Road trips

Through the desert: a test drive into the future

What do you do when the oil runs out? The small states of the United Arab Emirates are reinventing themselves – breeding extinct animals, generating energy from waste and building world-class museums. Through the desert in the BMW M5.

Sjoerd ten Kate, Eman Ali
Fritz Schaap

Higher, faster, farther: keep expanding, and don’t skimp on the glitz or glamour. Indoor ski centers in the desert, waterfalls in shopping malls, branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim, Burj Khalifa – the tallest structure in the world. Keep on building as long as the oil flows, secure the foundations for what is to come. For decades, that appeared to be the dictum of the Emirati sheikhs.

Oil remains the principal source of income in the Persian Gulf. The Emirates have the seventh largest reserves of any country in the world. However, for the past 15 years or so, the small states have been working to reposition themselves. By the time the financial crisis hit in 2009, there was a clear need for a more sustainable mind-set and a new approach: an economy based not on petroleum products but on knowledge and innovation. Rather than continuing to replicate structures of the past built on shifting desert sand, the new plan is to create models that are exemplary and ripe for export. Founded in 2007, Bee’ah (the Arabic word for “environment”) is one such model. The largest waste management plant in the Middle East covers an area of 1.45 square miles.

Modern environmental management

The unpretentious reception hall at the waste management facility has a glass display case with a model of the new company headquarters – half spaceship, half sand dune, constructed from glass and steel. The building was designed by the late British-Iraqi star architect Zaha Hadid. So Sharjah is not entirely without glitz, after all – not even when it comes to waste disposal. Through the windows one can see the cavernous halls where waste is sorted, the mountains of cars, and tires stacked in never-ending rows that disappear toward the desert horizon. Between them, the sand spirals up over the crumb rubber roads, with palm trees flexing in the strong desert wind.

Rather than continuing to replicate structures of the past, the new approach is to create models that serve as examples and are ripe for export.

Under the direction of 26-year-old curator Suheyla Takesh (right), the Barjeel Art Foundation showcases contemporary Arabic art. The institution is based in the small emirate of Sharjah, which has established itself as a new cultural center in the region.

Daker El-Rabaya sits in an office at the entrance to the sorting facility. He is a man in his 40s, powerfully built, with calluses on his hands and the sleeves of his checked shirt rolled up. He has a simple goal: zero waste to landfill. “In the beginning, we were Sharjah’s garbage collectors,” says El-Rabaya. “Today we’re an environmental management company.” Bee’ah has long since done more than simply collect the Emirate’s garbage. The waste management plant is the third largest in the world and has declared war on pollution in the water, ground and air. Waste is treated as much as possible. Back in 2007, 80 percent ended up in landfill; today the figure is just 30 percent, with the rest sent for recycling. The 3,500 employees here disassemble everything of value before selling it on to local and regional dealers. Car tires are recycled to produce crumb rubber tiles. These have been used in many projects in the Emirates for road building. In the summer months, in particular, conventional tarmac turns the roads into heat islands that, during the day, can reach temperatures of almost 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Then at night, they release the heat back into the environment. By contrast, crumb rubber tiles absorb significantly less heat.

In order to do away with the need to stockpile waste at all, Sharjah is currently building the region’s first waste-to-energy plant. This means anything that is unsuitable for recycling can be turned into electricity. Small, solar-powered, floating robots are used to collect garbage from the surface of inland waterways. A network of monitoring stations is currently being used to analyze any toxins found in the atmosphere and determine where they come from.

The company’s command center is reminiscent of a modern American police station with rooms full of monitors showing tiny flashing dots moving tirelessly around maps of the Emirate’s streets. Each dot represents a garbage truck or garbage can. The latter are fitted with sensors – to save biodiesel by ensuring that no truck makes a futile journey. When a can is full, it transmits a signal that it needs to be emptied.

