Chilling developments in Dubai

A refrigerated swimming pool and an artificially cooled beach – the Persian Gulf emirate’s latest development excesses -- are enough to make conservationists weep. Leo Hickman reports.

There will surely come a day when Dubai runs the world’s reserves of hyperbole dry. But in the meantime, we continue to draw a sharp intake of breath each time a new construction project is announced. We have had ski domes built in the desert, seen vast artificial islands rise from the sea and watched several structures vying for the title of “world’s tallest building”. Dubai represents the will, vision and ambition of our species. Yet many believe it shines an unflattering light on our tendency for folly and hubris, too.

It was recently reported that the Palazzo Versace hotel — the emirate’s latest offering for those still in the market for exorbitant luxury — will boast, when completed in 2010, a refrigerated 820-square-metre swimming pool and a beach with artificially cooled sand to protect its guests from the excesses of a climate that can see summer temperatures exceeding 50º Celsius. Wind machines will even be on hand to provide a gentle breeze.

“We will suck the heat out of the sand to keep it cool enough to lie on,” said Soheil Abedian, founder and president of Palazzo Versace, a group with plans for a further 15 luxury hotels around the world to add to the existing one on Australia’s Gold Coast. “This is the kind of luxury that top people want,” he added.

The energy required to run this project can only be guessed at. When questioned, Hyder Consulting, the British company hired by the hotel to build these facilities, said it has signed a confidentiality agreement with Palazzo Versace and therefore couldn’t comment. But the project is likely to leave the world’s environmentalists with their heads in their hands.

First there is the energy required to power giant wind machines all day long, not to mention the electricity needed to pump coolant around tubes laid under the sand. However, the most energy-intensive element of this plan is likely to be the power needed to refrigerate a whole swimming pool under Dubai’s baking sun.

Of course, in a place like Dubai, this kind of audacious project goes relatively unnoticed, among the many others currently under way. To pick just one other example, 30,000 mature trees are scheduled to be shipped to Dubai to help landscape a new Tiger Woods-designed golf course that will be bordered by “22 palaces and 75 mansions”. Even without the twin threats of climate change and a global economic recession, Dubai’s grandiose plans might seem short-sighted to some. Is it really wise to be building at all, let alone on this scale, in a place that the United Nations describes as one of the most “water-imperilled” environments on the planet, but where per-capita water use is three times the global average?

“It’s grotesque that while the world’s poorest people face the loss of their homes and livelihoods, as well as disease and starvation, because of climate change, the world’s richest people think it’s acceptable to waste precious energy so pointlessly on things such as artificially cooled beaches,” says Robin Oakley, head of climate and energy at Greenpeace UK. “While Abu Dhabi — like [United States president-elect] Barack Obama — is betting on green technology as the engine for growth this century and even building a zero-emissions city, Dubai is apparently still stuck in the 1980s.” Both states are part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Dubai’s ruling elite insists it now places “sustainability” at the heart of its plans for existing and future projects. In 2007, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the emir, spelled out the “Dubai Strategic Plan 2015” in a speech. He explained that oil now contributes only 3% to Dubai’s GDP and that his plan is to “sustain Dubai’s environment, ensuring that it is safe and clean”.

Each new construction project now boasts a paragraph in its brochure about how it will “follow environmental best practice”, but even if these new measures do materialise, Dubai is a place built on the ideology and convenience of cheap, free-flowing oil. Its business model, particularly its ever-expanding tourist sector, is based on the premise that people will always be willing and able to fly long distances to get there. (Some airlines now euphemistically describe Dubai as both a “long short-haul” destination and a “long-haul weekend break destination”.) A new six-runway mega-airport is being built to serve a predicted capacity of 120 million passengers a year.

These latest plans for an artificially cooled beach may be causing ripples around the world, but why isn’t there more vocal opposition by environmentalists within Dubai? The simple answer is there are no environmentalists in Dubai; not in the sense of a campaigning, placard-bearing activist that you might find elsewhere. NGOs are barely tolerated within the UAE. When I visited Dubai two years ago to investigate the environmental and social impacts of its tourism industry for a book I was writing, no one was willing to talk to me on the record, such was their fear of speaking out against the ruling class. The few environmental groups that do exist in Dubai rarely stray from a brief that seems largely limited to educating school-children about the importance of recycling.

The one place where dissent does seem to be allowed — or is harder to police — is the internet, where people can hide behind their anonymity. Discussion forums are a popular way to vent criticism about the direction Dubai is taking, as are blogs such as Secret Dubai Diary. One recent controversy is that over “Sammy the Shark”, a young whale shark that was caught in the gulf and then transferred to the aquarium at the Atlantis hotel, which opened in November with a multimillion-dollar party and fireworks display. More than 16,000 people joined a Facebook group calling for Sammy’s release, and one local newspaper started a campaign urging that the shark be returned to the sea. A local radio disc jockey has even been playing a “Free Sammy” interpretation of Michael Jackson’s song “Heal the World”.

But while Dubai’s citizens fight for Sammy to be freed, the state’s leaders refuse to be diverted from realising their vision. At the United Nations climate-change talks in Poznan, Poland, in early December, the UAE’s minister of environment and water, Rashid Ahmad bin Fahad, spoke of the need for his country to consider using nuclear power to desalinate water. Well, how else are they going to keep those swimming pools filled and chilled?
Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

Are the sort of water- and energy-intensive development features that have become a hallmark of Dubai and other luxury resort areas defensible in these environmentally challenging times?

Should governments and planning commissions be reining in such excesses, or are there good reasons to let property developers proceed, given the amounts of money that wealthy visitors will spend?

Let us know on the forum what you think.

Homepage photo by Qba from Poland