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'Maybe today I will make it to the border'.

Byline: Mick O'Reilly, Deputy Managing Editor

Near Al Sila: Dawn breaks quickly and early in the vast emptiness of the UAE's Western Region, the sun quickly rising above the horizon, casting the first shadows of the day over the thousands of trucks forming a steel conga line across the desert.

There are few stirrings among the drivers, huddled together in groups of twos or threes, rising from their night's sleep under their trailers.

There is no early morning call to prayer on this desolate stretch of tarmac, no mosque in sight or earshot. Slowly, however, in a move almost in unison, the small gatherings of truckers collect prayer mats from their cabs, unfurl them, look West and recite the Salat Ul Dhuhur.

Omar and Monir have just finished their prayers, and begin what will be their third day in the line.

"Yesterday I moved two kilometres," Omar beams in a wide-toothed, tobacco-stained grin. "Maybe today I [will] make it to the border, Inshallah."

It will take divine intervention for Omar to reach to border post over the next day. With 15 kilometres still to go before his exit papers are processed on the UAE side, Omar seems over-optimistic.

From Lahore, Pakistan, Omar has been plying the asphalt arteries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states for the past seven years, hauling rock from Ras Al Khaimah and cargo from Fujairah port - anything to keep the dirhams rolling in.

His red Volvo truck bears the original details of a Dutch haulage company based in Utrecht, though its cab is now adorned in a style more befitting his Lahore heritage. Scattered throughout the car are discarded cigarette packages, an overfilled ashtray and an array of cassette tapes, the pirated labels long-faded in the sunlight.

The trailer is loaded with the yellow and slight rusting components of a building crane, destined for delivery in Doha sometime in the future.

"Only Allah knows when I get to Doha," he smiles, touching his heart as he talks. "I can only sit and wait like everyone else."

On a good run from Sharjah, Omar can make the round trip in under three days. At his current rate of progress, the round trip will likely take two weeks: a lot of time behind the wheel for just Dh200.

The truck's owner is being paid Dh5,000 to ensure the load gets to the building site in Doha. Out of that comes Omar's wages, fuel, maintenance, insurance, and other expenses and then profit. Omar doesn't know if the truck's owner will be penalised for him being late. He was due back in Sharjah on Thursday night. He hasn't even made it through Al Sila.

"Some trucks are leaving the line and starting to turn back," Monir said. His Mercedes truck is hauling bundles of rebar steel in the trailer. "Maybe today I do the same."

Monir, from Peshawar, explains in broken English that he's worried he won't be paid his Dh200 from the run to Qatar if he turns back to Dubai. "I need money for my family," he says. "This is no good."

The two truckers begin to brew up chai. The bottles of water Omar carries in a compartment under the trailer are getting low - he has just three litres left. The box of tea bags is also getting low, but he has plenty of sugar for the remaining brews.

The door of the compartment folds down, acting as a table, seat and, for the last two nights, Monir's bed. Thankfully, on his truck, the compartment opens to the side mostly in the shade. Others in this stationary convoy seek shelter and sleep under the rigs during the day. At least they know they won't be run over by another rig.

A broken-down cardboard box acts as extra padding for Monir's bedroll, though given his tall, thin frame, sleeping curled up on the three-foot long compartment lid is next to impossible - more a night spent of fitful catnaps.

The monotony of waiting is broken by an occasional trucker from Pakistan dropping by for chai. Some choose to walk kilometres in either direction, looking for a friendly face, a familiar rig, a brother of the road.

This has long been the mantra of the road for these long-distance drivers. Rarely do they travel alone, instead waiting for another truck or two to pull up, the mini convoy moving down the road together.

"There is safety in numbers," Omar says. "We like to travel together. If something happens, if we get a blown tyre or a breakdown, then there is always someone to help. We help each other."

Indeed, the day before, a large Chevrolet 4X4 had a flat tyre as its occupants stopped to talk to the truckers. Within moments, six had the vehicle jacked up, its wheel changed and its occupants on the road again, refusing to accept any payment for their kind deed.

The temperature has already touched 30AC even though it's not yet 8am. The rumble of diesel engines coming to life further up the line portend there's a few more precious metres of ground to be covered in delivering the crane components to Doha, the rebar to another building site.

With countless other Monirs and Omars stuck on this stretch of highway, and more joining the torturously slow-moving line by the minute, how long before the effects of the new regulations on the border will severely impact the GCC's economy? That's a macro-economic question for others to figure out.

On a micro-economic level, Monir is tempted to turn back, regardless of whether he'll be paid. "I'm not sure I can wait much longer," he said. It's Friday, and the office of the company he's hauling the rebar for is closed. He ends the call on his mobile. "Maybe tomorrow I will cross into Saudi," he says "Inshallah."

At 7pm on Friday night, the truck queue had grown to 37km.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:9PAKI
Date:Jun 13, 2009
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