The future is in the hands of the young generation

Bee’ah is symbolic of the rigorous new mind-set that shapes the Emirates today. Politicians and businessmen have discovered the environment as a marketplace, as a future prospect and something that can be exported. Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain have shown an interest in the procedures developed in Sharjah. There have even been inquiries from Lebanon. “Obviously, we have to begin at the regional level here in the Emirates,” El-Rabaya explains. “It costs money to build and test all these innovations. You have to invest in infrastructure, programs, education and plants. One day, perhaps, we’ll start to turn a profit,” he adds, as he surveys his “kingdom” where several 40-ton trucks filled with trash are arriving. “But, you know, my generation is already lost. We simply throw our trash away. We have to educate the young: that’s the only way to achieve a radical reduction in waste production.”

That’s why Sharjah’s government has integrated Bee’ah’s environmental education program into the curriculum of over 200 schools. Their 5,000 teachers are now in a position to ensure that future generations think sustainably, separate trash as a matter of course, and guard against their environment becoming any more inhospitable than it already is.

Sharjah’s quiet yet farsighted approach is also evident at the state-run Shurooq Investment and Development Authority. The offices lie in the shadow of a giant Ferris wheel beside a small canal near the center of Sharjah, where the heat is so oppressive that only cars – and no pedestrians – venture out on the streets. Shurooq is busy paving the road to the future, and the focus is squarely on sustainability and culture.

Among the projects commissioned by Shurooq is an artificial island for the Emirate’s lagoon, designed by versatile Viennese multimedia artist André Heller, which will feature a literature house for readings, and concerts surrounded by a botanical garden. In the east of the Emirate, up in the hills and in the mangrove swamps, there are plans to develop eco-tourism resorts. Animals that over the years had abandoned the region are now being bred and released back into the wild.

World-class art in the desert

At Mleiha, the site of some of the country’s most important archaeological discoveries, an open-air museum is being created. Just as in Dubai, the decision-makers in Sharjah are also gearing their efforts towards tourism. Here, however, visitors are attracted not by the tallest building or the most exclusive shopping mall in the world, but by contemporary art. Though it may not boast branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim like Dubai, or collections of classical modern masterpieces worth billions, as in Qatar, many connoisseurs regard Sharjah as the spiritual epicenter of the Emirates. The Sharjah Biennale has been held here since 1993. In 1998, UNESCO selected Sharjah to be the first Arab Capital of Culture. It has a book fair and countless museums.

Along with the Sharjah Biennale, the Shurooq Investment and Development Authority building contains what is arguably the Emirate’s most celebrated flagship: the Barjeel Art Foundation, which includes the collection of Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi. Suheyla Takesh, the foundation’s 26-year-old curator, has been doing the job for two years. Having come straight to the foundation from the American University in Sharjah, she is a quiet woman with a clear vision.

A bear made of concrete from the Berlin Wall is the first exhibit to greet visitors to the current “Aide Memoire” exhibition. It is all about personal encounters, associations, and the way in which people process them. The permanent collection already numbers over 1,000 pieces and is the most important collection of contemporary Arabic art. “The Sultan always says, ‘What is the point of art if you don’t share it?’ ” Takesh explains. The Sultan, a member of the ruling family, discovered his great passion for art as a student at the American University in Paris. Today he spends much of the year visiting artists all over the world and expanding his collection. “In Dubai and Abu Dhabi, all people want is higher, faster, farther. Here we prefer to take a quieter, more reflective approach,” Takesh says as she strolls through the exhibition. “Unlike the high-gloss galleries elsewhere, most of the art scene here is not-for-profit,” she explains. “That way everyone can benefit.”

The history of art is literally being written at the Barjeel Art Foundation. “We have many artists in the collection about whom practically nothing has been written yet,” says Takesh, “and not just young artists – artists from the 1950s and 60s. Here in the region there has never been much academic ambition to document these artists. So a lot of what we do is being done for the first time.” Of course, the larger Emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi are also undergoing a fundamental rethink. Although their love of superlatives and spectacle continues unabated – this is, after all, perhaps the main reason why people are so intrigued to explore the region – the modern approach is twin-tracked, with attempts to impose new urban planning standards, as well. In Abu Dhabi, they are building Masdar City; in Dubai, the Dubai Sustainable City. Both are cities of the future: sustainable and, ideally, carbon-neutral.

