Temperatures of 50°C; sandstorms; people in coats and puffy jackets, complaining about the cold? Yes, and the common factor is the weather in Dubai and the other Emirates of the United Arab Emirates. How can such contrasts be possible in a place that is, in most peoples’ minds, a balmy, warm, white sand paradise?
Well, for a start, Dubai lies at latitude 20° north, so Dubai has seasons.
Not quite in the way that people used to temperate climates perceive four distinct seasons, but nonetheless, if you live in Dubai for a full twelve month cycle, you can definitely perceive a pattern of weather changes.
Starting with August, we’ll characterize as “appallingly, unimaginably hot” to the “pretty darned hot” of October and November, then on to “surprising pleasant and cool” of December, January and February, then heating up again March to May, and June through August, we’re back to where we started – no need to repeat what it’s like during these months.
Scattered throughout this twelve month cycle, you’ll experience sandstorms, rain and even snow (yes, snow…more on this later).
Life as a Troglodyte
In the hot months, late May, June, August and early September, the daytime temperature is routinely in the mid 40s C and can get as high as 50°C. People often ask me “How can you stand it?” The simple answer is that I can’t and so don’t.
Like most of my fellow expat residents, during these months, I become a cave-dweller. Multiple caves, actually. They are all air-conditioned to somewhere between 18° and 22°. My caves are my house, my car, and any one of a number of shopping malls, restaurants, hotels, and friends’ houses.
Time in the open is kept to an absolute minimum, like the short walk from the car, via an underground car-park (so you’re not exposed to the sun) to the fully air-conditioned mall, or apartment or wherever else I choose to go. And, like a lot of expats, I have the option to disappear altogether for most of June, all of July and most of August to places where the climate suits my clothes.
Hot and Dry?
Again, a lot of acquaintances passing through say things like, “OK, I get that it’s hot, but hot and dry is quite nice, isn’t it?” It might be, but Dubai isn’t hot and dry.
Most of the main UAE cities are spread along the coastline of the Arabian Gulf and that summer sun brings very high humidity with it. In other words, the hotter it gets, the stickier it gets.
So it’s 45°C outside most days during the summer months, but it’s like living in a sauna as well. And the evenings bring no respite from the humidity. Yes, the temperatures dip to the mid 30s, which might be quite tolerable, but the humidity, if anything, seems to get even higher. (The city which proves the exception to what I have said in this paragraph is Al Ain, the second city of Abu Dhabi Emirate. It is far enough from the coast for the humidity to be considerably lower, so yes, hot and dry, but I have no personal experience of living with it year round.)
What…no tar melt?
When summer temperatures get to a certain point in many countries – certainly above 30°C, most of us are familiar with the phenomenon of tar melt. The black, sticky bituminous stuff used to bind the roading materials together begins to liquefy, with awful consequences for carpet in the home, if any of it gets onto the soles of shoes. This doesn’t happen on UAE roads. Must be something to do with the mix used, or a benefit of modern research and materials, but even at 50°C, there’s little sign of the dreaded tar melt.
But something else happens at much lower temperatures – typically the mid 20s associated with winter and the winter rain downpours. The water seems to release a thin, oily film onto the surface of the road, which makes it lethal when combined with speed, if brakes are suddenly applied.
And that’s why the old expat hands are super wary of driving when it’s wet. Far too many drivers not used to wet conditions, make no allowances at all and continue to speed and drive too close. But even the best ABS system doesn’t cope well with the thin film of slippery stuff between the rubber and the road.
No Gutters, No Spouting, No Stormwater Systems
So where does the water go when it rains then? Well, by the Law of Gravity, to the lowest possible point. The villa I live in has a flat roof, but no guttering or spouting. The expectation is that the annual rainfall is so small that just having short, almost horizontal pipes at strategic points on the roof of the building will allow the water to fall harmlessly to the ground, clear of the side of the building, where it will eventually just seep away into the sand. This is all fine so long as the pipes are kept free of blockage – usually a short annual maintenance task best done in November.
The same thing applies on the roads. The storm-water drains, such as they are, rapidly fill up and then water pools form (and quite deep pools in places) on low points on the roads, cutting a 6 lane superhighway (the E311, for those in the know) down to just 1 or 2 useable lanes. And this, at 7.00am, when thousands of vehicles are streaming towards points in Dubai to get to work. Traffic is seldom pleasant in Dubai. Rain makes it horrific. Fog can be a killer on the Dubai-Abu Dhabi road in winter and it can disrupt air traffic as well (January/February) Read about the chaos the winter rains can bring here.
In December and January, some People Suffer
I guess cold is pretty relative. If you are used to northern European winters, an Italian winter, in the part where I am lucky enough to live some of the time, must seem pretty inconsequential, with its overnight lows of between 0°C and a few slightly lower temperatures, like -1°C, or -2°C. Gosh, we even had a -5°C last year! No wonder Canadians in particular snort! But of course, if that’s the cold you are used to, then 0°C is cold – period!
So in Dubai, in December and January, it’s not uncommon to see, late at night and in the early hours of the morning, people whose work keeps them out of doors, like police and security guards, wrapped in blankets, padded jackets and heavy woolen overcoats. And just what kind of Siberian conditions are they dressing up to protect themselves from? Well, it can go down to 15°C….or even as low as 12. Yes, that’s plus 12 degrees centigrade, not minus. Like I said, cold is relative.
Lots of tourists come to Dubai in the winter, and it is a lovely time to be here. But do be aware that it can be cloud for days at a time reducing any sunbathing time considerably.
Snow in Dubai?
Of course. Inside the artificial ski-slope at the Mall of the Emirates, there is a snow-making machine, an ambient temperature of -2°C and happy penguins. It’s highly unlikely that we’ll see or hear of it again for a few years, but in 2009, it did actually snow in Ras Al Khaimah, the UAE’s most northerly Emirate. You can read about it here and see the photographs from the Gulf News.
Sandstorms, but not Hollywood Style
Television and film have given us non-desert dwellers some gripping images of what a sandstorm is like. The Flight of the Phoenix, Lawrence of Arabia and the TV mini-series Dune all come immediately to mind, but there must be hundreds of others as well. So to get things into perspective, in sixteen years in the UAE, I have only seen one Hollywood sandstorm and then it lasted less than an hour.
Now, that’s not to say that they don’t exist in other desert places where there is no infrastructure to hold the sand in place. We have sandstorms – known as shamal in Arabic. They blow across the Arabian Peninsula from the north east – from Iraq – and they can occur in most seasons of the year and at the time of writing this the UAE has just experienced a particularly strong three day shamal.
So what’s it like? In a word, unpleasant. Fine, powdery dust gets into everything, including your homes. The wind will find the cracks under doors or around windows and the dust gets in. You can drive – it’s not like trying to drive in white-out conditions, but visibility is certainly greatly decreased. The wind is strong, but it’s not like a mid-western plains twister. You’re not going to see cars picked up and hurled through the air.
Despite these tales of cold and rain, I still maintain that December to February is the nicest time to visit Dubai. Mid October to the end of November is OK weather-wise, as is March. Between May and the end of September, well you’ve been warned!