Policies to Buildings: The UAE’s Emergence as the GCC’s Sustainability Leader


Karim Elgendy

Settling along the shores of the gulf

In the barren deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, people have always settled in locations that provided freshwater and enough natural resources to enable trade and economic development. Human settlements in the southern shores of the Gulf, in what we now know as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are no exceptions to this.

For the last four centuries, the Bedouins of the Banu Yas tribes have settled a strip of land along the northern edge of the dune fields of the Arabian Peninsula’s Empty Quarter. Drawn to its plentiful ground water resources they established what is now known as the Liwa Oasis and developed date plantations which provided subsistence. But when fresh water was discovered on the Abu Dhabi Island in the late 18th century, Al Bu Falah branch of Banu Yas moved to the coastal location which – in addition to providing fresh water- also allowed them to develop pearling industry and trade.

In the early 19th century, another branch of the Banu Yas, known as Al Bu Falasa, moved from the Abu Dhabi Island to settle near a natural creek 90 miles east of the Abu Dhabi Island. In addition to ground water and pearling, the creek – now known as the Dubai  Creek- allowed the establishment of a port which facilitated trade with neighbors across the gulf and beyond. They quickly established a settlement on the western shore the creek – known later as Bur Dubai – but had to abandon it two decades later and move to the eastern shore after a smallpox outbreak. By the end of the 19th century, the combined advantages of fresh water availability, the natural port, the pearling industry, and the good geographic location, were sufficient for the new settlement to endure a sweeping fire that burnt through most of it dwellings. The Bedouins that have settled in Dubai sought no other location and simply rebuilt their settlement.

The decline of global trade in the 1920s and the terminal decline of the pearling industry hurt both Dubai and Abu Dhabi economically, but the discovery of oil signaled a dramatic turn in fortunes for the relatively new and small settlements. The surge of revenues from oil exports since the 1960s and the creation of the United Arab Emirates in the 1970s, enabled unprecedented economic development that spanned the last five decades. The economic development of the UAE was so swift and unique, it drew the gaze of observers around the world to its rapid pace, its boldness, and its many achievements.

But the fact that the UAE’s economic development was –almost entirely- enabled by an excess of fossil fuels, was not lost of many. Not only did oil exports afford the UAE enough financial muscle power to finance infrastructure development, and literally provided energy to fuel its economy, but it also enabled the manufacturing of fresh water, allowing the rapid growth and expansion of its settlements, far more than could be sustained by the carrying capacity of their natural environments, transforming them into the cities we now know.

This rentier nature of the UAE economy also drew the ire of many observers who deemed its meteoric rise inherently unsustainable. Development experts, and – more recently- climate advocates -to name but a few- remained  particularly sceptical about the compatibility of the UAE economy with sustainability given its dependence on petrodollar economics. The emergence of an often excessive western-style consumer culture without industrialization enabled this critique, and the UAE’s very high ecological and carbon footprints per capita – which are mostly results of its oil and gas industry, desalination, and other energy-intensive industries – provided environmental metrics to support it.

The UAE’s economic model was not the only recipient of such harsh criticism. The rapid urban growth of Dubai as well as its form of urban development was strongly criticised by urbanists, with much of the criticism directed at the city-emirate’s adoption of forms of urbanism and architecture that encouraged inefficiency in energy and water use, alongside a number of flagship projects that were deemed manifestly unsustainable. Urban critics criticised the suburbanisation of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, their vehicle-centric planning, and their eschewing of the region’s traditional urbanism in favour of imported urban forms. They also poured scorn on projects such as the land reclamation and the expansion of the city’s coastline into palm shaped peninsulas, the construction of man-made islands to the shape of a world map, the development of an energy-intensive indoor ski slope, and the creation of water-intensive golf courses. Such projects were criticised in their own right as extravagant expressions of environmentally insensitive urban development, but they also vindicated global stereotypes about the unsustainable trajectory that the UAE’s urban and economic developments are taking.

The Turning Tide

But a fundamental transformation to the UAE’s development towards sustainability is already afoot, and what started as a few scattered and sporadic signals of change a decade ago – initiatives, awareness campaigns, pilot projects, etc. – have now come together and is gathering pace. Despite being a fairly recently development, the economic and urban transformation towards sustainability is sufficiently wide ranging, fast paced, and anchored in policy frameworks, that many observers are left wondering whether we are witnessing the turning of the tide towards sustainable urbanism and sustainable economic development in the UAE.

