Drive to the UAE
Contrary to what you may surmise by looking at maps of KSA, you DON'T need to drive to the UAE via the Dammam road.
For a few years there has been a perfectly good road that doesn't appear on any of the “older” maps, and in the process it takes off over 100km from the “old” journey via Hofuf.
First, the basics. You can comfortably drive from Riyadh to Dubai in about 10 hours (to Abu Dhabi in about nine hours). It's an easy drive, with the biggest danger being falling asleep at the wheel from the relentlessly unchanging countryside as you drive through the emirate of Abu Dhabi! From Riyadh to the border is about 520kms. From the border to Dubai Trade Centre (25o 13.69' N; 55o 17.41' E) is about 480kms.
The route you should follow takes you south to Al Kharj, and then along highway 10 via Haradh and straight across a corner of the Empty Quarter to the border town of Batha. If this road is not marked on your map, then draw a straight line from Haradh to Batha and this is the road you take!
A great deal of the journey is on single track roads, and the maximum distance between petrol stations is around 160kms, though most are clustered much closer together. Although the majority of traffic travelling the Haradh to Batha road is made up of lorries, the standard of driving is generally good and the lorries will regularly wave you past, indicating when it is unsafe to overtake.
However, you should not attempt this route at night as it can be dangerous with oncoming headlights, not to mention the fact that there are long sections with no camel fencing. If you have never seen the results of a car driving into a camel, believe me.. you really don't want to!
The journey couldn't be simpler. Go south 100 kms and then due east for 900kms! Start on Riyadh 's Eastern Ring Road and set your odometer to zero at junction 13 (24o 42.83' N; 46o 45.72' E) – the Makkah-Khoreis road. Leave the ring road system at junction 18 (24o 37.98' N; 46o 48.13' E), and travel south, signposted to Al Kharj. Be aware that at 30kms, you need to take the turn off at junction 12 (24o 30.29' N; 46o 56.16' E) – there is a sign to Al Kharj in Arabic only (ال كرج ) which is very easy to miss. If you do miss it, you will find the road comes to an abrupt end three kilometers on – though there is then a U-turn allowing you to regain the Al Kharj road.
You go through a check point at 40kms (24o 12.11' N; 48o 04.83' E) and at about 80kms reach the outskirts of Al Kharj, with the famous water tower looming up at 85kms. At the traffic lights immediately after the tower (24o 09.73' N; 47o 17.87' E) , turn left, signposted to Harad (later spelt Haradh) and when you get to traffic lights at 90kms you need to take the left hand fork.
You can now forget about directions as you don't veer left or right for the next 900kms! At 101kms you pass Al Safi's dairy farm on your left and the entrance to the massive Prince Sultan airbase on your right at 109kms.
From here on, the road turns into single track. Look out for the unusual bird houses at 114kms on your left (24o 12.12' N; 47o 33.70' E) and go through a normally-unmanned check point just before Almarai's central processing plant (24o 13.67' N; 47o 39.34' E).
If you're a train fanatic, you can look out for cargo trains on your left travelling the southern route between Riyadh and Hofuf, starting at 130kms and running parallel with the road for the next 140kms. I normally see two of these long trains when I travel this route.
At 170kms you go through another check point (24o 09.35' N; 48o 57.14' E) just before the start of the red sands and the road continues on relentlessly until at around 215kms you will see that work is well underway on the creation of a dual carriageway stretch.
According to my friend Jason, there is now a second carriageway under construction but, as per usual in KSA, no sign of when it may be completed. Also on this section of the journey there are some sections of road, at most about 1.5km long, that have had the top surface removed, presumably in preparation for resurfacing and long sections of the road with no central markings. There is no warning approaching these unsurfaced sections.
Pass Nadec's arable farms near Haradh at 250kms and then go through another check point at 260kms after which you will travel through a section of the Empty Quarter .
