Smart cities in the Gulf

Smart cities in the Gulf

02/2019  | Reading time: 8 minutes

Many would never think how much the mainly traditionalist societies of the Persian Gulf are in the vanguard of cutting-edge smart technologies in city planning and development. Yet, their cities fare surprisingly well on different rankings, being a showcase of sustainability, state-of-the-art innovation, and efficiency.

The countries of the Arab/Persian Gulf have witnessed very rapid population growth, fast economic development, and increased agricultural production, which have led to a sharp increase in the demand for energy, water, and food. In the meantime, the abundance of natural resources in the Arab/Persian Gulf region has enabled a very swift infrastructural development in the Gulf countries over the past couple of decades. Due to the speed of urbanisation and the massive growth of urban population, they feel pressured to be actively engaged in the smart development of existing cities and to develop newly constructed cities that are competitive and comparable with global cities. The traditional societies of the Arab Gulf states might seem to be odd places to test how state-of-the art technological innovation can be harmonised with everyday life. Indeed, Western-educated state and business leaders who advocate a modern life involving the products of globalisation often compete rhetorically with cool-headed social science researchers and traditionalists who point out and back the need for preserving the traditional forms of society. In the Gulf, cities “faced at different times and in different ways the push for the future,” and eventually “modernization challenged the preservation of values that had been immutable for centuries.

Among the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the United Arab Emirates is the most eminent in developing both brownfield and greenfield projects, with Dubai being widely regarded as a paradigm for smart cities in the region. However, Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Riyadh are also considered to be success stories, while greenfield projects, such as Masdar City in the UAE, Lusail City in Qatar, or King Abdullah Economic City in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, has built up high expectations. However, taking aside the very ambitious promises these governments often make, how do we measure the success and the development of these projects, and how do they fare in the global competition of smart city development?

There does not exist a universally accepted definition of what might be considered a smart city. Broadly speaking, a smart city is an urban space that is surrounded by or embedded with “smart systems” or a city with ideas and people that provide clever insights. It is defined by the European Commission as a user-driven open innovation environment. Technically speaking, a smart city uses information and communication technology (ICT) to improve its sustainability and efficiency and its services. A smart city has physical and social components or hard and soft infrastructure that correspond with the built environment and the system which operates in it. However, these components have to coexist in perfect harmony, as a fully intertwined system.

While it is very difficult to measure how successfully smart cities build and harmonise their hard and soft capabilities, some useful standards were set by audit firms, research institutes, governments, and international organisations. The IESE Business School’s Center for Globalization and Strategy produces an annual analysis and a ranking of the best-performing smart cities in a global perspective. In 2018, the IESE Cities in Motion Index (CIMI) ranked Dubai and Abu Dhabi amongst the 100 most developed smart cities globally, while other cities in the region did not lag far behind them on the list. CIMI assesses the economy, human capital, social cohesion, environment, governance, urban planning, international outreach, technology, mobility, and transportation developments of each city when it establishes its ranking. The Smart City Initiatives Framework identified eight core pillars for measuring smart cities:


The Smart City Initiatives Framework
Source: Wael A. Samad — Elie Azar: Smart Cities in the Gulf: Current State, Opportunities, and Challenges. Springer, Singapore, 2019.

Although annual reports point out the gradual developments of the GCC region on the issues of sustainable development, many caveats exist that qualify optimism. Researchers have identified many political, socio-economic, technological, policy, cyber, infrastructural, and local talent-related aspects of the challenges the smart city developments in the GCC countries need to address. Although the governments and private entities are working on finding smart solutions for single issues, they still have not succeeded in finding the intrinsic linkages among single issues; thus, they failed to achieve the full potential of a smart and integrated city. Another issue, mainly with greenfield developments, is that, many times, political will creates a project which is not followed by execution, or circumstances hinder the materialisation of the plan. A case in point is the Neom project, an entirely new, master-planned smart city, to be created in an agricultural region of north-western Saudi Arabia. The international political developments between Saudi Arabia and its Western partners seem to delay the project’s advances, as many Western entrepreneurs, the actual owners of the know-how, are reluctant to provide their help to a widely criticised political leadership.

Despite all the criticism, bad planning, and the circumstances, the cities and projects listed below are here to remain the future centres of development and some of the most attractive destinations for leisure and work globally. Let us have an assessment of the most famous, most ambitious, and most developed smart projects in the Gulf from the many cities regarded as “smart.”