New Policy Frameworks

Much of this transformation has stemmed from a fundamental changes to national policy frameworks. In 2012, the UAE launched a Green Growth Strategy for 2050 under an initiative known as “Green Economy for Sustainable Development”. The progressive and comprehensive initiative which covers environmental, social, and economical aspects, attempts to diversify the national economy away from hydrocarbons and to integrate the various national sustainability initiatives under one federal umbrella.

A mere two years later, the UAE committed itself under the Paris Agreement to sourcing 24% of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030 – most of which will come from the four nuclear power plants currently under construction in Abu Dhabi. And while the UAE still has one of the highest rates of carbon emissions per capita in the world and, like most countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), it failed to include a carbon reduction target in its commitments -known as Nationally Determined Contributions- this positive change has taken many of its international counterparts by surprise. For it came less than a decade after the UAE topped the WWF’s global rankings for ecological footprint per capita.

Following on from the Paris Agreement, the UAE expanded the mandate of the Ministry of Environment in 2016 to cover a myriad of climate-related policies. It also renamed it to the Ministry for Climate Change and Environment. The ministry has since become active on climate policies within the UNFCCC global climate negotiations. It has also established the UAE Council for Climate Change and Environment, a multi-ministerial body set up to make recommendations that support the creation of a green economy through management of natural resources.

In additional to federal policies, some individual emirates have also developed their own policy frameworks for sustainability. The Plan Abu Dhabi 2030, for example, featured sustainability as a key direction and one of the foundations for the development of the emirate. Similarly, the 2021 Dubai Plan explicitly identifies its goal to establish Dubai as a “Smart and Sustainable city”. It focuses on mobility, clean energy, urban resilience, clean environment, and promoting sustainable consumption. Dubai Green Fund was also created in 2017, providing an USD25 billion credit line for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. Downstream from the policy frameworks above, a variety of policies, plans, targets, and programs targeting specific sectors of the economy were revealed at federal and emirate levels. These included renewable energy, energy efficiency, buildings, mobility, and water.


In the energy sector, the UAE recently announced a national energy plan for 2050, which aims to reduce national carbon emissions by an impressive 70% and increase clean energy use to 50% – a percentage that includes nuclear power. Dubai’s Clean Energy Strategy 2050 was also announced in 2017. It set a 15% target for clean energy by 2030, rising to 25% by 2030, and to 75% by 2050. It exceeded the emirate’s previous aspirations under the Dubai Integrated Energy Strategy which aimed for a mere 5% renewables target by 2030.

Such renewable energy aspirations are exceptional by GCC standards, even when considering their decades-long timespan and the fact that renewable energy capacity in the UAE currently stands at less than 1% of total generation capacity. Furthermore, efforts are already underway to develop renewable energy capacity in line with those aspirations and in a cost effective way. In 2015 an agreement to provide 200MW of solar photovoltaic capacity at Al Maktoum Solar Park in Dubai set a new world record with a cost of 5.84 cents (USD) per kilowatt-hour. A year later, this cost record was broken in an agreement between a Masdar-led consortium and the Dubai utility provider for an additional 800MW of capacity, at a rate of 2.99 cents a kilowatt-hour.  This new record was – in turn- broken in 2017 when Abu Dhabi’s utility provider signed a contract to build a 1,170MW solar photovoltaic array in Sweihan at a cost of 2.94 cents a kilowatt-hour. And while lower costs records have been set elsewhere since, the potential for rapid economically feasible growth of solar photovoltaic capacity in the UAE was clearly demonstrated.

Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) has also set records in the UAE. In mid-2017 the Dubai utility provider received a bid for a 200MW CSP array at a rate of 9.45 cents per kilowatt-hour including 15 hours of storage. This storage capacity allows for electricity from solar energy to be used economically throughout the day thus reducing the negative impacts of intermittence which large-scale solar arrays can have on the electricity grids. Later in 2017, an additional 700MW CSP array was contracted at a world record cost of 7.3 cents per kilowatt-hour.

