UAE development – Skyscrapers built on sand

By Chandran Nair

This column by Chandran Nair appears in the March 2008 issue of the Ethical Corporation magazine.

Gulf leaders should wake up to the environmental costs of their rush to attract wealthy visitors, argues Chandran Nair

News about extravagant urban developments in the United Arab Emirates has been greeted with a mixture of awe and uncertainty across the world. While growth rates of 16 per cent in the resource-poor emirate of Dubai (the leader of the boom) reinforce optimism about the economy, the question remains: who is taking ownership of the long-term development and sustainability agenda in the UAE?

Going by 2007 figures, demand for hotels, skyscrapers and other new developments is ever increasing. In Dubai, hotel occupancy levels are at over 80 per cent and nightly rates are at record highs. Stories about its six million annual visitors struggling to find accommodation are commonplace. But the fact remains that Dubai’s population is a measly 1.4 million people. And the entire UAE is home to just 4.1 million, 80 per cent of whom are foreigners.

This raises the question of whether Dubai’s plans to woo 15 million business and leisure visitors to contribute 20 per cent of GDP are realistic. The strategy of Dubai authorities is “build it and they will come”. But with neighbouring emirates including Abu Dhabi also planning vast expansion, what happens if demand wanes?

What is most troubling about the developments is the damage they are causing the environment. Palm Islands – the world’s largest land reclamation project, creating artificial islands for residential development – has clouded Gulf waters with silt. Construction has buried coral reefs, oyster beds and subterranean sea grass, while the disruption of natural currents is leading to the erosion of beaches.

The environment is further threatened by a population becoming accustomed to lavish energy use. In Abu Dhabi electricity costs three cents per kilowatt hour – compared to 40 cents in Europe – and petrol at 30 cents a litre is cheaper than water. Per capita energy use is more than double the world average.

Green mirage

But rather than addressing the regional environmental problems caused by unchecked development, the authorities’ answer to critics is to build a “carbon neutral” city – known as the Masdar initiative. Ignoring the fact that “carbon neutrality” is at best a PR exercise, proponents including leading global architects and planners tout Masdar along with other sustainable development initiatives as great strides towards protecting the environment and establishing the emirates as a leader in sustainable technologies.

There is no doubt that sustainable initiatives are taking root – solar power is used to run some domestic air conditioning systems and heat water in some Dubai hotels, for example. It is no wonder that these have been given centre stage, as the sustainability mandate has come straight from the top, with Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum, UAE prime minister, vice-president, and ruler of Dubai, giving environmental management an important role in the Dubai Strategic Plan 2015. Whether the sheikh’s advisers truly have the best interests of the emirates in mind, however, is debatable.

The UAE is dependent on foreign architects to design its grandiose skyscrapers, foreign workers to build them and foreign tourists to live and work in them. What’s more, the emirates’ sustainability initiatives are tied to alternative energy companies, engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs who do not have a long-term interest in the country.

To build this sense of ownership of the future, a key tenet of sustainability, the leaders of the Gulf Co-operation Council should convene a meeting of leaders from within their communities. They should agree on a framework to address the dilemma created by the rush to diversify the economy through a massive infrastructure programme to attract the world’s rich. They could perhaps begin the process of creating a council for sustainable development in each of the members of the GCC. And aligned with that would be a strong push to strengthen the institutions for environmental protection and sustainable development with the muscle to shape all major development decisions.

The leaders of the GCC will need to take a step back and contemplate the future based on some stark realities that go beyond how to diversify the economy. Petro-dollars cannot buy everything, even if currently cheap energy allows desalination plants to green the desert, and build indoor ski slopes

Chandran Nair is the founder and CEO of the Global Institute For Tomorrow.