Dubai Skyline. Photo: JarkkoS. flickrBefore the discovery of oil, the small area in the east of the Arabian Peninsula consisted mainly of a handful of small princedoms and fishing villages. Since the 1960’s however, the United Arab Emirates have experienced rapid economic growth on an incomparable scale. Where there was desert, vast metropolises have risen, as technologically advanced as any capital in Europe, America or Eastern Asia. Yet there has been a price to pay for this transformation, in human as well as environmental terms.

Even despite the economic crisis, the achievement of the UAE is impressive. With this growth has also come greater political power and the Gulf is now the beacon of inspiration for the rest of the Arab world, as a model to aspire towards as well as a blueprint for economic growth. The fast pace of construction has created an underclass of construction workers, shipped in from India and other parts of South Asia. Although they come by the hundreds of thousands for wages that will help support families in their home countries, an unknown number of them are subjected to abuse and none of them have any political rights.

Another problem is the fact that this tremendous level of construction and economic growth has been achieved within the context of a heavily petroleum based economy. The cities of the UAE are, in short, pouring massive amounts of energy into wasteful enterprises, such as water purification and air conditioning. The destruction of the local climate is arguably the greatest threat to the future of the Emirates and the way the government will solve this threat will to a great extent decide the future of the UAE. According to Jim Krane – a longtime reporter for the Associated Press in the Persian Gulf region and author of the book, City of Gold – the UAE has been embarrassed by being identified as having the world’s highes ecological foot print per capita, and is taking steps to improve its image “Unfortunately, it sees the problem primarily as an image issue, rather than an ecological threat”, says Jim Krane.

So what is being done about the problems? There are many obstacles in the way of creating a sustainable economy in the thriving desert country. On the one hand, the citizens have grown used to the privileges, easy winnings and riches that the current society has made available for them and that are considered part of the ruling bargain between monarch and citizens. “Subsidies are very difficult to roll back in the UAE and the other monarchies of the Gulf. Taking them away is seen as a violation of citizens’ rights”, says Jim Krane.

Masdar City, Abu Dhabi: a new ecocity which aims to obtain 100% of its energy from renewable sources.. Photot: iied.org. flickrBut in the end, the government has no choice. The reality of a desert environment puts a severe limit on overspending and wasteful energy policies. Since the UAE and other Gulf countries are using great amounts of their natural gas production for already existing industries, the baselode, they are ironically facing a severe gas shortage. The country is putting alot of effort into developing other energy sources, nuclear plants among them. Also, with energy exports comprising about 80% of the government budgets, something needs to be done. Solutions have to be found – or else.

To combat the problems, the Emiratis have reacted in a variety of ways. New building regulations requiring better insulation, thermal windows and more efficient construction have been imposed. Many countries in the Gulf, the UAE among them, are also setting minimum standards on home appliances, especially air conditioners, so that inefficient units are essentially banned from import. Yet combating the high levels of waste among private citizens is still considered a difficult political mine field. “Any tariff increases have been focused on commercial and industrial customers, and in some cases, on foreign residents. Only in Dubai have GCC nationals been forced to pay more for electricity,” says Jim Krane.

But more ambitious projects have also been launched. The UAE is aiming to become the world leading developer of clean, sustainable technology. The most ambitious project so far is the creation of the futuristic Masdar City, on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. It is a planned city launched in 2006 by the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, with strong financial backing from the state. The developers of Masdar City hope to create a sustainable, zero-carbon, zero-waste ecology. Many innovative initiatives – within architecture, city planning, the use of material and water resources and the employment of traditional techniques suited for a desert environment – have been introduced. The project was going to become the testing ground for new technologies and blueprints for the cleaner, greener and more sustainable Abu Dhabi of the future. The city was scheduled for completion in 2015, but the financial crash – which affected the Gulf region hard – brought these plans to a halt. Nevertheless, the project could be a testing ground that could hold the promise of a future UAE, that will greatly decrease its ecological footprint and turn towards a more sustainable use of energy.

DANIEL JANDRÉUS