In recent years, Gulf Arab states have pursued a growing number of megaprojects. In Saudi Arabia, projects such as Neom, The Line, and Qiddiya entertainment city are unprecedented endeavors that challenge contemporary notions of urbanism. But these initiatives have also been criticized as manifestations of oil wealth and a desire to compete with global cities at the expense of environmental sustainability. One project that illustrates these contradictions is New Murabba, a planned modern downtown area in Riyadh centered around The Mukaab, a massive cubic skyscraper. While The Mukaab has received significant attention, it is important to objectively evaluate the project, its place within the broader context of utopian architecture, and its environmental merits, or lack thereof.
Gulf Visions and Sustainability
All Gulf countries have instituted policies that recognize the perils of unchecked economic growth by prioritizing low-carbon development. One example is Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City, which was conceived as the world’s first zero-carbon city but ultimately fell short of its lofty ambitions. As of today, it has only been partially built, leading one Guardian correspondent to suggest it could become the world’s first “green ghost town.”
Gulf national visions formulated to support economic sustainability are often not being implemented in ways that reflect the urgency of environmental concerns. They often do not refer explicitly to climate change, though the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are exceptions. Furthermore, numerous studies have shown that the shape and physical configuration of cities directly impact energy requirements and resource efficiency, making urban morphology – the form and structure of cities – a critical factor for global sustainability. Cities such as Abu Dhabi and Kuwait City are inherently less energy efficient due to their low-density development and heavy use of private vehicles for transportation, a reality reflected in environmental rankings. In 2019, the UAE had the world’s third-highest per capita carbon dioxide emissions rate. The UAE is also one of the world’s top consumers of water per capita. Because of the scarcity of freshwater in the region, around 90% of the UAE’s potable water needs are met through energy-intensive desalination, which sends salt residue back into the sea, increasing the salinity of seawater and negatively affecting marine life.
Several Gulf states have set ambitious targets to increase the share of renewable energy in their energy mix. Saudi Arabia set a target to generate 50% of its electricity from renewables by 2030. The UAE aims to increase the share of clean energy in its energy mix to 50% by 2050, taking into account 6% generated from nuclear energy. And Oman set a target to generate 30% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.
Throughout the Gulf, there has been a shift toward technological solutions and policy reforms to encourage environmental sustainability. This is partly a response to global environmental pressures and the growing realization that legacy energy models are unsustainable. However, some scholars have argued that the “sustainability narrative” in the region is used by leaders “to convey an image of modernity, technological pioneering, and welfare surplus, thus cementing their legitimacy and power.” And while a focus on technology allows authorities to claim adherence to the global environmental sustainability agenda, it ignores the social dimension of sustainability, in a form of “greenwashing.”
Saudi Arabia launched The Mukaab project in February with a massive media campaign and an immersive computer-generated video tour. Plans for the cube’s interior feature holographic projections to make viewers feel as if they are in different realities, times, and places. Central to the experience is a spiraling tower that will consist of apartments, a hotel, observation decks, and restaurants. The Mukaab is designed to be the centerpiece of the massive New Murabba downtown area. If built, the cube will be large enough to fit 20 Empire State buildings – a city within a city – and its developers boast that, with around 2 million square meters of interior floor space and a height of 1,302 feet, it will be the largest inner-city building in the world. The project is being undertaken by the New Murabba Development Company, which is led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Media reports have cast The Mukaab as a utopian destination. A Forbes article claimed it will come “complete with flying cars and immersive experiences that transport visitors to other planets,” adding that New Murabba “aims to expand the footprint of the capital to house an estimated 350,000 residents over 4,695 acres.”
The New Murabba project will add an estimated $48 billion to the kingdom’s non-oil gross domestic product and create over 300,000 jobs, according to the Saudi Press Agency. Most crucially, it will generate non-oil revenue and may attract both foreign investment and income from tourism, helping to advance the Vision 2030 strategy to ease the kingdom’s reliance on oil revenue through a series of economic reforms and home-grown industries. Another key Vision 2030 goal is to increase private sector participation in the economy and attract more foreign investment into other ambitious projects, such as the planned futuristic city of Neom and the 100-mile-long linear city, The Line.
Reconciling The Mukaab and Sustainability Goals
Sustainability is at the heart of Vision 2030. Despite being one of the world’s top oil producers, Saudi Arabia aims to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2060 and has embraced climate technologies to get there. Saudi Aramco plans to increase its oil production capacity by 1 million barrels per day from May 2022 levels by 2027, but in a bid to satisfy consumers’ stricter environmental and sustainability requirements, it is also investing in carbon capture and storage, renewable energy, and hydrogen technology. Additionally, Riyadh is hoping to build the world’s largest green hydrogen plant at Neom. These developments are in line with wider Vision 2030 ambitions to accelerate the energy transition, achieve sustainability goals, and drive a new wave of investment.
Yet it is difficult to reconcile this vision with The Mukaab in its current form. Megaprojects like The Mukaab can negatively affect the environment, particularly through resource consumption, emissions, and habitat destruction. For example, while the Saudi Green Initiative, the core of Riyadh’s sustainability agenda, aims to develop green open spaces in cities, The Mukaab will be a huge, enclosed space in need of cooling and lighting all year round. Furthermore, the size of the building will necessitate the provision of vast quantities of water in a water-scarce region. Building such a massive project will generate a significant amount of waste, and transporting materials during construction and powering the building will release additional carbon emissions. Finally, The Mukaab’s huge footprint, placed in the middle of the capital, could destroy existing habitats and harm local ecosystems. Although there are strategies for addressing these issues in conventional buildings, The Mukaab’s unprecedented scale will pose unique challenges.
Clearly, the project is still in its initial phase. Much remains to be done, and further research is necessary to ensure The Mukaab aligns with the kingdom’s Vision 2030 blueprint. Decision makers should perhaps turn to the past and examine how iconic structures have enhanced the profiles of major cities. When Paris’ Eiffel Tower was first proposed, and even after it was built, residents and artists opposed it as an architectural blight. Yet, over a century later, one can hardly think of Paris without the Eiffel Tower.
The Mukaab could be to Riyadh what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, but a more sustainable design will be needed to make that a reality. For instance, rather than being a solely indoor experience, The Mukaab could be connected to the external environment. And instead of seeing The Mukaab merely as a vehicle for investment, it could be envisioned as an iconic structure for residents and visitors to experience Riyadh from varying heights, angles, and perspectives. At the same time, the surrounding spaces could serve as a new, green heart for Riyadh, thereby humanizing the capital’s built environment and offering residents much-needed relief from pressures of work and daily life. Ultimately, there is room for innovation as urban developers seek to build sustainable, livable cities.