The cost of Dubai’s extremely fast development has been unplanned infrastructure – especially illustrated in its lack of public transport, clogged roads, a lack of public community spaces, a late awakening to “green” and other big sleepers such as imported construction labour

by Georgina Legoe…

“ Sustainable property in Dubai?” I hear you say, ”…not possible…Dubai is the symbol of real estate excess.”

This is a common and somewhat correct view held by Australians on this Middle East hub. It comes up in every conversation I have had since my return from Dubai in January this year.

I would like to share with you my experience assisting with sustainability in Dubai over the last two years.

The UAE Context

A quick overview: The United Arab Emirates UAE is a federation of seven Emirates. Abu Dhabi is the capital and Dubai is the growth town being developed as a tourist, property, and finance hub.

Spending two years in Dubai all began at the end of 2006, when I was asked by Chris O’Donnell, chief executive officer of Nakheel, and former CEO of Investa Property Group, to assist with Nakheel’s sustainability journey.

Nakheel, Dubai’s master developer, is charged with delivering the “Vision of Dubai”, with 15 projects in Dubai and interests in international development projects. Nakheel is one of the world’s largest privately held real estate developers.

More on Nakheel later…

Dubai and Green Buildings

Dubai has been built in a rush. The emirate has built more tall buildings and developments over the last five years that we can imagine. The “cost” of this speed has been unplanned infrastructure – especially illustrated in its lack of public transport, clogged roads, a lack of public community spaces, a late awakening to “green” and other big sleepers such as imported construction labour.

The UAE is a market where a new definition of imagination has emerged. I call Dubai the “EST” capital. Driven by competition, developments strived to be the “largest”, “tallest”, “longest”, “biggest”, “newest” etc. And of course “first” was hot.

Over the past12 months there has been a huge surge in interest in green buildings. To illustrate, there are several LEED Platinum [the US green building rating system] buildings with planned alternative energy sources.

This trend has arisen both from some market leaders in the UAE and from government “directions” in the form of a Decree.

In October 2007, the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed issued a Decree requiring all new buildings to be green. Unfortunately, the response has been to focus on developing green building tools- as has happened in other parts of the world!

At last count, by the end of 2008, four green building tools were under development. Three in Dubai – by Dubai Municipality; Trakhees Green Building Standard that is specific to and compulsory for all companies within Dubai World (which includes Nakheel); and a LEED based tool being prepared by Emirates Green Building Council. Plus, there is a tool being developed for the neighbouring Emirate, Abu Dhabi.

This tool is called Estidama – Arabic for sustainability – and it has a unique “5 pearl rating” approach.

Nakheel’s journey

In 2007, Nakheel embarked on a journey- where the CEO and the executive adopted sustainability as a key strategic business initiative. And Nakheel wasn’t just talking green – they saw sustainability as embracing social, economic and environmental issues.

My observations were that Nakheel’s motives were two-fold. Chris O’Donnell sought to embed sustainability as a core element of a corporate change agenda for the better, and to place Nakheel on the international stage.

My colleagues and I at Sustainability Advisory Group were lucky enough to be Nakheel’s advisors on this journey.

For Nakheel, sustainability was not only a “catalyst”, it had to make business sense. The sustainability initiatives, therefore, were delivered across diverse aspects of the business, including governance, human resources, learning and development, risk, labour practices, brand and marketing.

To give one example: sustainability was integrated into the business planning process so it could be included in budget planning and performance management processes.

Our guidance to Nakheel was based on undertaking a full sustainability gap analysis and materiality review, of the company. So this entailed a sustainability baseline assessment of all 17 corporate divisions and business units. (The latter were the property development projects). From this baseline assessment, we developed a strategic framework to guide action on key issues, as indicated above.

Of course, a fundamental component was instilling sustainability into the core business, property development.

The following tells one story of how we assisted in integrating sustainability into Nakheel’s largest project- Dubai Waterfront.

A lot of development that has occurred in Dubai is not sustainable

To quote Wikipedia- “Dubai Waterfront (known as Waterfront) is expected to become the largest waterfront and largest man-made development in the world.” The projected statistics are amazing-

  • a city for 1.5million people.
  • 81 million square metres
  • total investment in the first phase is estimated to be USD3.5billion

It was on this project, that Sustainability Advisory Group developed a sustainability approach that was linked to the corporate Nakheel framework. The audience for this work – the developers, engineers, project managers – wanted practical solutions. So we gave them a “road map” based on tangible targets.

Waterfront’s Sustainability Framework applied to the whole city – providing a holistic approach. It had four goals, each with targets and indicators to drive stretch performance, and to allow monitoring and reporting.

Diverse targets were developed across issues such as green buildings, renewable energy, labour practices, public transport, diversity, human resources and affordability.

The added complexity with this project, was that because of its size, Dubai Waterfront was in effect 12 projects; and a corporation with shared services (12 in all). With Nakheel’s full support, we then went about ensuring that each of these precinct projects, and each shared service division has its own road map to deliver sustainable outcomes.

The 12 Precinct project plans

We guided each of the 12 Projects within Waterfront with their Sustainability Action Plans. Each development manager’s sustainability plan recognised where they were in the development life cycle.

For example, targets appropriate at the occupancy phase (e.g. water use in ML/day) are different from those appropriate at the design stage (such as specification of water efficient fixtures).

“Younger” developments were able to implement sustainability from structure planning and master planning stages – such as investigation of wind power on the Islands, public domain landscape design to meet a target of eight litres a sq m a using more hardscape and less lawn.

Villas in the Veneto development were designed using climate and energy modelling, with significant changes to the initial sketches to maximise passive solar cooling and minimise energy use.

The more progressed developments looked at ways of working initiatives around existing contracts e.g. variations paid to contractors to have their workforce accommodated on site at the high quality labour camp (Omran) facility – resulting in reduced CO2 emissions from transportation and improvements in productivity due to lifestyle improvements.

Sustainability was also incorporated at an infrastructure level for maximum impact such as the construction of an “energy from waste” plant to process up to 1200 tonnes of solid waste and 228,000 cubic metres of liquid waste a day.

Solid waste would be recycled where appropriate and the remainder processed through a gasification plant to provide electricity for the development. By-product ash from the plant could in turn be recycled in road making.

Waterfront’s 12 shared services plans

Sustainability Action Plans were also prepared for the 12 Shared Services divisions of Waterfront, such as Human Resources, Finance, Legal, Operations, etc

A crucial aspect was the recognition by Waterfront’s managing director that accountability for these sustainability initiatives had to be assigned through Individual Performance Agreements (IPAs).

The inclusion of sustainability KPIs into each Executive’s IPA then gave sustainability weight along with other key measurables such as program and budget performance.

Nakheel’s Sustainability Management Portal, a web-based platform, then provided the “IT Infrastructure” for regular monitoring of progress against the action plans. Management could view progress with an online sustainability scorecard.


In many ways, Dubai is, or was, the perfect laboratory. With huge ambitions, deep pockets, and a drive to be global leaders there has certainly been a start in Dubai’s sustainability journey. But, as I have said, this move was late compared to other markets. So a lot of development has occurred which is not sustainable.

On the upside there is huge potential. Masdar the world’s first zero carbon city being developed in Abu Dhabi could project the UAE into the forefront of sustainable development.

My hope is that the Global Financial Crisis and projects like Masdar will provide a breakthrough for Dubai, and the GCC, to think beyond oil and to focus on creating a more sustainable future.

Georgina Legoe is Founding Director of Sustainability Advisory Group

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