Expats chill with Dubai desert off-roading

Mohammed Iqsaan runs a real estate company in Dubai but off-roading over desert dunes on weekends is his escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.

The glitzy Gulf emirate's skyline is dominated by skyscrapers, topped by the world's tallest tower, while the emptiness of the Arabian desert lies only a short drive away.

And as the city-state attracts droves of tourists with its luxury resorts and grandiose malls, many expats opt instead for the tranquility of the vast sands.

"The desert has a different charm," said Iqsaan, a South African, standing at a camping spot after a day of driving near Swaihan, in the east of the United Arab Emirates of which Dubai is a member.

Iqsaan reached Swaihan in a convoy of all-terrain vehicles that are a must to navigate in the soft sands.

Fans of desert driving go through a briefing: places are assigned for vehicles within the convoy, tyres deflated to gain traction and seat belts must be worn at all times.

Sinking in the sand is not a problem, recovery is part of the weekend fun. If shovels fail to dig the vehicle out, another car comes to the rescue with a strap.

The desert outings are a "getaway from the hustle and bustle, the life of the city and traffic", said Anthony Alan, a US aircraft engineer.

"It's just a great place to be," he said, setting up a barbeque.

Autumn and winter are the best seasons for desert trips in the UAE, when the temperature drops to pleasant levels.

For Liudmyla Pykhtina, the temperatures are perfect compared with the freezing winters of her native Ukraine.

"I like the weather," she said, sporting a thin fleece on a chilly pitch-black evening.

"You can see the stars," she said, compared with the light pollution in the city where the skies are often hazy.

-'Beautiful and calm' -

Several companies organise dune-bashing desert safaris for tourists, while expats prefer to join off-road clubs, keeping updated on excursions through social media.

"Our website brings us all together," said Islam Mantawy, co-founder of an Abu Dhabi club which organises driving and camping trips.

Mantawy is a vice president at a local bank.

At weekends, he drops the suit and tie to don the black-and-orange outfit of a desert marshall and lead novice off-roaders on desert trips.

"The desert is beautiful... calm," he said, adding that his club boasts now 5,000 members who make regular trips across the UAE.

His convoys motor through the desert in search of a quiet spot, then set up camp. At night, families gather around a crackling log fire as the mercury falls.

Such trips can however pose an environmental threat to the ecosystem of the desert, just like any off-road activities.

According to the US-based website "Defenders of Wildlife", off-road vehicles, as well as military activities, cause "extensive, lasting damage to the fragile desert cover".

Leaving rubbish in desert areas after camping trips and picnics endangers grazing camels, who can choke to death from swallowing plastic bags.

"We avoid driving over grown grass that is grazed by animals and carry away our leftovers," said Hadeel Balbissi, a woman off-roader and human resources head at a local firm.

Iqsaan highlighted the draw of off-roading for expats.

In the desert, "all the noise pollution is left behind in the city. It just resets your whole biological clock. You get back to work revitalised," the realtor said.

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