Green Dubai? I don't buy it

Wed, Jan 23, 2013, 00:00

With one of the highest carbon footprints in the world, Dubai is severely at odds with its image

Dubai has gone green? So they say. The world capital of unsustainable development, as I characterised it in May 2007, now professes to have embraced a more environmentally sensitive agenda, in line with a resolution by its ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum – or “Sheikh Mo”, as he’s known locally.

The “Green Dubai” programme, announced in October 2007, preceded oil-rich Abu Dhabi’s bailout of of its brother emirate in December 2009, when it forked out $10 billion (€7.73 billion) to help pay off Dubai’s debts after the overheated property market collapsed.

Since the first Green Dubai World Forum in 2008, all new buildings in Dubai must comply with international “green” specifications on water, electricity consumption and the use of renewable energy. But by then hundreds of skyscrapers had already been built.

Dubai has one of the world’s highest per capita carbon footprints – not surprising when you consider all the airconditioning, chilling and refrigeration needed to ward off scorching temperatures of 50 degrees in summer.

Or take the sprawling desalination complex to the south of the city, which turns huge quantities of sea water into the potable variety at a cost of €4 per cubic metre. Every green space in Dubai has a sprinkler system, though we’re assured that, thanks to Sheikh Mohammed, it’s all “grey water” now.

Architects have had a field day in the emirate, designing tall buildings in nearly every shape imaginable, as if they were playing SimCity. The skyline is congested with them, especially in the downtown area and in Marina City, which boasts eight of the 10 tallest residential towers in the world, with The Torch (79 storeys) as number one.

Looking up at the Burj Khalifa (Burj means “tower” in Arabic), the soaring structure – nearly seven times taller than Dublin’s Spire – is awe-inspiring and surreal. The building spirals and tapers to a spindle as it rises. There’s a restrained elegance about it. Inside are a 300-room Armani hotel, 900 apartments, corporate offices, two swimming pools, 57 high-speed lifts (travelling at a swift 18 metres per second) and possibly the world’s highest nightclub on the 144th floor.

Developed by Emaar, Dubai’s biggest property company, the Burj cost nearly €1.15 billion to construct. According to a Human Rights Watch report, the 7,500 migrant workers who built it were paid poorly, housed in abysmal conditions and had their passports “held for safe-keeping” while they toiled daily in the searing heat.

In the year before the building opened, Armani Residences were being pre-sold for more than €28,800 per sq m, while office space was fetching nearly €33,000 per sq m. Then the bubble burst, values fell by 40 per cent, and the apartments have been offloaded slowly, at reduced prices. A 75 sq m studio can still be had for €252,680.

Five years ago, Dubai’s most-hyped scheme was The World – dozens of islands of various shapes and sizes, manufactured from sand dredged up from the Persian Gulf and loosely arranged to mimic the atlas. The brainchild of the property company Nakheel, it was the hottest ticket in town.

There were rumours that Rod Stewart had bought or was going to buy “Britain”, but Nakheel insisted at the time it had been sold to Richard Branson, who was said to be planning to build a holiday resort there for Virgin Upper Class passengers. This has not materialised.

Nor did plans by an Irish consortium, which had bought “Ireland” for €20 million, for a boutique hotel and spa surrounded by villas. It hoped to sell them at prices ranging from €750,000 to €2.8 million.

Apart from a luxury villa for the Maktoums on one island, which was used as a marketing tool, the only thing that’s been built in The World is a “dayclub” on another island. Efforts to contact Nakheel in advance of a recent visit to Dubai were unsuccessful.

Its biggest development, Palm Jumeirah, has taken off, however. West Palm Beach-style villas are laid out on peninsulas arranged in the shape of palm fronds, each with an SUV parked outside.

At the entrance to Palm Jumeirah, there’s a big scheme of “bespoke apartments” under construction called Dubai Pearl. Its developers, Deyaar, initially offered purchasers free Lamborghinis or yachts.

The commercial property market is in the doldrums, with construction work halted on numerous sites, but high-end residential property is being snapped up.

Nuclear ambitions

The United Arab Emirates also has nuclear plans. With US approval, the first power station is being built half-way between Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, about 390km from Dubai. The chairman of the UAE’s nuclear advisory board is Hans Blix, the Swede who led the UN weapons inspections in Iraq.

Lots of planned schemes in Dubai have been “erased” since 2007, including an underwater hotel, an airconditioned beach, and the Palm Trump International Hotel, for which “The Donald” was lending his name. Towers named for Tiger Woods, Michael Schumacher, Niki Lauda and Omar Sharif got nowhere.

Not that Dubai has any shortage of hotels. Only about 10 per cent of the passengers passing through its international airport stay for one night or more, so there is huge over-capacity. Dubai has more than 30 five-star hotels and one, the Burj Al Arab, that has awarded itself seven stars.

There are plenty of shopping centres, too. The Dubai Mall, with Bloomingdale’s and Marks Spencer as anchors for its 1,200 retail outlets, is more than four times the size of Dublin’s Dundrum Town Centre.

“You have to think of Dubai as a business, rather than a country, so the Sheikh doesn’t need to give people any democratic rights,” remarks one expatriate working in the emirate. “They’ve got no planning laws, no environmental authority, and no right to object. That’s why it’s so easy to get things done here.”

There’s now a metro, with driverless trains on elevated lines, special carriages for women and children and, for a premium, “gold class” travel. The temperature inside the trains is maintained at 20 degrees.

The metro hasn’t made much difference to the huge volumes of traffic on the 10-lane Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai’s main artery. Petrol is so cheap that many motorists don’t even know what it costs (less than 40 cents per litre), so SUV owners simply pull into a petrol station, say “fill it up”, then pay by credit card and drive off.

The emirate’s pretence of “going green” is rather like those signs you find in hotel bathrooms, even in the emirate, saying “Let’s take care of our planet”, so please avoid changing towels every day. Naturally, you follow the instructions because you want to save water in a desert country – and then the staff take them anyway.

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