Expat Magazine

94. Earthquake

By Martinfullard @MartyFullardUAE

We are all familiar with the parable of the man who built his house on sand.  No?  Well I can’t remember their names but there were 2 blokes, Terry and Dave I think, and they both wanted to build a house each.  Anyway, Terry did some research and decided that it would be better if he built his bungalow on a rocky plateau.  He reasoned that the stronger foundations would help his drum stand the test of time.  Dave however didn’t do as much research and decided that he wanted to live on the beach.  So he built his detached house on the coastline.  Sadly for him the foundations weren’t very strong and he lost it all.  The insurance company never paid out and he was screwed.  This isn’t how the parable appears in the bible directly, but you get the gist of it.

Anyway over the last 2000 years or so there have been massive advances in architecture and technology and these days you cannot only build houses on sand, but skyscrapers and ski domes too.  It’s all quite impressive.  If only Dave had had the foresight to dig down deeper he may have found some oil and he could have had a condo.

However I have a question.  Can the UAE’s high-rise skyline stand the threat of an earthquake?  I’m not so sure.  In high-risk quake spots around the globe, think Los Angeles and Tokyo, buildings are fitted with reinforced RSJ cross members in strategic places.  Obviously they are aimed at giving the building rigidity in the likely event of an earthquake.

Not only are the skyscrapers structurally sound but they are supported by a series of complicated flexible foundations.  Laid underneath there are a series of what are basically springs and rubber blocks designed to allow the building to sway gently in the event of a seismic shift.  This acts as a shock absorber similar to that on a car and although won’t protect things entirely will reduce the level of damage substantially.

I’ve been to Burj Khalifa, and since I was only on the 124th floor for 23 seconds before I was sick over myself I had plenty of time downstairs to watch the videos of how the beast was made.  Since I can’t remember any of what I watched I have referenced Wikipedia and at no point does it mention that it is earthquake proof.  Sure there is plenty of reinforced concrete that incidentally can barely deal with the extreme pressure of the building and the Gulf temperatures, but my confidence that it could withstand a sizeable seismic shockwave is weak.

Ok, I’m not going to sit here and proclaim that I am a more qualified architect than the good people at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, but my instincts are telling me that something is wrong.  On a smaller scale, I know how to drill into a plaster wall; I fit many pictures at home.  I know that you have to start drilling with a masonry bit at a very low RPM or the surrounding plaster is just going to disintegrate.  Sadly, the builders here use too much sand in the cement plaster, which is just sand scooped up from the ground outside.  So whenever I try to hang one of Mel’s many thousands of frames I end up with a wall that looks like a block of ementhal cheese and very messy floor.

Build quality in the UAE leaves much to be desired and that is a worry.  The Arabian Peninsula sits on its very own tectonic plate that is moving away from Africa and bashing into the Eurasian plate, with Iran taking the biggest hit.  The northern fault line runs through the middle of the Gulf Sea.  Iran is the deadliest country for earthquakes in the world and it suffers the most, almost daily.  What’s to say then that one day when the Arabian plate gives Iran another nudge that the UAE won’t take the brunt of the quake instead?  Earthquakes cannot be predicted by even the smartest experts or technologies, so are we prepared?

94. Earthquake

Godammit! What did I say? AED 400 to go up Burj Khalifa was a waste of money. Now look.

Only yesterday were there two 3+ magnitude earthquakes in Fujeriah, and sometimes we get small ones in Al Ain.  Ras Al Khaimah reports several each month.  The Hajjar Mountains (which includes Jebel Hafeet) which run up alongside Al Ain, past Fujeriah and Ras Al Khaimah and under the Straight of Hormuz are pushing on the Zargos mountains in Iran.  This tip from which the UAE takes its physical shape is a seismic livewire.

It hits home the point that some builders may have underestimated this fact.  If an entire courtyard above an underground car park can collapse just because someone sneezed, can you imagine what will happen if a magnitude 7 earthquake strikes?  In such a situation I would be looking to stay close to Charlton Heston.

It won’t matter if you built your house on rock or sand; if it’s not built properly it will come down like an Abu Dhabi courtyard.  Sadly, like so much in life, I fear that the correct measures won’t be taken until after a disaster.

I still think Terry was smarter than Dave though…

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