In truth, the scenery is not particularly stunning – the light yellow dunes are relatively flat and the road is punctuated with the occasional red signs saying “Sand Dunes” (the first one 30kms in from the start of this section!) and lots of activity of roadside workers bulldozing sand from the side of the road and spraying it with liquid tar to stop it blowing across the carriageway.
At 520kms you reach Batha. Fill up with petrol a couple of kms before the border as once you cross over you will be paying over three times the price.
Incidentally, since June 2010 in the UAE petrol is now sold in litres - just as in Saudi. But unlike in Saudi where petrol is sold at octane ratings of 91 and 95, the UAE sells 95 and 98 (“special” and “super”) grades.
The Saudi customs post is at 520kms (24o 07.79' N; 51o 34.35' E). First you must show your passport and car istimara (ownership card) and you will be handed a piece of paper which from here on will be stamped at every border check. The next check is to make sure your passport and piece of paper are in order before you are waved on to drive the next five kms to the UAE border. Drive straight through the police post archway (normally unmanned) to the next check, at which point you will be told to go into the passport control office (unless you are a GCC citizen) on your left. This passport office can be recognised by its turreted end towers. Once inside you might be asked to undergo a retina scan (I have been asked to do this on two of my five journeys through) and to fill out a form (remember to take a pen in with you!!!) before having your details entered into the UAE computer.
You now drive to the customs inspection hall where your details are checked again before a customs officer inspects your car and stamps your piece of paper. Immediately after the customs hall is another stop-off point – this time for car insurance. No matter if your Saudi insurance covers you for driving in the UAE. You still have to buy car insurance here – SR100 for 10 days or SR150 for a month – or else you won't get your piece of paper stamped and you won't be allowed to enter the country! There are four insurance booths, representing four different companies, but it appears immaterial which one you plump for.
Finally, having had your piece of paper stamped for the last time you drive to the last check point and give it up to be allowed to enter the country.
From here on in the road is excellent – but remember that there is a 100kph speed limit for most of the journey through Abu Dhabi emirate, and there are speed cameras and “sleeping” police cars throughout the trip. When you enter Dubai , the speed limit is 120kph, again with plenty of speed cameras.
Again Jason tells me that the speed limit on the UAE road from the Batha border to Abu Dhabi is signposted as 100 kph at junctions but the speed radar warning signs say 120 kmph. Just to confuse things further, it is common knowledge that the Abu Dhabi police will not fine drivers unless their radar shows speeds in excess of 139 kmph! Dubai police, on the other hand are much less forgiving, and you are advised to keep within the speed limits there.
If you intend driving through Dubai, you should know that a toll system has been introduced in four places on the Sheikh Zayed Road – the first one at Barsha, near Media City. There are plenty of warnings for you to purchase a Salik sticker in any Dubai petrol station (Dhs100 from which Dhs4 is deducted every time you drive through a toll bridge) and don't think because you are driving a “foreign car” you can get away with not paying. These things are checked on the border!
The only way to escape the toll system is to drive inland on the Emirates road in order to bypass Dubai altogether, or to use the local roads such as Al Wasl Road, which runs parallel to Sheikh Zayed.
Finally, you should be aware that when driving back to Saudi you will be charged an exit visa fee of Dhs35.
I received the following info from Geoff Holland in September 2012:
There is a better road to Dubai than the al-kharj road. From Riyadh take the Damman road from exit 8 for about 50km, then take the Hoffuf road. About 20 or 30km before Hoffuf the road goes to the south, bypassing Hoffuf. Then continue to the Saudi-UAE border.
I have done every combination of road and this is the best as large sections of it are completely new and it's dual carriageway all the way. The main problem with the al Kharj road is it's dangerous at night as the cars overtake in front of oncoming cars with their headlights on full beam.
Other notes for the Riyadh-Hoffuf-UAE route: Like the al Kharj route, petrol stations are few, so when you see a petrol station, fill up. There is a small hotel on the Saudi side of the border, perhaps 10 or more km from the border, on the left coming from Saudi. It could be useful if you want to break the long drive up into 2 halves.