In addition to utility-scale renewable energy, the emirate of Dubai is also encouraging rooftop solar photovoltaic power generation. In 2015 it launched a net-metering scheme called Shams Dubai which allowed small scale power producers to sell generated electricity back to the grid at the same cost rate of purchase. Dubai’s Clean Energy Strategy 2050 also mandates that all new buildings have rooftop solar by 2030.

The Masdar Institute for Science and Technology (MIST) has found a suitable role in this new context. Initially planned in 2007 as the seed for Masdar City, the scaling back of what was promoted as the world’s first zero-carbon city has undermined the graduate-level campus. Despite being one of the very few remains from the Masdar City vision, MIST represents a critical component in driving renewable energy forward in the UAE. By providing training and advancing research into new and renewable energy technologies, the institute – which is now part of Khalifa University for Science and Technology- provides both the necessary research and development and the local human resources necessary to support a transition to renewable energy. The relocation of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) to Abu Dhabi further supports this emerging renewable energy ecosystem and lends credibility to national endeavours.

On the energy demand side, The UAE Energy Plan for 2050 aims to improve energy efficiency by 40% by the middle of the century. By 2020 the emirate of Abu Dhabi plans to reduce its electricity consumption by 15% (compared to a 2010 baseline) which includes the emirate’s Comprehensive Cooling Plan, while Dubai plans to reduce its electricity use by 8-10% by the same date and to reduce electricity use by 30% by 2030.

Critical to these effort to improve energy efficiency is subsidy reform. In 2015, the UAE seized the opportunity of relatively low global oil prices and linked fuel prices to the cost of sourcing fuel, admittedly well below its global value. Some individual emirates have also reduced subsidies on electricity tariffs. Dubai for example, which has the GCC’s most liberalised fuel prices, currently has residential and commercial electricity tariffs of approximately 8 cents per kilowatt-hour, which are high enough to make energy efficiency measures economically feasible. By comparison, the residential electricity tariffs average in Abu Dhabi is 7 cents per kilowatt-hour for expats and 2 cents for UAE nationals, while the commercial tariffs and industrial rates stand at 4.5 and 8 cents respectively.

Efforts to reduce waste destined for landfills have also been connected to energy. The UAE has set a national vision to divert 75% of its waste from landfill and other dumping grounds by 2021, while the emirate of Sharjah – which already diverts 70% of its waste from landfill – plans to exceed this national target and to divert 100% of its waste from landfill by constructing a large waste-to-energy plant.

Sustainable Urbanism

Efforts to improve the sustainability and energy efficiency of the built environment go as far back as 2008 when Abu Dhabi’s Plan 2030 was first announced. The development the Estidama program by Abu Dhabi’s Urban Planning Council shortly followed and gained prominence by the development of the Pearls Rating System.

Following the speculative real estate market crash in Dubai in 2009 all urban development in the UAE experienced a major slowdown. When the market recovered half a decade later, a diminished appetite to go back to the predominant urban models became apparent, as competing agendas more in line with sustainability emerged across the design and construction sector. These competing agendas flowed from the change in policy framework, policies, plans, targets, and programs above. Consequently efforts to develop more sustainable cities in the UAE became more pronounced in the last few years.


These efforts include energy efficient retrofits for existing and new buildings. Given that the majority of existing buildings will remain operational for decades to come, energy efficient retrofits are deemed to have the greatest theoretical potential for reducing energy use, far exceeding the total potential of new buildings, despite the high capital cost, and energy efficiency ceiling imposed by the existing urban form and envelope fabric of existing building stock. New buildings on the other hand are considered the low hanging fruit energy efficiency, offering the potential for very high energy efficiency in new buildings at a marginal cost.

The reformed electricity tariffs –especially in Dubai- and the establishment of a regulatory and contractual framework allowed Energy Service Companies (ESCOs) to design and carry out energy efficiency retrofits to existing buildings and to recoup the cost through Energy Performance Contracts (EPC), with building owners making no upfront payments. In Dubai these frameworks took the form of the Etihad Energy Service Company (Etihad ESCO), which acts as a super ESCO for other ESCOs, and has set a goal of retrofitting 30,000 existing buildings. Dubai has also joined the global Building Efficiency Accelerator programme – a program under the United Nation’s “Sustainable Energy for All” initiative – to double the rate of energy efficiency in cities by 2030. In Abu Dhabi the Tarsheed program by the Abu Dhabi Energy and Water Agency (ADWEA) was main instrument for which plans to retrofit 3000 non-residential buildings.