Dubai (United Arab Emirates)

The United Arab Emirates has seen the fastest development amongst the Gulf countries in the last fifty years. Most of the population live in large cities. Dubai is the most populous but, at the same time, the most developed of the seven emirates of the UAE. As a city, it has been the “smartest” one of the whole Middle East region for years, according to the rankings of CIMI. In 2018, Dubai was ranked number 60 on the global list of the research institute. Dubai especially stands out in technology, where it occupies the fourth position for this dimension on the global list, only preceded by Hong Kong, Singapore, and Amsterdam, respectively. Its international outreach also puts it amongst the world’s leading nations. Dubai’s smart city project has been conceptualised under the visionary leadership of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and General Supervisor of the Dubai smart city project. One of their most important concerns is the “happiness index,” which monitors the quality of public services, and is aimed at improving overall citizen satisfaction. Dubai’s projects include many initiatives from the government itself that are in line with the sustainable development goals or follow the latest trends in digital technologies. According to the plans, by 2021, the Dubai government will go completely paperless, and, thus, 100% of the internal and customer transactions will be digitised. Technology will also increase the city’s cost-effectiveness. As planned, Dubai wants to be the first city fully powered by blockchain by 2020. It has ambitious plans, and is ready to showcase and test its achievement at the Dubai Expo in 2020.


Solar panel powered palm-tree with Wi-Fi stations promote Dubai smart plans
Source: Shutterstock

Abu Dhabi and Masdar City (United Arab Emirates)

Abu Dhabi was elected the second most developed smart city of the Gulf by CIMI in 2018. Other analyses, e.g. the one made by McKinsey, a global management consulting firm, put Abu Dhabi on par with Dubai in many regards. However, the great things are to come in the future. Abu Dhabi’s Department of Urban Planning and Municipalities has launched the pilot phase of the five-year plan for Smart Cities and Artificial Intelligence (2018–2022) named Zayed Smart City Project in early 2018. The project includes such deep inquiries as air quality monitoring, asset tracking, logistics monitoring, structural health monitoring, water metering, palm tree weevil detection, street lighting, smart parking, waste management, water storage tank monitoring, and swimming pool monitoring. Abu Dhabi has a comprehensive development named Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, which seeks integrated solutions for the sustainable development of the city, and targets most of the smart city pillars, putting a great emphasis on ICT solutions.

Abu Dhabi has also a master-planned city development project named Masdar City, which has been planned to rely only on solar and other renewable energy sources to power itself. Founded in 2006, Masdar is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Mubadala development company, formed by the Abu Dhabi government as one of the means for realising of the economic vision of the UAE and Abu Dhabi. Through Masdar, the UAE demonstrates what a “responsible” producer of oil can do to create a balance between hydrocarbons and renewable energy to address both climate change and energy security. Masdar is going to operate on the nexus of smart people, smart mobility, smart building, and smart energy. The city is going to be an incubator of smart research institutes and business firms that operate responsibly.


Framework for the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030
Source: Framework for the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030. Source: The Government of Abu Dhabi: The Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030.

Doha and Lusail City (Qatar)

Doha, the capital city of Qatar, a tiny peninsula north to the UAE, is amongst the top-performing smart cities of the Middle East, right behind Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It also stands out in technological development. Qatar has its own National Vision 2030 development plan, and it is preparing for the organisation of the 2022 football World Cup, which puts pressure on the city leadership while also providing many opportunities for development. The project includes the development of a brand new business and residential district, named Lusail City, which is to be built up 23 km north of the capital. As per the official description of the project, Lusail is “the future city of Qatar that enhances people’s lifestyle and empowers businesses through efficient & sustainable services delivered by an integrated ICT infrastructure.” Lusail is going to operate as a fully integrated ecosystem overseen by the Lusail Command & Control Centre (LCCC), which will monitor the system through one single control panel. Officially, one of the stated goals of Lusail is to show the world that Qatar is an advanced society and a great nation capable of extraordinary progress. There is also a criticism regarding the project, as the new city will be able to house almost half a million people in a country where the population is just the half of that number.


Quatar, Lusail City
Source: Shutterstock

King Abdullah Economic City (Saudi Arabia)

Saudi leaders talk more about greenfield development projects and master-planned megacities than about the development of existing cities. Named after the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) is a megaproject developed near Jeddah and Riyadh. The masterplan, north of Jeddah, incorporates the King Abdullah Port, and it is designed on social, economic, and environmental sustainability principles. Just like its counterpart, Masdar, in the UAE, KAEC is developed and operated by Emaar, a real estate development and management company, which started the project in 2006. The development of this project is complicated, as KAEC was part of the vision of King Abdullah. When he died in 2015, King Salman, who became his successor, and the crown prince, Prince Mohammed, decided to create their own vision and their own master-planned megacities. While KAEC has remained an ongoing project, it has a few thousand inhabitants in 2018 instead of the planned two million, and Prince Mohammed bin Salman decided to build a new megacity, Neom. It is not only Saudi Arabia’s domestic politics and its international political environment that hinder these developments, but seemingly, the scattered resources also endanger their success. However, Saudi Arabia has both the resources and a large population to make these projects viable and popular either among tourists, businessmen, or those who simply look for a place to settle down in these new smart cities.

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