The resumption of Kurdish oil exports hinges on achieving consensus between Baghdad and Ankara, but a lasting solution can only be cemented through a trilateral agreement that includes Erbil.
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The International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland, in collaboration with the Singapore University of Technology and Design, released the 2023 IMD Smart City Index on April 3, ranking Abu Dhabi and Dubai the smartest cities in the Middle East. Smart cities use information and communication technology in efforts to enhance operational efficiency, share information with citizens, and improve government services and overall quality of life. The concept of smart cities has been around since the 1970s – the term was coined in the 1990s – but there has been a growing focus on technologically advanced cities in recent years. In the Gulf, smart, sustainability-focused city agendas are being implemented on multiple levels: within existing cities, with the development of subcities within cities, and with the development of new cities in remote locations.
Existing Cities Getting Smarter: Abu Dhabi and Dubai
Abu Dhabi and Dubai, like most cities listed on the IMD Smart City Index, and other cities across the United Arab Emirates, have incorporated Internet of Things technologies, or connected digital technologies, which includes things such as smartwatches and self-driving cars, to improve operational efficiency and quality of life in urban settings. Such projects earned Abu Dhabi the 13th and Dubai the 17th rankings among the top 20 smart cities in the world.
Having launched several programs and initiatives to advance the research and development of 6G wireless networks, which will use higher frequencies to optimize communication between devices and users and the surrounding environment, both cities are well positioned to achieve advanced smart city status in the near future. Advanced smart city status, determined by IMD’s Smart City Index, can cement their place as two of the top smart cities in the world and may even move them up the rankings. The status of being an advanced smart city can also attract foreign direct investment and encourage more global companies to establish headquarters in the emirates, which can in turn strengthen the economy and the emirates’ international reputation. Both cities have been heavily promoting advanced technologies to accelerate their push to develop knowledge-based economies through a variety of initiatives. In Abu Dhabi, projects such as the development of drone deliveries and desalination plants are underway. There has also been a push for the development of digital assets with the launch of the company Zero Two and talks of using AI in the oil and gas industry. Dubai has installed a smart traffic management system to reduce traffic congestion, but the city has bigger plans, such as building the world’s most advanced internet-connected ecosystem, growing Dubai’s tech startup landscape, and pioneering the region’s first-of-its-kind space project.
Smart, Sustainable, and Brand New
Other smart cities have been built from scratch to be the most sustainable and technologically advanced cities in the world, such as the UAE’s Masdar City and Saudi Arabia’s Neom. These new cities have the same end goal as other smart cities – improving quality of life in urban environments. They also have similar strategies to reach that goal: the use of connected digital technologies to optimize functions that support living in urban environments and sustainable, climate-friendly technologies.
Although newly built cities are made to function like existing smart cities, creating smart cities from the ground up demonstrates a larger commitment to making advancements in technology and sustainability. This strategy, however, has both benefits and drawbacks. It is much harder to build an entirely new city for the sole purpose of creating a smart and sustainable environment than it is to remodel an existing city to fit the same criteria. Attempting this feat also brings about critiques that these projects are simply for prestige. Claiming to construct a new urban environment from an undeveloped desert draws attention, making the country stand out from its global competitors that merely integrate advanced technology into existing environments. However, despite the challenges of building a brand new city, constructing a new urban environment from nothing allows the city to be built specifically for smart technologies without having to remodel or renovate an existing city to accommodate technologies, which can increase the efficiency and strength of smart, sustainable technologies within urban environments.
A City Within a City: Masdar City
In 2008, the UAE announced the launch of Masdar City, a smart city project in Abu Dhabi. Masdar City was established with the goal of being the most environmentally sustainable city in the world and to serve as a global model for sustainable urban development. Relying mainly on solar and wind energy, Masdar City is supplied with clean energy from a 10-megawatt solar panel farm built adjacent to the city. The city, designed by architecture firm Foster + Partners and financed by Mubadala, an Emirati sovereign wealth fund, is designed for walking, with natural ventilation and misting systems used to combat the desert heat. The project aims to be home to approximately 40,000 people and 1,500 companies and is planned to be completed in late 2030.
When Masdar City’s completion deadline was pushed from 2016 to 2024, the city received criticism for the slow progress made in its construction. The realization in 2016 that the city was nowhere near completion nor close to zeroing out its greenhouse gas emissions, one of its main goals, made some critics pessimistic about its prospects for success in the future. When, a few years later, the city was still struggling to keep a permanent population, other critics called it a failure. Other skeptics have claimed it is a greenwashing project to cover up the UAE’s carbon emissions and oil production.
Despite these claims, Masdar City has continued to make progress on construction projects, development agreements, and other initiatives. In June 2022, Masdar announced plans to build Abu Dhabi’s first net-zero office building in Masdar City Square. In January, Masdar signed a memorandum of understanding with Amazon Web Services to empower startups within the city. And in February, the city announced The Link, a 30,000-square-meter development that will host the region’s first net-zero shared working and living facility.
A New City in a Remote Location: Neom
With hopes to advance Saudi Arabia’s status in the sustainable technology industry, diversify the economy away from oil, and attract tourists and foreign investors, Saudi Arabia is building Neom, a megaproject intended to make the country stand out from international competitors in the realm of smart city development.
First announced by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2017, the $500 billion project is envisioned as a city fully powered by renewable energy where individuals can live and work. In line with Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, Neom plans to become a global leader in water desalination, solar power, wind energy, green hydrogen, smart energy grids, and artificial intelligence. ENOWA, a subsidiary of Neom, was created to develop sustainable energy and water systems to help Neom reach its goal of running on 100% renewable energy, which will require up to 40 gigawatts of solar and wind energy capacity. ENOWA is the primary shareholder of an $8.4 billion green hydrogen production plant being built in Neom, a joint venture with ACWA Power and U.S. chemical company Air Products set to be the world’s largest green hydrogen production facility. ENOWA also has plans to produce sustainable water in Neom through desalination plants located in OXAGON, a floating, high-tech industrial city within Neom.
In addition to renewable energy initiatives, Neom recently pledged to allocate 95% of its total area for wildlife preservation and plans to develop a facility that will be home to one of the world’s largest wildlife restoration programs. The program will be open to the public, allowing visitors to learn about Neom’s programs for the development and rehabilitation of vegetation and wildlife.
Despite the progressive green energy initiatives, Neom has received pushback from various groups, such as the local Huwaitat tribe, which has accused the Saudi government of forcibly displacing its members to build the city. The oil-rich kingdom has also been accused of “greenwashing,” with several critics claiming Saudi Arabia’s environmental projects are only promoted to distract from its human rights issues and continued oil production. Moreover, questions have been raised regarding the practicality and long-term sustainability of Neom as well as its impact on the area’s existing wildlife and ecosystem, leading critics to claim that the project will cause more harm than good.
Although these smart cities are still works in progress, Saudi and Emirati leaders hope the projects across all levels will advance their countries’ global status in smart technology and sustainability while also developing the means to diversify their economies away from oil. Whether it’s building a new city from scratch or incorporating new technologies in an existing urban environment, the growth of advanced technologies can improve the countries’ international position across various industries and allow for continued opportunities to be key global players in the future.
AGSIW's ninth annual Petro Diplomacy conference examined how the Gulf Cooperation Council countries are managing the energy transition and expectations for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP28, in Dubai beginning in November.
Through its careful examination of the forces shaping the evolution of Gulf societies and the new generation of emerging leaders, AGSIW facilitates a richer understanding of the role the countries in this key geostrategic region can be expected to play in the 21st century.Learn More