The future of Gulf Cities

by Stefan Schurig

An expert hearing on regenerative urban development in the Gulf taking place in Dubai? Isn’t that a contradiction in itself? Well, 45 international participants from politics, practitioners, academia, business and civil society concluded after three days of intense discussion: there is no better place to discuss the future of Gulf cities than Dubai.

This city shows us both what can be done and what must be done. Its growth from a small trading port on the edge of the desert to a global city in just a few decades shows the power of visionary leadership. “This gives us hope that this city can, in the coming decades, mobilize the same vision and energy to regenerate itself into a pioneering post-modern city, using its resources and ingenuity to show how to win the coming battle for sustainability;” said Jakob von Uexküll, Founder of the World Future Council.

Critics will dismiss this as absurd. They see Dubai as a prime example of an unsustainable urban development model. But Dubai represents the dream of modernity shared by the majority of the world’s population – as anyone who has travelled in rural Asia can confirm. Those who believe that Dubai cannot become part of a sustainable future remind me of the joke about the man asking for directions, only to be told, “Well, I would not start from here.” Dubai is here! But far too many of those who understand the huge challenges we face prefer to dream of a global future of small-scale communities. No doubt these will multiply, but they will not attract the global majority.

The hearing showed that the challenges of “’future-proofing” Dubai into a sustainable – or indeed, regenerative – city are huge but not impossible. There are many starting points, and especially when looking at the potential for renewable energies there is no argument for not looking to the UAE to build regenerative cities. However, the conference, which was co-organised by the World Future Council, has once again highlighted the need for a national political framework that enables investors to put their money towards future just and sustainable energy systems. The key challenge for implementing the right policies in the Gulf is not lack of financial resources but rather the lack of appropriate financial mechanisms. Mustapha Taoumi from IRENA stressed in his presentation that in order to develop this, “we primarily need capacity building and awareness among decision makers.”

The need for national policies and institutional frameworks was also emphasized by Delia Meth-Cohn, Editorial Director at Economist and lead author of Siemens’ Green City Index. “The Green City Index shows that those cities that are doing well had a rather strong mandate at the national level to make decisions.  Furthermore, they had coordinating bodies with a holistic, integrated approach.”

Another key success factor for implementing regenerative cities is participation. “Civic engagement is crucial. Those cities who got citizens involved were doing better in the ranking than those working only top down,” said Delia Meth-Cohn. Case studies from across the globe – from Quito/ Ecuador, the Regional Association Ruhr in Germany as well as from SEKEM/ Egypt – impressively showed how citizens can be more than a “consumer of services” within a city. Helmy Abouleish of SEKEM and member of the World Future Council emphasized that community development is one key element for regenerative development. “To handle the challenges of the 21st century we need creative, innovative people and we need to give them the space to develop these capacities.”

In addition, Dr. Mary Aelchenasi, Undersecretary of the Ministry of Environment and Water Agency in the UAE, sees people and their behavior as one of the key issues to address: “Environmental change behaviors of the population and the sustainability of natural resources are the most important challenges faced by environmental project in the state. There are a lot of strategies, systems and programs but the behavioral patterns of individuals so far are rather homogeneous with scarce natural resources in the states;” she said in the conference in Dubai.

Summarizing the outcomes of the intense and exciting debates that took place in Dubai, the participants agreed that when thinking of the future of cities globally as well as in the Gulf new comprehensive, integrated approaches to urban governance are needed. These can be described as follows:

  • Well-integrated urban planning and management;
  • Land-use planning in favor of compact urban form;
  • Efficient use of water and reuse of waste water;
  • Routine composting and reuse of organic waste;
  • Recycling and remanufacturing of all other waste;
  • Maximum energy efficiency in buildings;
  • Renewable energy production and smart grids; and
  • Transition to efficient electric transport systems.

It has to be stressed that the impact of policies corresponding with the above mentioned eight areas very much depends on the question of governance. Case studies from across the globe showed that cross-departmental thinking and interface capacities between city authorities and the public are important for a successful implementation of policies. Furthermore, national policies and national institutions are the most important catalyst for transforming cities into regenerative systems.

This article originally appeared at the World Future Council website. Read more about the World Future Council here.

Image courtesy of Omar Chatriwala at