As the UN Conference on Sustainable Development kicks off in Rio, I look out across the concrete desert of Abu Dhabi 2012 and I wonder what significance the summit may have for the most economically and environmentally unsustainable region on the globe. Even our cavalier and consumptive United States can’t compete with the Gulf states, when compared by resource consumption over the capacity for resource regeneration. Absurd amounts of energy are expended to moderate the air-conditioned malls and irrigate the gardens and golf courses—monuments to modernity and humanity in all its perseverance and arrogance—of an otherwise hot and dry clime. (Isn’t it a shame that Arabs, for all their hospitality, find themselves in such an inhospitable land?)
What’s more, the UAE has experienced population growth of around 9% per year over the past ten years (though the figure has been reduced recently post Recession and the economic downfall of Dubai). The seaside country depends on energy-intensive desalination plants to provide the majority of potable water to its ever-growing population, and on food imports to meet 90% of demand. Close to a crisis, the Emirates and its neighbors have been acquiring millions of acres of farmland all over the (mainly Muslim) world in an effort to ensure food security (http://www.salon.com/writer/fred_pearce?/).
The associated economic costs are evident and exorbitant: over the next six years the price of domestic desalination, for example, is estimated to rise to around an annual $3.22 billion. There are also incalculable and catastrophic environmental costs, like carbon emissions from the plants and from the transportation of imported goods, and the destruction of marine life due to the desalination process.
The sheikhs seem to share a casual but calculated concern for their precarious position—even though, according to BP, the UAE still possesses around 5.9% of proven petroleum reserves globally (the national oil company says it’s closer to 10%), and it ranks 7th of all nations in natural gas deposits. Yet al-Nahyans and al-Maktoums recognize that the present state of their rentier state is not sustainable. Their economy, like the skyscrapers that dominate the skyline, is built on the backs of migrants. So, with resource rents the rulers here seek to create the conditions and opportunities for permanency, for a society and an economy that can sustain more than just a steady stream of unskilled labor from the pool of poor Third World workers.
Their desperate dash to diversify, to attract investment, and to establish the UAE as an international financial center (indicated by the DIFC in Dubai and upcoming projects like the WTC and the new Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange) is a change of emphasis onto the services sector. They have enticed name brands in education, the likes of NYU and the Sorbonne, to set up shop here and convert the capital of the country into an “idea capital” of the world. Dubai is also already a top tourist destination for the transnational capitalist classes, and Abu Dhabi has broken into the industry in a big way, with the Yas Island developments and the Mideast extensions of the Guggenheim and Louvre Museums.
Such schemes may very well prevent short-term economic problems, but the most promising economic experiment in the Emirates is also the one that may answer its critical environmental questions: in accordance with its development Plan 2030, the government of Abu Dhabi is prepared to pour billions of dollars over the next decade into Masdar City, a carbon-neutral community that, upon completion, could accommodate 40,000 people (http://www.masdarcity.ae/en/). The on-site Masdar Institute is a graduate school whose research foci are green tech and energy policy, and whose aspiration is to be a catalyst for sustainable development. The goal is to become nothing short of “the Silicon Valley of renewable energy.”
The Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council (UPC) has devised Estimada (“sustainability” in Arabic), essentially a LEED certification for the Middle East, in order to encourage energy-efficient architecture and construction. Now, on Saadiyat Island, next to landmarks designed by Nouvel, Gehry and Hadid, there’s a proposal to build a “green” mosque (http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/environment/green-mosque-hopes-for-saadiyat-island).
However, sustainability and energy efficiency are oft-equated but distinct objectives. These innovations are incredible—examples for the region and for the whole world, from one of its most egregious environmental offenders. Nevertheless, one must ask if a truly sustainable city is possible here, in the middle of the desert; if you can buy your survival even in the most uninhabitable of habitats. Does Mother Earth sell any and every part of her body? Or, are these pop-up cities all across the Arabian Peninsula modern-day boomtowns, fated to be as fleeting as the foreigners who come to the country on two- to few-year contracts? Is the House of Saud a house of cards, certain to collapse?
Let’s leave aside the existential questions for now. If the paradigm of sustainable development is possible anywhere, it’s safe to say that with such substantial investment, the necessary technology may well be invented, tested and perfected in the UAE. I’m pretty sure the green of the Arab flag has nothing to do with environmentalism—but “going green” may be the only way the Gulf can endure after its own Gilded Age.