The BMW M5 at Marina Bay in Dubai. The skyline is part of Dubai Marina, which will provide living space for up to 150,000 people in 200 skyscrapers when completed.

Above the clouds: the spectacular view of the skyline of Dubai from the Burj Khalifa building.

Above the clouds: the spectacular view of the skyline of Dubai from the Burj Khalifa building.

The road from Sharjah to Abu Dhabi takes you past grandiose façades, shopping malls the size of small towns, and twisting skyscrapers and tower blocks that reach closer to the stratosphere than anywhere else on Earth. It runs past outlets for every fashion brand imaginable, luxury villas and marinas. And past Abu Dhabi Motors, the largest BMW Group dealership in the world, where the showroom displays just about every special model offered by BMW. Naturally, it is also the largest Rolls-Royce dealership, selling more even than those in China, and offering a selection of exclusive custom-made models, so that buyers can have the keys to the car immediately and not waste time pondering equipment options.

Showcase project Masdar City

A little over an hour’s car ride from Sharjah, we find Anthony Mallows standing outside his university. Way in the background, somewhere in the sandstorm, lies Abu Dhabi. Mallows is an architect and urban planner from South Africa – and the general manager of Masdar City, perhaps the best-known future-oriented project in the United Arab Emirates. When Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayid Al Nahyan first unveiled his ideas to the world in 2006, they caused widespread amazement: a car-free, zero-carbon city powered solely by renewable energy in the middle of the scorching desert. Today, only a fraction of this bold design by Norman Foster has been built so far.

The financial crisis caused Abu Dhabi’s available funding to be slashed, and third-party investors had to be called in. Now the only structures to go up will be those that have been financed. And so on this summer’s day, instead of walking the streets of a city of 50,000 inhabitants, Anthony Mallows stands in front of a little cluster that represents the future. The Masdar Institute is run in conjunction with the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In addition, a handful of regional headquarters of companies, such as Siemens, are located here, along with the seat of the International Renewable Energy Agency. So many façades – some reflecting the sunlight with a silvery glow, others the color of the desert sand. A tall wind turbine pushes a downdraft of cool air into the streets.

Where Mallows takes us it is cooler – several degrees cooler than in the desert beyond the gates of the future city. Formerly an urban planner in the U.S. and London, Mallows switched to property development in Abu Dhabi. For the past three years, he has been trying to develop and deliver this real estate of superlatives in a way that makes sound market sense.

Masdar is set to become not only a city, but also the flagship project of a global renewable energy business. It already operates wind farms in Jordan and the Seychelles; solar power plants in Spain, Mauritania, Tonga and here in the Emirates; and offshore wind parks in Oman, Samoa and – the world’s largest – London Array in the United Kingdom.

When the project was launched in 2006, Mallows explains, it was designed to be the realization of a paradigm shift: the transition from an oil-based to a knowledge-based economy. “From research to commercial applications, everything here is done under one roof,” Mallows says. The idea is to develop technologies, such as solar panels that can perform even in intense heat, test them here in Masdar City, and then sell them direct to companies that are also based in the city.

Economic sustainability

When the city is completed in 2030, its energy requirements will be met entirely by solar and photovoltaic installations; as much as possible, water will be recycled and reused. Windowless façades will face the sun, and tall buildings will cast shade on each other and the narrow streets below. Apart from small electric vehicles the shape of oversized eggs, the city is car-free today.

Mallows refuses to see the construction delays as a setback. As a professional with decades of experience in real estate, his confidence remains unshakeable. “We now have to grow like a proper city, everything has to be financed, everything has to work – our job is to become a model for other cities of the future.” There are currently 2,000 people working in Masdar City. “By 2030, we will complete Masdar City bit by bit, constantly adapting aspects to meet new technical developments. Environmental sustainability, after all, must always go hand-in-hand with economic sustainability.”

