From my extensive travels in the region I have come to realise that Abu Dhabi is the only largely pedestrian and wheelchair friendly city I have been to in the Arab world.
This is mostly because of the strategy that Sheikh Zayed laid out for the capital in the 1970s, and it makes me wonder why other cities in the Arab world haven’t tried to accommodate pedestrians and wheelchair users. I recall historic Cairo’s gaping potholes, wealthy Riyadh’s sandpits and new Beirut’s haphazard pavements.
After all, mobility is among the first factors that one considers when assessing whether to relocate to a city. Recently, an Iraqi friend of mine was considering moving with his family from London to the UAE. A large part of his family’s decision not to move to the particular emirate in which his brother-in-law teaches was that the pavements are not wheelchair friendly for his sister. “We can’t expect her to stay cooped up in the house all day. She’s an independent woman who expects to move around freely,” he said.
In the UAE many of our public and private institutions have yet to accommodate people with special needs. Others have made an effort, but could still do with a bit of adjustment.
For instance, when a close friend of mine from Saudi Arabia came to visit, and I booked a room for him at the Kempinski Hotel in Dubai, what surprised me was that all the wheelchair friendly rooms available were deluxe rooms – which we ended up booking anyway, although it was beyond budget. The reason we did so was so that he could wander around the adjacent Mall of the Emirates without having to commute there in vehicles.
However, when we entered the mall, which otherwise is very well designed to accommodate his needs, we were surprised to see that leading to its luxury retail section is a three-step staircase that you have to climb to visit stores and the cafe at the end. It was challenging to understand how a mall’s single hotel has only luxury suites for wheelchair users, while its luxury section isn’t wheelchair friendly. Of course there was the option of going into Harvey Nichols, an adjacent store, taking the elevator up, and then exiting on the upper floor to take another elevator down to the luxury section – but he declined that option.
I am also aware of how hard the Roads and Transports Authority has worked to make the Dubai Metro as accommodating as possible to wheelchair passengers. However, certain areas of Dubai’s pavements, as well laid as they are, do not have ramps at the sides that allow wheelchair users to access the Metro – an issue that I hope the RTA is addressing.
About a decade ago I asked the engineers in the family firm to make sure that wheelchair users could easily access the buildings we construct. On a routine visit to a site with my late father we noticed that the ramp was missing. We called in the engineer and asked him what happened to the ramp that appeared in that building’s plans.
He pointed to an almost vertical wall and said: “There’s the ramp.” I replied: “No sir, that’s called a wall.” The degree of slanting must have been about 70 per cent. Finally, I challenged him to use both his hands and grab on to the side railings and climb up. He couldn’t. It wasn’t a ramp after all.
The challenges facing wheelchair users in the UAE are numerous; many of them are caused by lack of public awareness. My visiting Saudi friend told me about how often he had to wait outside wheelchair friendly WC facilities in malls, only to see a perfectly fit man walk out from there. He once asked one of them why he used this facility when the regular WC facilities are right next door. His reply was that he preferred the large space in wheelchair friendly WCs.
The same applies to parking spaces designated for disabled drivers, which for obvious reasons tend to be close to the entrance to shopping malls and other buildings. Many ordinary drivers use those spaces out of sheer selfishness, even though they don’t qualify.
It is no doubt a long-term challenge to educate people; however, we can start by introducing proper legislation. The UAE’s assembly, the Federal National Council, should pass a law obliging all private and public buildings to provide truly wheelchair friendly access. Ramps, doorways and other common areas should be shown to accommodate wheelchairs before developers obtain final municipal approval for their plans, and systematic checks should be carried out. Institutions found to be wheelchair unfriendly must be given a limited period of time to rectify the situation. After all, free mobility for everyone is a right, not a luxury.
Wheelchair users deserve all the rights enjoyed by those of us who walk. This discrimination must end immediately. For this country, Abu Dhabi’s pedestrian and wheelchair friendly pavements should just be the beginning.
*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday 23rd August 2009