In the Middle East, The Doha Debates is a cutting edge television forum for Arabs to discuss the hottest political and social issues around and beyond the Arabian Gulf. In late 2009, one of its topics was This House Believes Dubai is a Bad Idea. And on that same day, Dubai’s neighbour, Abu Dhabi, tossed a lifeline to Dubai in the form of a $10bn (£6.4bn) loan to assist the emirate out with its tangled finances.
As the global economic crisis festered in Dubai with decimated property values and abandoned construction projects, much of the world indulged in schadenfreude, with countless observers announcing that a place like Dubai should never had existed in the first place.
But Dubai is roaring back. The Arab spring’s aftershocks convinced many companies to relocate to the city and surrounding region of 2 million people because of its stability. Other firms are attracted because of the proximity to some of the world’s largest markets, from Europe to the emerging economies of Africa, India and East Asia. What was once a sleepy trading port now bursts with opulent malls, towering skyscrapers and a web of highway overpasses. The Emiratis have not just mastered the Arabian desert: they bludgeoned it. And now more citizens and expatriates peer through the haze and wonder if this rapidly growing city’s built environment can become more sustainable.
Oil and gas account for only 5% of Dubai’s economic output, but visitors would think otherwise when in the city. Developments in the newer section of Jumeirah were built for the automobile, not pedestrians. Dubai Metro, the city’s futuristic rail network, is impressive but its two lines still leave much of the city unserved. Driving means endless U-turns, not more convenient left turns, that can add several miles to what should be a direct commute. No one seems to mind, however, because petrol is cheap. Emiratis clearly benefit from Dubai’s revitalisation, and many expatriates fare better here than they would in their home country. So the focus is on the now, not the future.
And yet the steps to a greener Dubai are underway. Earlier this year, local leaders unveiled a 48 sq km (18.5 sq miles) solar energy park that promises 1,000 megawatt capacity upon completion. The local energy authority is mulling strategies, including a carbon market scheme, to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Recycling bins are slowly rolling out among the villas spread across the city. Sustainability professionals, both local and from around the world, are setting up shop, seeing ample opportunities in a city that many outsiders would just assume to leave dead. A local green building council boasts a bevy of events; so far, however, more ideals than actual projects can be counted.
One huge project that claims it embraces green building is Dubai Pearl, a £3.8bn development that promises the luxury expected in Dubai with more environmentally responsible construction. Its builders say the complex will attain LEED gold certification. Restaurants and residences will have to separate food waste for collection. Its overall design will incorporate reduced electricity and water consumption, a tall order because both are highly subsidised and therefore offer residents no incentive to conserve either resource. Up to 35% of its space will be landscaped to provide green space that is currently lacking outside of local golf courses. Finally, the project aims to be socially responsible, an issue crescendoing throughout Dubai because of routine allegations over the abuse of migrant labourers. When I visited the construction site, prominently displayed signs boasted that not one workplace injury had occurred.
Dubai still has a long road to travel until the reality of sustainable living matches the rhetoric. Emiratis are tired of the constant criticism heaped on its city and are understandably sensitive about outsiders telling them what to do. And expatriates, 85% of the population, are hardly models of green behaviour and show little sign that they have a stake in a city in which they live and work only temporarily. But the inspiration to heal Dubai is infectious. The hard part will be the actual implementation.
Leon Kaye is founder and editor of GreenGoPost.com
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010