Dubai: Innovation, Sustainability, and Despotism


Welcome to Dubai.

Dubai has the world’s tallest tower, busiest international airport, highest restaurant, biggest shopping mall, largest firework display, longest graffiti scroll, largest synchronized car dance, most expensive headwear sold at auction, and first 3D printed office. The city is not to be underestimated.

This semiautonomous member of the UAE has transformed itself from a tiny, impoverished village into a global trading hub, and one of the most visited destinations in the world. Travel blogs emphasize the life beyond the skyscrapers, stating that you don’t need a burkini, that the spas are amazing, and that beneath the shopping malls lie exuberant culture. Economists praise its strong economic fundamentals. Unlike the rest of the UAE, which are traditionally dependent on oil revenues, Dubai’s transport, construction and financial centre has made it a magnet for global corporations. The lack of income or sales tax has made it attractive to foreign investors who flocked there, especially once given permission to own property. Moreover, due to legislation that essentially gave land to all UAE citizens, a wave of development is hardly surprising. Dubai forecasts that its population will double to more than 5 million by 2030.

It has been a highly successful experiment of economic liberalization, which has allowed it to flourish where its neighbors have not. Dubai’s lack of oil forced its political economy to grow more creatively than its regional counterparts, and its lack of red tape attracted foreign investment and made it the global trading hub it is today. Dubai’s twenty-two ‘free zones’, for example, allow foreign firms to function more easily than in the rest of the emirate. It’s also increasingly used by the Chinese for their ventures in Africa. Stifled entrepreneurs from Egypt and Iran found a home which valued their creativity. Where India and Pakistan struggled to provide jobs for their growing populations, Dubai utilized them as labor migrants (though note that due to bad pay and worse conditions, their situation is often likened to modern slavery). Dubai shamelessly profited from rebuilding Iraq and Lebanon after respective conflicts subsided, taking advantage of its fragile neighbors. Economically, it’s a city version of Travis Kalanick: a bulldozer of a startup seeking growth at all costs.


However, economic development and innovation have not provided political progress, as Dubai maintains a highly autocratic governance system. Western values such as democracy, transparency, and human rights are ignored. Guest workers remain subject to low wages and unsafe working conditions. Smuggling, suspicious arms dealing, money laundering and sex trafficking all continue despite new government laws and tightened regulations. Yet many of Dubai’s investors put up with a lack of transparency due to it comparative stability to its neighbors.

Curiously, Janus Rockstock, chief architect of the firm that designed Dubai’s metro, says democratic deficiency is not an issue as long as the leadership makes good decisions. Others are more indifferent still: they highlight that in Dubai, a project with the leader’s backing, takes days to plan and execute, rather than the years which would be expected in other states. Like it or not, despotism has facilitated rapid and successful economic innovation.

And there was another cost to this success: Dubai’s development made it one of the most ecologically damaging cities in the world. This was largely a result of carbon emissions, but also due to the amount of energy needed to maintain air conditioning and water desalination. In Dubai, basic human comforts such as staying hydrated and cool come at huge environmental cost. Not to mention the coral reefs and natural habitat destroyed by ostentatious artificial islands.

Yet the color of innovation is changing. Amazingly, unexpectedly, Dubai is embracing a rarely enacted philosophy: sustainability. Never half-hearted in its aims, it wants to become the city with the smallest carbon footprint by 2050.

The NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC highlights two reasons why:

1.        The economic crisis slowed construction rates and stimulated some pause for thought among developers about the future.

2.        The government appreciated the need to reduce dependence on imported oil and gas, whose prices were skyrocketing, and which power construction.

3.        Finally, solar power was becoming cost-competitive – in 2017 becoming the Middle East’s cheapest form of energy.

While not individually revolutionary, it seems that these factors have been enough to stimulate the change in Dubai. And thanks to despotism, that change is happening fast. Green building regulations have tightened, with solar water heaters and operational systems, that dim lights and lowers thermostats when people leave their homes, are required in new buildings. The city is on a mission to modernize 30,000 of the city’s older buildings, during which third-party contractors are permitted profits from a portion of the energy savings gained.

And there is more radical change just around the bend.


The SUSTAINABLE CITY is an impressive feat of forward-thinking engineering. It is a 3,500 people housing development whose principle goal is to become a Net Zero Energy City. It boasts 100% water recycling, a school, a hospital, a hotel, running and cycle paths, car-free clusters, an eco-friendly pool, biodomes for growing vegetables and even an equestrian centre. It is quickly becoming a role model for environmentally friendly development, and also emphasizes the value of community, personal health and well-being.

KARI EL-JISR, the Director of the Sustainable City Innovation Centre, emphasizes that everything is designed with the intention for reducing the energy consumption of the city – the villas are oriented north to benefit from the shade and thus reduce the need for air conditioning. They are coated in UV deflective paint to deflect sunlight and reduce thermal heat gain. Water features using filtered grey water, from showers and wash-basins, run through the centre of the neighborhood and irrigate fruit trees which add aesthetic beauty and produce avocados, pomegranates, dates and figs. Even the type of grass has been specifically chosen: it’s papyrus, which biofilters the water and improved its quality. There are recycling plants in every block and outdoor furniture is made from construction waste. The car park is shaded by solar panels which double as a roof, whose energy is enough for almost a third of the entire city’s consumption. With 15,000 square meters of rental space, the community collects revenue which pays for all the service and maintenance fees: water, AC, electricity, cleaning the solar panels, grey water treatments, the mosque, and security. There is no cost to its inhabitants.

Forget the Paris Climate Agreement: it is comparatively small projects like this which will make sustainable living a reality for the masses. If it continues to succeed, others will copy the idea, improve, and multiply. Countries will change for the better, bottom up, without ever having to explicitly agree on a set of principles which so often stall political cooperation between nation-states.

A last word on democracy: It’s not a feature of Dubai. And that’s bad, if you believe in its principles. Yet simultaneously to criticizing Dubai’s despotism, it might be worth considering that the ways in which ordinary people express their voice are more diverse than a vote. The very act of opting into a sustainable city is a powerful expression of one’s values. This choice may not fit the traditional definition of democracy, yet it may influence the way a country is built. Not a vote, no, but a choice. By choosing where and how to live, to some extent at least, Dubai’s citizens could support a more sustainable world.


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