roads suddenly transformed into rivers.

“We live high up and could barely see a thing past the balcony… It felt like midnight in the middle of the afternoon,” he said.

A cluster of four large storms, each of them towering 15km (9 miles) into the atmosphere and fuelled by a powerful jet streams, rolled into the UAE one after another.

Heavy rainfall over the desert landscape of the Gulf is not unheard of, and residents were warned via a public alert system – but Dubai’s weather infrastructure was unprepared for the worst rain since 1949.

In many ways, few modern cities would have coped with the size of the deluge that hit Dubai this week.

Getty Images A flooded road and Dubai skylineGetty Images
Roads near some of Dubai’s most famous landmarks were inundated within hours

The city’s top attractions – largely indoors to protect from the searing heat – struggled to handle the sudden influx of water.

Caroline Seubert, 29, from the UK, was with her husband at a shopping centre when the storm hit.

“The mall was flooded, ceilings were collapsing,” she said. “We were told to leave, but the metro was shut and the taxis were not running.

“We were stranded, had to sleep in the mall lobby overnight.”

Matt Weir, a British teacher who has been based in Dubai for 10 years, said “people were aware” a storm was coming but the force of it left “neighbourhoods under water”.

While the forecast looks more typically blue and sunny for the week ahead, some storms remain possible – and with roads and other infrastructure still crippled, Dubai’s rulers are counting the cost.

The UAE’s President Sheikh Mohammed bin Nahyan issued a public order for “authorities to quickly work on studying the condition of infrastructure throughout the UAE and to limit the damage caused”.

Government employees have been told to work from home until the end of the week, while private firms have been encouraged to do the same. Schools across the country have been shuttered.

So far, the official death toll in the UAE is just one person – an elderly man who died when his vehicle was swept away in Ras Al Khaimah, according to local media.

Some of the worst disruption has been at Dubai International Airport, the world’s second busiest, where nearly 90 million people – more than the population of Germany – are expected to pass through in 2024.

It is an important hub for travel to the Gulf and connecting flights heading further afield – but witnesses say it has descended into bedlam after the floods.

A flooded taxiway meant planes were unable to reach the runway to take off and passengers were left stranded in the terminal building.

The country’s state-owned airline Emirates was forced to stop accepting check-in passengers at all. While it has since re-opened check-in, it says many passengers “are still waiting to get on flights”.

Reuters A man in a kayak in floodwater in DubaiReuters
Volunteers have been using any means necessary to help their neighbours

Jo Reilly is among the travellers left in limbo. The 41-year-old was flying back to the UK from Vietnam via Dubai with her daughters Holly, 13, and Ruby, nine, when the storm struck.

After two-and-a-half hours circling over the Gulf waiting for a chance to land, they eventually landed at another Dubai airport, before being told in the middle of the night to get on a bus to head for their original destination.

She said that her daughters “were practically crushed in a stampede as hundreds of desperate people were fighting for a seat on the coach”.

Once they eventually reached Dubai International Airport, the situation was no better. Jo said: “We asked can we have water, can we have food? Nothing. There’s nothing here. People are really, really in a bad way.

“We’ve been told it’s Sunday night the earliest we can get home and apparently we’re quite lucky to have that option.

“Emirates are saying there are no hotel rooms so I said, ‘Oh, so we’re just to carry on sleeping on the floor?’ And they said, ‘Yes, go make yourself comfortable over there’ and pointed to the corner of the check-in area.”

A child sleeping on the floor
Jo Reilly said her children had to sleep on the floor at the airport as there were no hotel rooms

Jonathan Finchett, also from the UK, described “apocalyptic” scenes in the airport, where people were arriving to find their flights had been cancelled.

He said that he saw families “barricading themselves behind a circle of luggage trolleys to keep themselves safe because they didn’t feel that safe because there was absolutely no staff”.

Queues at ticket desks were “pure chaos”, he said, adding: “There were hundreds of people stampeding towards this, like a crush. All of a sudden you had women screaming saying they couldn’t breathe.”

Emirates said it appreciated “how difficult it is for everyone affected” and that schedules were returning to normal.

Dubai International Airport said: “As much as possible, we’ve been providing necessary assistance and amenities to affected guests but due to road blockages, it’s taken longer than we would have liked.”

As for how things are now in the city, Jordache Ruffels said things had “practically returned to normal” after swift action by the authorities. “There’s a sense of unity and togetherness in times like this,” he added.

The storms hit a Dubai – home to 3.5m people – which would be unrecognisable to the 100,000 residents who called it home in the 1970s, before the oil boom.

There is also an annual influx of 14m tourists, including the influencers and celebrities seeking luxury hotels and glamorous backdrops (UK reality TV stars Joey Essex and James Argent were among those caught up in the disruption).

Its modern image runs alongside a strong regulatory and political control of media content where even foreign publications can be censored before distribution.

Matthew Hedges is an academic researcher who has authored a book on the UAE. In 2018, he was detained and tortured there after being falsely accused of spying.

He said he has spoken to UAE residents who are angry about the lack of preparedness for these floods, and who know extreme weather is a long-term issue facing the country.

Mr Hedges continued: “They have absolutely no way to legitimately or safely voice their concerns. If they do they will be punished and repressed.”

He also said he feared for the country’s poorer migrant workers – who make up a majority of the population and are likely to be hit harder by these climate events.

He added: “It is not the Emiratis who will suffer – they have jobs where they can work from home and drive 4x4s. It will be the expat workers, the labourers, who suffer.”

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