In Dubai, economic sustainability was factored in from the outset. Dubai Sustainable City, a smaller and seemingly more manageable version of Masdar City, was largely ready for occupancy in 2015. “When we talk about sustainability, we focus on three aspects: the environmental, the social and the economic,” explains Emil Samarah, the project’s Chief Commercial Officer. And financially, his smile seems to say, we have done everything right here. The man who once fled Palestine to escape a future without hope has, since 2009, been working on the future of living. When the economic crisis hit the country in 2009, Samarah sat down with his boss, the CEO of Diamond Developers, and together they came up with the concept of the sustainable city. In Dubai.

All 300 residential units to be put on the market have already been sold. The remaining 200 have been leased so as to keep the majority vote in the eco-community. Here, too, energy requirements are met by solar panels. Wastewater is divided into black and gray: black water, which includes fecal matter, is piped to the city for treatment and purification; gray water is filtered through soil and roots on the site’s 11 farms before being fed back into the water supply. Next year will see completion of the commercial part of the site: shopping malls, offices and another research center. “Because everything here,” Samarah explains, “is about testing concepts for the future.”

Organic food production

Even out in the desert of Abu Dhabi, just a few miles from Masdar City, a project is under way that already showcases convincing solutions for the future. Out here, where the desert sand is reconquering the wide, empty highways, there is a green oasis. And amid dunes that stretch as far as the eye can see, there is a smell of the countryside, of agriculture. This is where the Zayed Higher Organization for Humanitarian Care & Special Needs has set up the world’s largest aquaponics farm. The center is tackling another of the major issues facing the Emirates: producing sufficient food.

Khoula Al-Dhmani, who came here three years ago, is the director of the farm. She walks us through an enormous greenhouse filled with large white tanks. In the greenhouse next door, plants grow on white polystyrene shelves, their roots dangling in the water below. They grow without soil – a significant factor in an environment where good soil is in very short supply. Current crops include lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries and cucumbers. Another building contains 16 round, white basins, each housing around 1,000 perch. Aquaponics is a combination of water-based crop farming and fish farming. Excrement from the fish is used to fertilize plants grown in greenhouses, once bacteria have filtered out the ammonia in intermediate tanks.

In turn, the plants filter the nutrient-rich water and convert carbon dioxide emitted by the fish back into oxygen. Once the water has passed through the plant tanks, it is fed into an intermediate reservoir, where pH values are adjusted to levels appropriate for marine life, and then returned to the fish tanks. “No chemicals or fertilizers are used – all that is done by the fish. And since it’s a closed-loop system, no water is wasted.” Al-Dhmani has been running the farm for the center for two years. Their aim is to become a model for other traditional farmers and to demonstrate how, even here in the desert, it is possible to produce food in an environmentally and economically sustainable way.

“Here we can produce eight tons of salad in just two months,” Al-Dhmani explains with pride, leaning over one of the tanks of brownish water filled with perch. “And nine tons of fish.” That is massive progress for a country that imports over 90 percent of its food. Al-Dhmani supplies major chains, such as Lulu and Carrefour in Abu Dhabi. Along with the aquaponics farm, the 86.5-acre site boasts stables, dairies, a tree nursery and packaging plants.

But the center is meant to be more than a model for future food production: it also serves as an example of social integration, showing how the disabled can be assimilated into working life in Abu Dhabi. The farm employs 70 men and women with mental disabilities, 10 of them at the aquaponics farm. Khoula Al-Dhmani herself has a brother who is mentally disabled, which is one of the reasons why she applied for a job here after completing her degree in agricultural sciences.

As we say goodbye, Al-Dhmani stands at the entrance to the greenhouse in her black chador. The sun’s heat is merciless, 104 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. A pungent smell drifts across from the tanks of ammonia. Against this backdrop, Al-Dhmani imparts a buoyant confidence when she says, “I hope many farmers will make use of our experience. Not just in the Emirates, but also in other countries with unfavorable climates.” In the Emirates, it seems, they are gradually learning that all that glitters need not be gold.

The BMW M5 driving up to the Jabal Hafeet mountain near Al Ain, a tourist attraction. Below it, a lake is fed by thermal springs.