DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – A major sandstorm whipped through the Mideast’s commercial hub of Dubai and other Gulf cities on Thursday, reducing visibility, diverting flights and making breathing outside a challenge.
The storm kept fine dust hanging in the air for much of the day, evoking an eerie Martian-like atmosphere and leaving behind a film of sand on parked cars and other outdoor surfaces. Cafe patio tables were quickly packed away, while doors and windows were shuttered.
Migrant construction workers and others whose jobs kept them outside donned surgical masks or wrapped scarves over their faces to help keep the dust out of their lungs.
Hospitals reported an increase in patients complaining of breathing difficulties because of the sand.
“In the U.S. they have ‘snow days’ where schools and companies close due to heavy snowfall. So my question is, Sand Days anyone?” tweeted Emirati columnist and motivational speaker Khalid al-Ameri. He later posted a photo of himself with his traditional white headscarf swaddled over his mouth and nose to brave the outdoors.
Authorities in Qatar did indeed order schools in the country closed, citing “extreme weather conditions.” Some schools in Saudi Arabia were also shut.
Dubai’s airport operator said four flights bound for Dubai International Airport, the world’s busiest hub for international air traffic, were diverted to nearby airports because of the inclement weather. Eight other flights were diverted to the alternate Al Maktoum International at Dubai World Central from other regional airports.
Airport authorities said further delays were expected.
Delays were reported too at Hamad International Airport, which opened last year in the Qatari capital, Doha. National carrier Qatar Airways urged passengers to check their flight status online.
In the Emirati capital of Abu Dhabi, police reported that a 24-year-old was airlifted to the hospital after being seriously injured in a traffic accident caused by the reduced visibility. They urged motorists to slow down and take extra precautions because of the weather.
Ahmad al-Haddabi, chief operations officer at Abu Dhabi’s main airport said flights to Bahrain and the Saudi city of Dammam were delayed because of bad weather at those airports.
The United Arab Emirates’ National Center of Meteorology and Seismology warned of reduced visibility due to blowing dust of as little as 500 metres (yards). Dubai transit authorities stopped bus services to Abu Dhabi, citing “zero visibility” caused by the storm.