The United Arab Emirates built the obscenely ostentatious Dubai with oil money that its leaders realised was running out. Now that the hard times have hit, Abu Dhabi is placing its chips on sustainability.
There are many obvious attributes associated with the United Arab Emirates, such as oil, ludicrous wealth and an inherent penchant for the biggest, boldest and best. To the world, this sun drenched and geographically inhospitable region is synonymous with opulence, frivolous spending and an audacious approach to architecture.
Its flagship city, Dubai, is home to the (recently opened then closed again) Burj Khalifa tower — currently the tallest building in the world standing at more than 800 metres. Dubai’s coastline is also set to increase by more than 520 kilometres with the creation of the artificial Palm Islands in the Persian Gulf to house the city’s ever-expanding commercial and residential infrastructure.
Dubai was a playground for the mega rich and famous — a commercial honey pot luring a swarm of international companies, investors and expats.
That is, until the global financial crisis (GFC) hit, bringing into focus the sobering reality that the UAE’s oil reserves are running dry, and with them the country’s cash cow and the good times that ride along with it.
The Emirates has had to recognise that it may well become surplus to international requirements when it is no longer the world’s petrol station.
With necessity very definitely being the mother of invention, it is ironic but perhaps not surprising that Abu Dhabi is attempting to forge a new economic path to post-petroleum prosperity through architectural innovation and environmental sustainability.
In the most recent example of this drive, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan — the ruler of Abu Dhabi — has commissioned building Masdar, the world’s first zero-carbon eco-city.
The city will house 50,000 people and incorporate 1,000 businesses and a university. Designed by British architects Foster and Paynes, it will source its power from the largest solar farm in the Middle East, which will help offset the diesel and cement baking required for its construction.
By combining traditional ‘compact’ desert architecture and 21st century engineering, Masdar will overcome the extreme heat to create a low temperature and low carbon environment: narrow streets that shade each other and screened vertical faces will help keep the sun out and let the breeze in.
The international team of engineers is also looking to lunar exploration technology for inspiration, with one idea being the use of a thin foil layer, a gas or vacuum blanket to keep the heat out.
Conventional cars will have to be checked in when entering the city, with travellers then being able to choose between walking or using ‘podcars’ when inside.
While Masdar will still need to use electricity for gadgets, some air conditioning and water desalination, the city will subscribe to its mantra, “Only use energy when you have exhausted design.”
This revolutionary city isn’t the UAE’s first foray into pioneering sustainable and, some would say, impossible design.
Dubai (just off Dubai’s coast in the Persian Gulf, to be exact) is apparently set to host the Middle East’s first ‘ice’ hotel, the Blue Crystal Floating Iceburg Lodge. Designed by German design duo Frank and Sven Sauer, the hotel will be powered by solar cells and will ‘harness the world’s natural energy sources’.
In another extravagant attempt at the improbable and a possible nod to the notion that the rising seas could become our future home, Dubai will also be the location for the world’s first underwater hotel, the Hydropolis, which was due for completion in 2009.
However, the Emirates’ new focus isn’t necessarily that unusual (its never-ending pursuit of ostentation certainly isn’t).
Crisis and hardship have always been drivers of innovation.
Iceland, for example, was also a single-industry country — firstly in fishing and then in banking. Then the bottom fell out of its economy bringing the nation to the brink of bankruptcy. But Iceland is now using innovation and entrepreneurship to lead its charge away from the abyss and back to affluence. It has created a new ministry for ideas and is positioning itself as a hotbed for sustainable solutions and free market innovation.
The world’s worst ever economic crisis — the Great Depression — saw a number of winners rise from the ashes, such as General Motors, IBM and Kelloggs. They recognised the downturn as an opportunity, spent on R&D when others withdrew into a defensive crouch and made progress in areas that their competitors were too timid to even dream about.
What the UAE’s shift in economic focus signifies, then, is actually nothing new. It resides in all of us: the natural human instinct when faced with adversity to adapt, survive and flourish.
Those that batten down the hatches and attempt to ride out a storm while rocking gently in the foetal position have already written their obituary. My money’s always on those — whether they be individuals, companies or nations — who are prepared to recognise their flaws, innovate and evolve with the times.
Correction: The header that this post originally carried, “Hungover and almost broke, Abu Dhabi plans the world’s first zero-carbon eco-city”, was inaccurate and has been edited. The original headline would be more appropriately applied to Abu Dhabi’s neighbour Dubai, which is also discussed in the article. See comments below.