Desert Rains Play Havoc With School Days in Dubai

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In Dubai, which is built on top of the desert and surrounded by sand dunes, schools have been closed for much of the week because of heavy rainfall. The city doesn’t have a drain system for water to flow off the streets, so some were flooded and had to be closed, making it difficult for everyone to get around.

On the morning of Jan. 15, when I stepped out of my hotel for a reporting assignment on American education consultants working with the schools here, I was surprised to see a steady rain. The federal government had closed schools and government offices the previous day to avoid traffic problems during a visit by President Bush. (You may already get the picture that traffic snarls are rather routine in Dubai, a city of 860,000 that is growing rapidly.)

I was accompanied to a private school, Indian High School, by an American consultant working for the United Arab Emirates Ministry of Education—and if he hadn't decided to have his ministry driver stop by my hotel and pick me up, I never would have made it. Taxis were hard to come by.

At Indian High School, administrators and teachers noted that, if it rains in the desert, it's usually a brief drizzle, not continuous rain of the kind that fell this week. Yet the administrators and staff had a few umbrellas on hand, which we used to stay dry while darting from building to building.

Though Indian High School remained open on Jan. 15, administrators at other schools decided to shut down, worried about transporting students when some roads were not passable. And by the end of that day, UAE Minister of Education Hanif Hassan announced that all schools in Dubai would close on Jan. 16 and 17.

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The Gulf Today, an English-language newspaper, reported the morning of Jan. 16 that “Nature more than made up for the delay in rains this year by drenching the UAE with record pourings in the emirates of Sharjah, Dubai, and Ras Al Khaimah.” Dubai received 47 mm of rain in 24 hours, up until Tuesday at 4 p.m., the newspaper said. (That’s 1.85 inches.)

Still worried about getting a taxi, I accepted an offer to have a ministry driver pick me up on Jan. 16 as I headed there for interviews. It was still raining, and at one point the car I was in plowed through water several inches deep. The driver, Zackkriya Hussein, a native of India, said that in his 21 years of living in Dubai, he'd never seen such heavy rains.

The 17th was a bright sunny day, and fit my picture of what a January day is like in the desert. My visit to a boys’ secondary school in the city of Al Ain that day went without any glitches—schools were open in Al Ain, which is outside of Dubai. But on the way back from Al Ain, we were tied up in traffic for about an hour. The driver said the road we were on was clogged because cars were diverted from other roads that were still flooded. City workers were pumping out the water, he said.

Growing up in Pennsylvania, I've had a lot of experience with school systems’ “snow days,” but this was the first time I learned about “rain days.” Indeed, in the desert, rain can wreak havoc for the operation of schools.

Vol. 27

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