By Professor Steven Caton,
Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies,
Professor of Arabic Studies, Harvard University

Published on 2A Magazine Issue #7

I was pleased that the Center for Middle East Studies at Harvard University could help co-sponsor the two-day seminar in the spring of 2007, “Re-Conceiving the Built Environment in the Gulf,” the brain child of Nader Ardalan. I had not known Nader before he approached me with the idea for this event and it was not the sort of thing CMES was known to do in the past, but I was intrigued, first, by its relevance to the region, by the unusual combination of talented developers, planners, architects, and students who would participate in it, and by the fact that scholarly and policy concerns of the problem would be given treatment, so I agreed to work with Nader on it. I was not disappointed. The two days were among the most interesting intellectual conversations I have had at the Center, and also one of the few in which I have heard disagreements expressed that were both profound but also profoundly productive. I know that something good has already come of the event, and I look forward to more to come.

Enhancing the “Dubai Model Metaphor”
By Nader Ardalan,
Director, Gulf Research Project & Fellow, CMES, Harvard

The Harvard CMES Seminar of April 28/29, 2007 focused upon the phenomena of recent Gulf development. Leading thinkers and decision makers from both the region and international academia, development and the professions convened to review the environmental and cultural context of the Gulf countries today and to deliberate upon the value and impacts of their recent urban growth and architectural projects. The aim of the seminar was to discuss the interim findings of the Gulf Research Project and through this lens to assess in preliminary ways the sustainability of the new built environments and how to enhance them through innovative design guidelines and strategies. The preceding articles have documented in greater detail the recommendations of the GRP, while this article highlights the main observations of the Harvard Seminar.

Much has been written and documented recently about the “Dubai Model” as a smart, mixed use development formula based upon a full service –single source solution that is now being branded and replicated in the region and other parts of the world. It can be paraphrased that the seminar used the term “Dubai Model Metaphor”, not as it particularly related to that city, but more generically as a phenomena of the prototype developments characteristic of the region.

While many agreed on the model’s initial, vast financial success, it was still considered a “work in progress” and

the sense of the Seminar was that the fiduciary and social responsibility of those who are responsible for them would benefit from a careful SWOT evaluation of this model, now that adequate examples of them have been built and can be tested against a more broad set of criteria. in addition to their cconomic and political aspects.

On the whole, the Seminar encouraged the integration of practical, sustainable design and environmentally conscious strategies into the fast paced implementation of the economic and physical developments of the UAE and the Gulf region. It recognized that rapid growth and understanding and applying the lessons of sustainable design might be difficult to reconcile, but that ultimately such solutions had to be found and demonstrated in economically viable ways. It was further stated that there is an inseparable link between Sustainability and Politics. Therefore, sympathetic public policy and legislation needs to be nourished to support sustainable strategies that should encompass the whole spectrum of social participants, from the individual, the community and the State.

The following SWOT observations on the “Dubai Model Metaphor” summarize in a conceptual manner some of the salient discussion and thinking of the Seminar participants. representing the diverse disciplines of governance, development economics, anthropology, environmental design, marine engineering, planning and architecture.


The Model is characterized by strong physically identifiable building types clustered into development packages and well branded that are rapidly designed

and built with transparent, legally binding ownership procedures and bankable financial arrangements.


Environmental Considerations

Within the issues of the global environmental crisis, it has already been observed that replicating the high energy use, car dependent transportation model of the US would require “3 Earths to support such an energy inefficient approach, if the rest of the world followed suit. Since the physical development characteristics of the current built “Dubai Models” in all the Gulf countries follow closely US energy guzzling, full A/C, non-Green, highly polluting Building Types with predominating car based transport, such a physical model, with its associated negative public health impacts, for the Gulf and the hot Middle East Climates leaves much to be desired and would not be a sustainable model to promote as it is.

Similarly, the subject of the negative impacts upon the Gulf Aquatic Environment of much new waterfront developments is another important weakness that deserves serious re-consideration and repair before further deteriorization occurs in the marine life of the Persian Gulf. Contingent to these issues is the urgent need for Tidal Rights legislation that can anticipate shoreline ownership within the context of shoreline location changes that are bound to global warming and the resulting sea level rise.

Socio-Cultural Considerations

The term “Refugee Rich has been used by some to describe some of the recent luxury, gated communities and developments in the Gulf. This simply symbolically addresses one of the social engineering issues of gentrification and unsustainable social stratification that the “Dubai Model Metaphor” represents. Others considerations such as lack of community identity, human scale, pedestrian walking comfort, etc. are other attenuating concerns.

Culturally, there is the important issue of whose culture is this place anyway? With only minority nationals in most of the GCC countries and large resident populations from many diverse world cultures, how are the demographic and cultural needs of these residents going to be met both physically and spiritually? Iconographically, what are the

common ground signs and symbols being created in the new built environments and how do they further or hinder the population’s respective need for a sense of Identity? How will a feeling of belonging to the place be nurtured after the big building boom is over?


Today we are reminded by the auspicious action of H.E. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, in his recent mandate of October, 2007. that all buildings in Dubai must become “Green” as of 2008. Similarly, the Abu Dhabi Plan 2030, with its emphasis on energy efficiency and environmental consciousness, offer other hopeful signs and may be pivotal to the beginning of overcoming some of the key weaknesses of the “Dubai Model Metaphor”. Another encouraging sign is the recent formation of the UAE Green Building Council, on which a report is included in this volume. However, time will tell. but in the interim we need to be mindful of the following considerations:

What new sustainable strategies, both technological and cultural, are needed to be conceived to help overcome inherent weaknesses in the “Dubai Model Metaphor” that will help propel the existing development model to transform into a new and even more successful Paradigm of Sustainable Development- One that is good for the region and for others to emulate?

cological view of the proper relationship of Man and Nature. How can this aspect inspire new design thinking?

How can the idea of sustainability be made more related to the person and his individual commitment to become more conscious, not only of ecology, but of his whole context of existence?

How can the Gulf Countries learn from innovative now Zero-Energy Cities being designed and built in Songdo, South Korea or China or the Walled City in Abu Dhabi by MASDAR?

What is to be done to retrofit the existing, newly built buildings and urban communities to overcome their lack of sustainability?

How will the issue of citizenship and democratic participation in the governance of this society come about to create and sustain a harmonious community?

How can the current employment pattern that is focused primarily upon low paying jobs in infrastructure and building construction be transformed into higher income, higher knowledge based employment that can attract and nurture a true middle class to help sustain these societies?

What are the new, innovations in governance procedures and public policy that are required to encourage through incentives and flexible legislation to establish more sustainable procedures and practices in the Gulf Region?

How are the academic institutions of the region from elementary to higher educational

levels, particularly in the schools of architecture and engineering, being trained to become the future leaders of sustainable design in the region?


If the “Dubai Model Metaphor” is left unchecked and simply continued, the environmental problems already in evidence of urban air and water pollution, excessive urban heat build-up, traffic congestion, lack of human scale and adequate, harmonious socio-cultural community building could well reduce the financial success and jeopardize the boom that has been recently gained.

Additionally, since the main infrastructure of power generation, water desalination and transportation to support the building developments fall in major part upon the government, the enormous operating and maintenance costs of a non-sustainable city in a desert will economically burden the governments of the Gulf and divert their resources from growth to simple maintenance.

In short, unless the model is significantly repaired and enhanced to be more environmentally and culturally sustainable. the “Dubai Model Metaphor” may be superseded in a short while by others with new, hybrid energy efficient, human scaled, culturally and aesthetically more desirable models.