UAE: Do you need a special licence to drive in the desert?

Authorities and professionals warn that with improper skills and equipment, off-roading can often lead to dangerous experiences

By Husna Murad

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Published: Sun 26 Nov 2023, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Mon 4 Dec 2023, 6:52 PM

As the days turn cooler and summer is left behind, UAE residents are gearing up to enjoy the vast and pristine deserts of the country. Campers and off-road drivers are packing up to spend the weekend amidst undulating sand dunes and under open skies. Authorities and professionals, however, warn that with improper skills and equipment, off-roading can often lead to dangerous experiences.

Sharjah Police’s recent decision to officially close the Al Faya dunes area in the emirate's central region comes in the wake of a tragic incident on November 17, where an Asian youth lost his life in an off-roading accident. Recently, off-roading accidents reported to the authorities have increased.

While there are specific areas such as wildlife conservation reserves where driving is not permitted, most of the open desert is free for off-roaders and campers. Al Qudra, Wadi Madha, Liwa, and Al Badayer have been popular off-roading trails across the UAE with no permit being required to drive in the desert.

Risk to life

According to Faateh Ahmed, COO of Dubai Offroaders Desert Driving Institute (DO), any driving licence holder in the UAE can venture out into the desert but they are advised by professionals to acquire special manoeuvring skills to go off the road.

“But there is a risk to life if off-roading is not treated with respect,” Ahmed underlined.

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As it is an adventure sport, often involving high-powered cars and jeeps, close calls with families camping on the sand could lead to disaster in crowded or widely known areas.

“In the past, it was a close-knit community and everybody would receive the correct guidelines from senior off-roaders. But, in recent years, we hear about cars rolling over or crashing into each other every weekend,” said Ahmed.

Extreme sport

New off-roaders often have many misconceptions about driving in the desert.

Nic Poltronieri, now an experienced off-roader, took a desert driving course before taking his car out to the sand dunes. It wasn’t long before he realised that he needed more training than just a couple of theory classes.

“In the beginning, I have had horrible experiences while off-roading because I thought that my skill level was good enough,” said Poltronieri. “Every time you go out, you have something to learn.”

Off-roading is an extreme sport and preparation is essential. Realising that you can always improve on your knowledge of driving in the desert is the first step in making sure that you do not endanger yourself or others.

Dangerous for cars too

“You're taking an expensive car out as well. So if you don't know what you're doing, it would also damage your car,” said Poltronieri.

Poltronieri realised that just because you have an off-road car doesn't mean that you should take it into the desert without knowing how to.

“My father damaged close to three brand new cars over the course of the first five years of his off-roading career because of lack of knowledge and experience,” said Faateh Ahmed, recalling his earliest days of off-roading.

Offroading Courses

There are many certified off-roading teaching institute in the UAE. The rates for basic off-roading courses start from Dh1,500 and go all the way till Dh9,000 for advanced classes.

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