Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Different Kind of Sustainability

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.


  1. It is unfortunate that in 2009 Dubai cannot come up with more eco-friendly solutions during its industrial boom. Unfortunately it will probably fair well, at least initially, due to the hype and exclusivity. There are still many wealth people in all parts of the world, even if there are less US-based "richies." Sounds like you had a worthwhile trip, seeing endless amounts of money put into jaw-dropping projects, but still maintaining a critical outlook on the effects of such industrialization on our planet.

  2. Well, they're already getting to feel the heat (excuse the pun) because they built their economy on tourism, which doesn't do great in a recession.

    Even the super-luxurious are cutting back, like the deluxe yacht port they had planned which expected over 800 workers, who all had to be laid-off, and the Emirate itself is trying to deal with the recession (the Maktoum family is fine, but Dubai just asked for a $10 billion bailout from Abu Dhabi).

    And there are some sustainability efforts, like the LEED programs, but it'll take time, and well, money to get them going.

  3. As a matter of fact, there's been some controversy over LEED certified buildings as compared to non-LEED buildings. Apparently LEED certified buildings on the average consume 30% more energy than non-certified ones.
    Just to say, many environmental efforts are bogus post prima-facie.

  4. At risk of sounding stereotypical, the Arab aristocrats in Dubai are extremely impulsive and sometimes even brash.

    Take, for instance, this man who took a $500,000 Mercedes McLaren SLR, tore out the engine, and put it in a SLK 55 AMG.

    The culture there is "biggest and best, nothing less." Essentially, this means that Dubai will inevitably be overdeveloped to the point where usage is actually the last of the concerns. Essentially, these are modern day shrines and temples being built in the names of their developers.

    In a place where money means absolutely nothing and prestige means absolutely everything, it is scary to think about how the developments will work out. I plan to visit Dubai as soon as possible because I am no doubt enamored by its lavishness and gorgeous architecture, but I, too am weary about what it's eventual outcome will be. I hope for all of our sake that the land becomes what it wants to be - the Middle East's Vegas equivalent - but at its current rate, I think the glass is way more than full. Its overflowing.

  5. I too find it hard to imagine what state Dubai will be in once these lavish projects are done. Comparing it to Vegas makes me thing of the the Las Vegas City Center. The new multi-billion dollar project on the strip was supposed to bring luxurious residences, shops, casinos, etc. and now they are contemplating bankruptcy. (DubaiWorld is involved in the project). But seriously, think of all this money that is, in my opinion, being wasted on too much of what we already have already. This Vegas facility was extremely unnecessary as I wondered, while I was there over the summer, how they were even going to get that amount of people to fill it anyway. Looks like my thoughts are playing out...

  6. The middle east has quite a bit of oil money. Many of Dubai's customers are from oil states. Also, oil states lend money to Dubai construction. So, Dubai may be sustainable only because we Americans consume oil. We indirectly help finance the operation. I find it hard to believe there is a market for the Emirate's plans. Hopefully, no world government will bail them out if the free market causes them to fail. On the brightside, if (and when) they fail, prices must go down. Thus, the lesser wealthy people of the world will be able to enjoy the absurdity we call Dubai.

  7. First of all, who is coming up with these names(The Palm Trilogy)? Secondly, I am really concerned as to how these massive projects can be sustained on man-made islands. As i outlined in a post on my own blog (
    the key points that need to be addressed when trying to achieve sustainability include transportation, species protection, and pollution control, none of which can be found in Dubai's master plan to build the biggest and most extravagant waste of money that the world has ever seen. Not to mention the fact that global warming is a reality and will result in rising sea levels which, i suspect, will have an interesting effect on this project.

  8. What interests me most about this post and what you explained in class is that the building play to the government as an accessory. It's almost like a game of Monopoly. The idea of owning a building is enough... in time I think these buildings will stand as a place of commerce but until then, the building will just have to settle by standing.