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« The LINE » exposition by NEOM in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on November 15, 2022. Photo by Eliot Blondet/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

Bridging Dreams and Reality: Masdar, NEOM, and the Future of Sustainable Living in the Gulf

In the vast expanse of the Arabian Peninsula, an ambitious vision is gradually coming to life that promises to transform the stark desert landscape into the foundation of futuristic cities. At the forefront of this transformative wave are the United Arab Emirates’ Masdar City and Saudi Arabia’s NEOM. These two projects are not simply architectural endeavors, but a bold reimagining of urban living that exists in harmony with nature and cutting-edge technologies. The two planned cities stand as testaments to the Gulf region’s commitment to pivot from the oil-based economies of the past to an innovative, sustainable future.

Masdar City: From a Blueprint to Sustainability to Real-World Lessons

Masdar City first emerged in 2006 as the Gulf’s pioneering venture into sustainable urban development. Conceived with the ambition of becoming the world’s first zero-carbon city, Masdar aimed to encapsulate the highest standards of sustainability, and would be powered entirely by renewable energy sources. The vision of Masdar City recognizes the global imperative to shift toward more sustainable modes of living, as well as the need to diversify the economic landscape of the Gulf. If it can successfully demonstrate the feasibility and benefits of green urban planning, Masdar will serve as a model for similar initiatives across the world.

However, the reality proved to be more challenging than expected. Cities do not spring up from nothing; ultimately, the citizens determine the success or failure of a city. Indeed, the people must decide if they wish to migrate or live in a certain place. Cities are true examples of complex adaptive systems—that is, they represent the outcomes of thousands of interactions and decision points and are inherently reliant on the perspectives of those that interact within the system. Therefore, a multidimensional perspective is required when considering the citizenry’s interests and preferences in choosing a place of residence. In practical terms, few people have been willing to move to Masdar City. Its population remains steady at around 15,000—far lower than Emirati policymakers had hoped when they launched the project nearly two decades ago.

Over the years, Masdar has evolved, reflecting the practical challenges and learning curves inherent in pioneering such groundbreaking concepts. In spite of its low population, the city has become a dynamic hub for sustainability research and innovation, though the Emirati government has had to recalibrate some of its initial aspirations. This journey underscores the intricate balance between visionary ambitions and the pragmatic application of sustainable technologies and practices, particularly in the demanding conditions of the desert environment. Although Masdar has not yet fully achieved its zero-carbon goals, it has nonetheless played a crucial role in advancing sustainable urban development, serving as a testing site for renewable energy solutions, water conservation strategies, and eco-friendly transportation systems.

The NEOM Dream and its Challenges 

Building on the foundations laid by Masdar, Saudi Arabia’s NEOM project amplifies the ambition several times—envisaging a $500 billion urban area that represents the pinnacle of Saudi innovation and sustainability. NEOM’s blueprint features elements that seem borrowed from the pages of science fiction: flying taxis, an artificial moon, and animatronic dinosaurs, all set against a backdrop of an autonomous, technologically driven society. This vision, far-fetched as it is in some areas, is a bold declaration of Saudi Arabia’s aspirations for the future. It reflects a profound desire to establish the Kingdom as a global leader in environmental technology.

NEOM’s sheer ambition has sparked a debate about the feasibility and implications of such a grandiose project. Turning a futuristic concept into a tangible, liveable city raises significant questions about its impact on environmental sustainability and the prospects for social integration—not to mention the practical challenges of employing cutting-edge technologies in a desert climate. Critics and activists have raised concerns about the project’s potential impact on fragile desert ecosystems and the displacement of local communities in northwestern Saudi Arabia, highlighting the need for a balanced approach that considers both environmental and social factors alongside technological innovations.

The success of other iconic infrastructure projects around the world—such as the spectacular Rain Vortex at Singapore’s Jewel Changi Airportdemonstrates that innovation need not detach from nature or evoke a sense of alienation to amaze. As the world’s largest indoor waterfall, the Rain Vortex stands as a symbol of how technological and architectural innovation can celebrate and incorporate natural elements, creating spaces that resonate with beauty and tranquility rather than aiming for unobtainable science fiction-themed infrastructure intended to impress visitors. This principle—that the future of urban development lies in creating environments that seamlessly blend the marvels of technology with the serenity of nature—should serve as a guiding light for projects like NEOM and Masdar.

