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Causeway reaches its limit.

Byline: Molouk Y. Ba-Isa

ALKHOBAR: "There was no choice. The kids were crying and we had been stuck for hours. Somehow my husband pushed into the far right lane. We stopped and helped the kids get out and pee on the causeway. It was the only thing we could do. Then we were afraid to give them any more water and we just let them cry till they fell asleep in the back seat. It took us about four more hours to make it to Alkhobar after that."

Om Khalid's nightmare tale is just one of tens of thousands that continue to play out as the Bahraini and Saudi governments struggle to cope with massive amounts of traffic on the King Fahd Causeway, the 26-kilometer bridge that connects Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. A Saudi customs official, who asked to remain anonymous, estimated that for the past five days upward of 40,000 cars have been crossing from each side daily.

All lanes for both customs and immigration are open and the computer networks remain functional, but there is as yet no end in sight to the oncoming crowds. Heavy traffic is expected at least through Aug. 9. "The situation became overwhelming on Thursday," said a front desk receptionist at the Regency Hotel in Bahrain. "We were running at about 30 percent occupancy Thursday morning but by Thursday evening we were at 100 percent and we remain that way."

Until Thursday noon it took about three hours to cross from either side of the causeway, but then the crush became unmanageable.

"I came on duty at 6 a.m. Thursday," said a Saudi immigration officer. "The lines were already at peak at that time and it never slowed down."

By Thursday evening, all lanes on the Saudi side of the causeway were backed up five kilometers. On the Bahraini side, they were backed up three kilometers.

In the midst of the madness, a car overheated on the Saudi side. A tow truck took four hours and charged SR1,000 to reach the vehicle and start it on its journey back to the Kingdom.

On the Bahraini side, exhausted drivers pulled to the right, turned off their cars and went to sleep on the bridge. To send in reinforcements for overburdened staff there was no choice but to order customs and immigration officers to walk through the traffic for kilometers in the dark of night to reach their colleagues manning the document control posts on the center island.

"It was frightening. There we were on the bridge, trapped, unable to see what the problem was ahead and the telephone network wouldn't accept calls to 999 or local Bahraini numbers. I was able to call my brother in the US and advise him of our situation and ask him if there was a report of any disaster," said Arshad Ali, an insurance company executive. "Why, with all the technology available, can't they alert us to the time it would take to cross the causeway? Even at amusement parks they put up signs to tell patrons how long the waiting time will be for each ride."

Friday night the situation was only slightly better with less of a crush coming in to Bahrain but huge numbers trying to return to Saudi Arabia. Barricades placed by the Bahraini authorities blocking the U-turns mean that once a vehicle has entered the Bahraini side of the causeway, it is impossible to turn back until the center island is reached and there is no warning of the catastrophe ahead. The situation is nearly similar on the Saudi side, although there is a manually activated warning beacon to indicate heavy traffic on the bridge. Even diplomats and rich businessmen are unable to avoid the misery since their special passes don't help them bypass the crowds until they reach the causeway's center island.

Reports yesterday morning were that traffic in the Bahrain-Saudi direction remained heavy and that the Saudi-Bahrain direction would be overwhelmed by evening. Truck logistics are in disarray with trailers backed up kilometers beyond the causeway. Travelers using buses to connect to flights in Manama should check with individual airlines as to scheduling. One airport bus took eight hours to cross the causeway and pilgrims journeying to the holy cities from Bahrain are facing similar problems.

The reasons for all this madness? The combination of Gregorian and Hijra paydays at the same time with the continuing school vacation and the commemoration of Al-Isra' wal Miraj, the Prophet's heavenly journey, resulted in hundreds of thousands of people deciding to take a holiday in the same week - with the Saudi-Bahrain border the only obstacle.

Copyright: Arab News A[umlaut] 2003 All rights reserved.

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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Date:Aug 3, 2008
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