The UAE has also worked to integrate sustainability and energy efficiency in new buildings by establishing mandatory benchmarks of building performance that also recognize pioneering developers who certifiably exceed them. This includes the development of quasi-mandatory rating systems such as the Estidama Pearl Rating System in Abu Dhabi and Al Sa’fat rating system in Dubai, which represents a development of Dubai Municipality’s Green Building Regulations and Specifications (GBRS).  Pearls Rating System is an integral part of the planning permit process in Abu Dhabi, and government-funded buildings and large-scale developments must achieve a minimum of 2-Pearls in order to obtain planning and building permits. All other buildings are required to obtain a minimum of 1-Pearl. Any certification level beyond these mandatory levels is voluntary.  Similarly, Al Sa’fat lowest certification levels – Bronze and Silver Sa’fa- are mandatory for different building types.

The UAE also leads the GCC region in the number of LEED certified buildings, and its Green Building Council is the GCC region’s most active. It also hosts the Middle East and North Africa region’s only annual awards for green buildings since 2016.


The lack of public transportation in the UAE is traditionally viewed as a result of a number of factors including vehicle-centric planning, low urban density, and single use zoning. Retrofitting cities with such urban characteristics to incorporate public transportation and pedestrian networks is a challenge in any region. However, the UAE continues to explore conventional and innovative public transportation systems that would improve its economic performance while increasing its energy efficiency.

The first of its efforts to develop its conventional public transportation system was the Dubai Metro, a network of two lines powered by driver-less trains, which is currently being extended toward the Expo 2020 site. A network of feeder buses was also developed, extending the areas serviced by the city’s 49 Metro stations and supporting the long term transportation towards Transit-Oriented-Development.

The UAE has also been exploring innovative vehicle-based solutions that are more readily suited to its current mobility infrastructure. Dubai has recently installed more than 120 electric vehicle charging stations, and created an incentive scheme to encourage the public to shift to electric vehicles. It has also purchased 200 Tesla vehicles to include into its fleet of taxis. And despite the lack of agricultural land, the UAE has also been experimenting with bio-fuels. Fuel from local McDonald’s restaurants, for example, was used to produce a limited amount of biofuels that can be used as a alternative fuel without any vehicle modification while providing the same fuel economy.

This dual approach of exploring conventional and innovative systems was also evident in the UAE’s efforts to connect its cities. While planning is underway for Etihad Rail, a planned conventional train network, Hyperloop technology –  an innovative transportation technology that use ultra-fast levitating capsules- is simultaneously being tested for a proposed link between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It is estimated that such a system could reduce travel time between the two cities by 75%.

Water and the Return to Liwa

The UAE is also making efforts to reduce its water consumption which, at 550 litres per person per day, is one of the highest in the world. The UAE’s water consumption is also highly linked to energy use with 21% of its water sourced from desalination plants, and to food due to its low irrigation efficiency and the losses caused by evaporation.

To address its water efficiency challenges, the UAE has introduced more efficient irrigation technique such as drip irrigation, which use 35% less water than traditional systems. It has also replaced water-intensive crops with more water efficient ones and is experimenting with use of treated wastewater in irrigation. The emirate of Dubai also has plans to reduce its total water use by 30% by 2030.

Ironically, in its efforts to steer their cities and economies towards sustainability and resilience the UAE found itself going back to its roots, and to the fundamental resource upon which cities where first created in its territory. The oasis of Liwa, home to the UAE’s least brackish water contamination, and an ancient water aquifer was chosen to be the cornerstone of the UAE’s water security strategy. Under the Aquifer Storage and Recovery scheme, excess water produced via desalination in the summer are pumped into Liwa’s aquifer, transforming it into the GCC’s largest strategic reserve. The aquifer would then help supply fresh water during the winter months, and support water security by maintaining three months of strategic water reserve. Beyond symbolism, the scheme clearly signals a recognition of the need to secure and ensure the sustainability of freshwater resources in the UAE if its cities and urban settlements are to continue their rapid growth and if its economy is to continue to thrive.

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