Addressing Climate Change and Promoting Social Equity

Over the past decade, the Gulf region has faced increasingly severe repercussions from climate change, including extreme heat and water scarcity—both of which pose significant threats to the sustainability of urban life. Thus, projects like NEOM must form part of a broader strategy that addresses these environmental challenges head-on. To service their megaprojects, Saudi and Emirati policymakers must deploy adaptive and resilient infrastructure that safeguards against the adverse effects of climate change. Indeed, these plans include investments in renewable energy sources, water conservation measures, and climate-resilient urban design, ensuring that these ambitious cities are not only technologically advanced but also environmentally sustainable in the long term.

Moreover, NEOM and Masdar must transcend technological and architectural achievements to embrace greater goals of inclusivity and social justice. Ensuring that the benefits of these urban developments are equitably shared across all segments of Saudi and Emirati society is paramount. As the impacts of climate change intensify, the gap between the Gulf’s rich and poor will grow even more stark. Efforts to build marvel cities like NEOM and Masdar may help to address the climate crisis, but they must not exacerbate social divides or exclude society’s most vulnerable populations. Instead, these cities should embody principles of inclusivity, offering a high quality of life for all residents and setting a precedent for social equity in urban development. This can be achieved through inclusive urban planning processes, affordable housing initiatives, and equitable access to essential services and amenities.

Merging Vision, Sustainability, and Inclusivity

As the Gulf region transforms the mirage of futuristic skylines into the tangible realities of Masdar and NEOM, the lessons learned along the way will prove vital to future generations. These projects underscore the importance of grounding visionary ambitions in practical realities and ensuring that the pursuit of innovation is balanced with ecological sensitivity and social inclusiveness. The experiences of Masdar and NEOM highlight the need for a holistic approach to urban development—one that not only embraces technological advancement, but also prioritizes the well-being of local communities and the preservation of natural habitats. By fostering collaborative, adaptive, and inclusive urban ecosystems, Gulf leaders can navigate the complexities of sustainable development, transforming their ambitious dreams into thriving realities that offer a blueprint for the future of urban living. Successfully marrying the bold visions of projects like Masdar and NEOM with a commitment to ecological stewardship and social justice would redefine the essence of modern urban life, creating spaces that are not only sustainable and innovative but also equitable and inclusive and ensuring a prosperous future for all.

As the world grapples with the consequences of rapid urbanization, population growth, and climate change, the Gulf region’s ambitious urban projects can serve as valuable case studies for others who aspire to build sustainable, resilient, and inclusive communities amid a changing global climate. By embracing a holistic approach that integrates technological innovation, environmental stewardship, and social equity, the Gulf is well positioned to pave the way for a future wherein urban living is not just a reflection of human ingenuity but also a harmonious coexistence with nature and a celebration of diversity and inclusivity.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Energy & Environment
Country: GCC

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Dr. Hamid Pouran is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Technology at the University of Wolverhampton. Dr. Pouran’s research and professional experiences and interests span from highly technical studies focusing on the behaviour of engineered nanomaterials in the environment to collaborative innovation, renewable energies, climate change and science policy. He is a Chartered Scientist, Chartered Environmental, senior member of IEEE and chair of IEEE UK Climate Change and Environmental Technology Special Interest Group. He was a member of Transatlantic Initiative for Nanotechnology and the Environment (2011-2014) at Lancaster University (UK) where he developed the first commercially available technique to measure the bioavailable concentration of metal oxide nanoparticles in the environment (known as Nano-DGT). Since 2015 Pouran has been guest editor of Middle East in London Magazine (SOAS, University of London), environment special issues. He was the convener of the MENA Environment Conference in 2016 (SOAS Centenary Conference), which for the first time brought together scientists and policymakers from multidisciplinary backgrounds. Pouran is a subject matter expert (environmental science) for BBC World and Scottish Centre for International and Strategic Affairs. He was scientific consultant for a BBC World News scientific documentary called “Dust Storms”, which was transmitted in three languages by BBC World News and BBC Four in 2017. Pouran was visiting scholar with Princeton Environmental Institute and Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at Princeton University in 2017. After his 2nd MSc (Licentiate Thesis) at Stockholm University, Pouran received a Ph.D. scholarship from the faculty of engineering, University of Sheffield (UK) to join a multidisciplinary research about bioremediation of contaminated aquifers at Kroto Research Institute (2005). He is currently a Research Associate at SOAS University of London and Lecturer in Environmental Technology at University of Wolverhampton.


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