In California we often talk about sustainability. Conserving natural resources, recycling, turning off lights when we leave a room, being careful with our use of water - to us that means being sustainable.
However, when one applies the term to Dubai, it brings up a whole different set of concerns. Attractions and accommodations expecting to draw 15 million tourists are under construction as we speak. Dubailand, Dubai Health City, The Palm Triology (three artificial islands in the shape of palm trees), The World (a mini world made out of islands), Tiger Woods Golf Dubai, the Burj Dubai - the tallest building in the world (shown in the picture here), and many more mega-projects are underway in the Emirate.
As you can see, sustainibility as used in the Californian context is not quite the main concern here. The government on the West Coast is limiting carb emissions while Sheikh Muhammad, the ruler of Dubai, is encouraging the building of outlandish project after outlandish project.
"I do not know if I am a good leader, but I am a leader. And I have a vision. I look to the future, 20, 30 years. I learned that from my father, Sheikh Rashid. He was the true father of Dubai. I follow his example. He would rise early and go alone to watch what was happening on each of his projects. I do the same. I watch. I read faces. I take decisions and I move fast. Full throttle."
My question is - is this super city sustainable? Is there enough wealth in the world to patronize these never ending developments? I can't fathom how in the world all of these multi-million dollar homes, vacation properties, lavish hotels, top of the line boutiques, fancy restaurants, and endless entertainment parks are going to be able to keep their bottom line in green numbers.
The funny thing is, after spending a week in Dubai I got the feeling that the main priority of the developers is not the return on investment, but the prestige of having built a project and contributed to creating the new Las Vegas of the world. It is all about creating the biggest and the best, being the first, and making impossible ideas become reality in the city that is striving to become the world's number one destination.
So let's say the financing for all these massive projects doesn't fall through, all the grand opening ceremonies are held (Atlantis The Palm celebrated its opening on Sept. 24, 2009 with the most expensive private party ever hosted), and there is a steady stream of visitors in Dubai, what will happen next? Most likely the success of a few developments will entice entrepreneurs to build even more, until what once was a sand-covered Emirate becomes the world playground.
It sounds exciting, fun, and glamorous, and it is - well for those who are fortunate enough to have enough resources to visit - but here is where my Californian concerns of sustainability are raised. For a city whose government is mostly concerned with building the biggest and best, what will be the environmental effects of completely replacing the sand dunes with a concrete jungle? What are the consequences of devoting so many of the world's precious and limited natural resources to creating a fantasy land for the small percentage of the population who can actually afford it?
Already there have been concerns about the drainage and flow of the water around the human-made islands of the Palms and the World. Hundreds of new species are being brought into the area to create unnatural reefs and opportunities for snorkeling. The skyline of the city is muted most days with a semi-permanent dusty haze that is a combination of sand mixing with humidity and the pollution. Walking or biking anywhere is virtually impossible, making driving the only mode of transportation, with public options almost non-existent.
While I was taken in by the glitter and sparkle of the city during my time there, there was always a nagging feeling in the back of my thoughts, who knows maybe it was my conscience. I kept wondering if this was realistic? Necessary? But most of all, I want to know what it means for the developing countries. it does not seem fair that such a large share of the world's resources can be used to benefit such a small percentage of the population.
Oh well, the Emirate has already made it clear that it will not stop until it has the biggest and best of everything. It will be interesting to see how concerns of sustainability are addressed in all senses of the word- from financing the construction projects to completion, attracting tourists and businesses to fill the vast developments, and addressing environmental concerns as they arise. Let's just hope the rest of the world will watch and learn, and who knows, maybe the next city that aims to make a name for itself will seek to create an affordable eco-green community where the goal is sustainability.