Keeping up with the Joneses – GCC style

By now the initial buzz around the United Arab Emirates’ Masdar City has somewhat calmed, after a slew of global “oohs” and “aahs” about its planned futuristic Jestons-esque mass transit infrastructure, creative use of traditional energy-saving urban planning techniques, and stratospheric ambitions. The Masdar project was announced by Abu Dhabi in 2007 as “the world’s first zero-carbon city.” As TIME Magazine noted earlier this year, the ambitions for Masdar have been brought down several notches since (it is now a “low-carbon,” as opposed to “no carbon,” city), but grandiose planning and glittering facades aside, incremental but significant progress is continuing to be made.

In March, the city hosted its first open house market and street fair, which drew international and regional attention back to the project. But this was not a showy production aimed at international journalists and investors; it featured local vendors selling organic produce, green-themed activities, and performances targeted mainly at local families. In October 2011 Masdar will host the site of the European Future Energy Forum 2011, which was held in Bilbao and London in previous years – (un)officially putting the city on the map in the global dialogue around alternative energy.

In March, Siemens announced that the details of its strategic partnership with Masdar had been formalized – including a long term R & D program headquartered at theMasdar Institute of Science and Technology, itself partially partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Such partnerships between the private sector and research institutions have incredible potential to make significant contributions to the development of alternative energy and climate technologies.

Whether or not Masdar will reach its original ambitious goals – or even its comparatively pared down ones – is unclear, but the project has certainly had its desired effect  in terms of attracting global and regional attention and placing Abu Dhabi among the first movers in the movement toward sustainable urban development. Moreover, it has had considerable spill-over effects on sustainable development in the region.

Qatar is positioning itself as an emerging competitor to the UAE, with Doha as its flagship megacity. Dubai has the world’s tallest building today – the Burj Khalifa. In March, both the KSA and Qatar announced plans to build the world’s tallest buildings. The UAE attracted a lot of international attention as the new celebrity playground before the crisis (they got the Sex and the City sequel!).  Qatar won the bid to host the 2020 World Cup, and is undergoing massive infrastructure projects in anticipation of the event. This keeping up with the Joneses has, thankfully, extended to environmental initiatives as well in the country with the highest carbon footprint per capita.

In 2006, Qatar announced the development of “Energy City” – a commercial complex composed entirely of LEED certified buildings with minimal environmental footprints, and aimed at  firms in the energy sector. The website for the project claims that it has been so successful in attracting international investors and partners that it has in the works parallel “energy cities” in Libya, India, and Kazakhstan. Following press coverage on the expansion of the area under organic farming in the UAE from 110 acres in 2007 to 2196 acres in 2010, Qatar – which imports 90% of its food– announced plans to establish 1400 organic farms covering an area of over 100,000 acres. Before the financial crisis derailed plans, both the UAE and Qatar had in place plans to build carbon trading platforms in a race to be the regional hub of carbon-credits trading and to earn CER credits from planned CCS projects.

The financial crisis has tempered the more ambitious sustainability and energy-related goals of the GCC countries, but what remain are the momentum from previous investments and a degree of public willingness, awareness, and pressure to factor environmental sustainability in key decisions and processes. For example, schools in the UAE are now required by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) to achieve certain waste management and energy consumption goals in order to maintain “good standing.” These changes may be less showy, but are no less meaningful and significant, moves in a more sustainable direction for countries in the GCC.