Natural disasters in the UAE: Catastrophes of the Past and Risks of the Future
The UAE is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Millions of tourists come here every year to relax on the luxurious beaches of the Persian Gulf or the Gulf of Oman and to experience the wonders of modern architecture and technology. And of course they should know in advance what natural disasters or catastrophes they are likely to encounter. A natural disaster always comes unexpectedly, but knowing its potential can help you prepare for it.
Climate characteristics of the UAE
The Emirates are located in an arid tropical climate, characterised by unusually high temperatures throughout the year and low rainfall. Much of the country is a lifeless desert, in which hardly anyone lives. But there are major cities and tourist centres along the coastline.
The terrain of the United Arab Emirates is fairly flat, with no major altitudinal gradients. It is a flat plain with an average height of 85 metres above sea level, underpinned by the ancient and tectonically stable Arabian Shield. To the east of the country lies a mountainous area, separating the Gulf of Oman coast from the rest of the UAE. The mountains are of medium height, up to 2,500 metres above sea level.
Potentially dangerous factors that can cause a natural disaster include:
Tropical climate. Strong heat and low rainfall lead to frequent sand and dust storms that reach the resort towns and the coast.
Tropical downpours. Characteristic of the emirate of Fujairah and sometimes causing localised flooding. Recently, the western emirates have also been affected by downpours.
Proximity of tectonic fault boundaries. Leads to earthquakes whose reverberations are felt in the country. The danger is minimal.
Seasonal oceanic monsoons. Causes storms, hurricanes, heavy rainfall.
The importance of learning about the history of natural disasters
The history of natural disasters is important information to learn before travelling to your chosen country. Knowing the potential dangers you may face will not only help you choose the right location, but also the time of year when the threat of being in the midst of a natural disaster will be minimal.
For instance, knowing that the winter months are the peak time for sandstorms and flooding in the Emirates, you could consider visiting the country at a different time of year: autumn or spring.
This article provides a chronology of natural disasters that have occurred in the Emirates in the past.
The UAE is located in a tectonically calm region, where earthquakes are virtually non-existent. But that doesn’t mean that Emirati residents can’t feel the echoes of major earthquakes occurring elsewhere in the Middle East.
The Arabian and Anatolian tectonic plates are constantly shifting in relation to one another, resulting in strong and destructive earthquakes. The epicentres of earthquakes could also be located in Iran.
1 July 2022
An earthquake with a magnitude of over 6 struck the southern part of Iran overnight. As a result, 7 people were killed in Iran and 19 others were injured. But the echoes of the event reached the Emirates as well. In Dubai and Abu Dhabi, skyscrapers swayed, and many people panicked to get out of the buildings. But there was no destruction or casualties.
12 November 2017
The earthquake happened in western Iran, near the border with Iraq. The force of the tremors exceeded magnitude 7. More than 600 people died and many were left homeless. In the Emirates, the quake was only felt on the upper floors of skyscrapers and did not cause any damage.
Most of the UAE has an arid climate with low rainfall. The annual rainfall is a little over 100 millimetres. But to the east is the Emirate of Fujairah, which stretches along the shores of the Indian Ocean, separated from the rest of the UAE by a mountain range. Here, the monsoon brings heavy rainfall, which causes flooding. It does not happen very often, but the possibility of such natural disasters should be taken into account by tourists.
However, global climate change is having an unexpected effect. In recent years, it has become increasingly common for heavy downpours to occur in the country’s central emirates.
7-12 December 2020
Unusually heavy downpours caused flooding in several regions of the country, including Dubai airport, where several flights had to be cancelled. The downpours were accompanied by gale force winds and hail, resulting in a significant drop in temperature.
27-29 July 2022
Torrential downpours led to the worst flooding in 30 years in the emirate of Fujairah and partly in neighbouring Ras al-Khaimah. Streets in the city were flooded and rescuers had to evacuate more than 4,000 people. All of them were placed in urgently arranged temporary accommodation facilities. And still the victims could not be avoided. Seven people drowned as a result of the cataclysm. Damage from the flooding amounted to 1 million dirhams.
Storms and hurricanes
Because the Emirates has a long coastline, it is prone to sea storms and hurricanes, although to a lesser extent than other coastal countries. The Persian Gulf is fairly shallow and devastating storms are almost non-existent, although some scientists do not rule out the danger of typhoons and tsunamis.
One of the strongest hurricanes of recent times was on January 12, 2005. Wind gusts of up to 20 metres per second generated waves two metres high. These waves crashed onto the beaches of the UAE, not as a disaster, but as a huge attraction for tourists and locals. They all flocked to the beaches in droves, to admire the unusual phenomenon in the region.
In the Gulf of Oman, the situation is similar. Although it is open to cyclones from the ocean, real storms are rare here. Thus, on October 3, 2021, tropical cyclone Shaheen reached the UAE coast. The wind speed reached 85 kilometres per hour. Authorities closed several amusement parks and warned residents to stay indoors. Waves reached 3 metres high, and it was the strongest storm in the history of the region in a hundred years. There was no damage or casualties.
A common belief among tourists is that the sandstorm season in the UAE falls at the end of winter, the month of February. This is not entirely true. Sandstorms are not uncommon here at any time of year. They are caused by a wind from the north-west, from the deserts of Saudi Arabia, which the locals call Shamal. It’s a familiar phenomenon in the region and doesn’t cause serious damage.
Here’s a brief list of the worst sandstorms to hit the country in recent years:
18 April 2008. A severe storm hit Dubai City, with visibility dropping to 1,500 metres.
26 February 2012. Another storm hit not only Dubai but also many other parts of the country.
2 April 2015. The storm was very severe and lasted all day. Visibility dropped to 500 metres.
1 March 2019. The sandstorm started after heavy rainfall and resulted not only in reduced visibility but also a sharp drop in temperature to +10 degrees, which is very cold for the Emirates.
14 August 2022. Another storm hit Dubai and neighbouring emirates, with visibility dropping to 500 metres.
The greatest threat to tourists in the United Arab Emirates is the arid desert climate. Sandstorms of terrible strength often occur here, dangerous but majestic. The Gulf of Oman coast has become increasingly flooded in recent years due to heavy rainfall. Earthquakes are atypical of the Emirates, although they are also a possibility.
Hazards and disasters such as forest fires, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, mudslides or avalanches have not been recorded in the country.
For the Emirates, it is not possible to choose the safest season of the year. The country is safe at any time of the year. Another thing is that the sweltering heat can make a stay in the country in summer not the most comfortable. Therefore, most tourists choose to visit the UAE in autumn or spring.