The Arabian Peninsula hosts some of the world’s most interesting urban developments. Cities such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha with their air-conditioned skyscrapers and mega-highways stand in sharp contrast with smaller, more experimental settlements including Masdar City, just outside Abu Dhabi on the Persian Gulf coast, or Neom, on the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia, that are focused on environmental sustainability and innovation.

But look closer and the contrast appears less sharp. Even Dubai, epitome of an oil-fuelled state capitalism that aims to build the biggest and largest and tallest of everything, has begun to focus on the energy efficiency of buildings, the use of renewable energy sources, and new forms of transport. Across the peninsula, engineering and design are being put at the service of a reinvention of urban landscapes.

This does not mean that the decades-old competition for superlatives, fuelled by some of the world’s largest oil and gas deposits, is over. Dubai hosts the world’s highest building, the largest man-made archipelago, the longest driverless subway, the biggest shopping mall, and now the world’s tallest Ferris wheel (under construction). But others are catching up: the world’s tallest skyscraper is currently being built in Jeddah, the first anywhere in the world to break the 1,000-metre barrier.

But just as their economies are diversifying away from oil and gas, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are paying more attention to the long-term economic and environmental impact of their traditional growth models.

The UAE today consumes more than twice the amount of energy per capita as the UK, and the share of energy generated from renewable sources is comparatively low, although supposed to reach a target of 30% by 2030. The Emirates’ per capita consumption of water is among the highest in the world. The difficulties of supplying these populations – Dubai is now approaching three million – with drinking water and reliable electricity, already great today, will grow exponentially once the effects of climate change start to be felt.

As part of the UAE’s efforts to deal with the anticipated effects of climate change, Dubai is building the world’s largest single-site solar park just south of the city, on a plot of desert land, with an investment of some $3.8 billion. In the current phase, the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park is supposed to power 270,000 homes by 2020, rising to 800,000 homes by 2030. Next door, in Abu Dhabi, the Shams Solar Park is the first utility-scale solar plant anywhere in the Middle East.

This wouldn’t be the Gulf if even sustainability weren’t aiming to set records. Masdar City, in Abu Dhabi, is the world’s most expensive urban development experiment, while Dubai’s turnaround is among the world’s most ambitious. Dubai doesn’t simply want to become sustainable – it wants to turn the urban development model that makes this possible into an export article. It doesn’t simply build the world’s longest driverless subway line – it wants the companies that are behind the self-driving technology to relocate to Dubai.

With its reinvention, Dubai is replicating earlier models of urban infrastructure development. Dubai’s location roughly halfway between London and Shanghai makes it a natural hub, for example for China’s growing operations in Africa; but Dubai would not be Dubai if it simply developed its port capacities. Instead, DP World, which runs the Jebel Ali seaport, has become the world’s fourth-largest port operator, among other things by selling its automation technology globally. It does so on the strength of its performance: Jebel Ali is the world’s largest engineered harbour and the largest container port between Rotterdam and Singapore; container traffic through the port doubled in the decade to 2015, despite the global economic downturn. Overall, the logistics industry now accounts for 14% of Dubai’s total economic output.

Dubai’s pivotal position in international trade has also shaped its urban landscape – and not only for the better. The massive port infrastructure is complemented by an abundance of skyscrapers linked by multi-lane motorways, and there are few of the public spaces – parks and squares and other open areas – that in other cities help bring people together.

These lessons are being taken on board in some of the experimental developments in the region.

Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City was initially being planned as the first zero-emissions and zero-waste city in the world, a goal that had to be scaled back in the wake of the financial crisis. As a city built from scratch, it is unique: it does not have to incorporate or adapt to any pre-existing infrastructure such as street grids, transport routes or particular usage zones.

Even in its scaled-back form, its main focus remains energy efficiency, which it showcases through various applications of existing technology but also through research on new tech solutions. By offering foreign firms 100% foreign ownership and tax exemption if they locate in Masdar City, the Emirate has attracted hundreds of international companies including engineering giants General Electric and Siemens. The Masdar Institute is the first research organization in the Gulf focused on sustainable energy. Elsewhere, in the Emirate of Sharjah, state-owned Masdar has teamed up with another company to pilot energy generation from waste using innovative energy conversion technology that it has also applied abroad.

Masdar is, despite its currently small population, a massive experiment and has attracted much attention. Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia launched a similar project on the other side of the Arabian Peninsula, at Neom on the Red Sea. The $500 billion development plan for Neom foresees a city outside national laws – essentially a giant free-trade zone – that is to be powered entirely from solar and wind energy. There is little doubt that it will benefit from the experiences of Masdar City, both good and bad.

The Masdar project also points to the broader problems of showcase cities designed from scratch. One is that what may work in terms of individual buildings or clusters or neighbourhoods might not be applicable to entire cities – the problem of overreach in a context where regional infrastructure might be lacking, as is the case in the Gulf.

“A city cannot be built in isolation as a self-sufficient entity,” says Peter Braithwaite, Director of Engineering Sustainability at the University of Birmingham’s School of Engineering. “Masdar aimed to recycle and reuse all waste, but there is no developed infrastructure or markets for recycling or reused products in the region. The region as a whole will need to embrace the desire for waste minimization, water saving, and so on to allow, for example, Dubai to adopt more sustainable policies.”

The other main problem that Masdar City highlights is how to attract people. “While there are some good examples of innovation and developments in water- and energy- saving buildings, the project as a whole has not been a great success,” Braithwaite says. “The main problem with Masdar is that it has not developed as a city. Without the University there would be few residents, as it is there are only a few thousand people living there.”

On a larger scale, and in somewhat different form, this is also Dubai’s problem. While it has a massive immigrant population – more than 85% of its employed population are foreign citizens – it generally falls into three distinct categories: a European and North American managerial class, professionals from the Middle East and Asia, and a South Asian working class. Few people move to Dubai, or the Emirates more generally, for reasons other than work, giving these cities a utilitarian and somewhat corporate feel.

It is conceivable, however, that the UAE’s determination to rapidly move towards a low-carbon development model will attract a somewhat more diverse population in the future, and create models for others to follow. 

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