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Leon Kaye headshot

Masdar: 10 Years of Clean Energy and Sustainable Development Ambition

By Leon Kaye

In the Middle East’s Gulf region, 10 years is a lifetime, considering how new these countries are and how quickly they have transformed from hot and dusty trading ports to some of the world’s most ultramodern cities.

Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates’ capital, is one example, and has long struggled with growth as its population doubled over the past decade. The region has almost no resources (except oil) and is located in a harsh climate where the mercury can soar to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius) in the summer. Managing population growth and ensuring the people of Abu Dhabi can have economic opportunities outside the energy sector were among the drivers behind the launch of Masdar in 2006.

When the Masdar Initiative was first announced 10 years ago, it was greeted by a mix of excitement and skepticism. The jewel in this crown, to many outsiders’ eyes, was Masdar City, a mixed-used development located a five-minute drive from Abu Dhabi International Airport. But Masdar also includes a clean technology investment fund; a renewable energy development and deployment group; a foundation that has given out millions in prizes to scale clean energy development and social enterprise worldwide; and while not actually within the Masdar organization, Masdar Institute, a graduate school that has an ongoing partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

But despite this broad umbrella, most observers focused on Masdar City, which had ambitious goals considering no other project like this exists on Earth. But before the city could even open in 2010, plans were scaled back during the global financial crises of 2008-2009, during which the nearby emirate of Dubai needed a bailout that totaled into the tens of billions of dollars. Abu Dhabi agreed to give Dubai a financial lifeline, but that would mean some projects, including Masdar City, would have to be put on hold.

Then the catcalls came, and they were loud. A city that was originally slated for completion by this year had its long-term finish date pushed back to 2030, a decision that unleashed heaps of criticism. Concepts such as a car-free, zero-carbon community with autonomous cars shuffling workers, visitors and residents under the city were shelved, because they were either logistically impossible or not financially viable. As one expat friend in Dubai asked me incredulously a few years ago, “Wait . . . they want a car-free city in a country where everyone is reliant on a car?” Hence, the international press relentlessly pounced on Masdar. The project was called a mirage, a failure and a promise that should have not been made in the first place.

This perceived over-promise and failure, however, will be a blessing in the long run, and could result in a much more livable and resilient city than what was originally promised back in 2006.

Masdar’s team tasked with developing the city had to recalibrate and think about the city’s overall strategy. Yes, Masdar City had to be as sustainable as possible, but also had to become commercially viable. The risk in building the city as originally planned, and hoping that the people and businesses would come, most that it would have likely resulted in an empty city. So instead, Masdar adjusted to market realities, and parceled out segments of the city for development one section at a time, with the conditions that developers maintain a certain Estidama building rating (the UAE’s sustainable building standard this is akin to LEED or BREEAM). In general, the company says buildings in Masdar City are approximately 40 percent more water- and energy-efficient than comparable existing buildings in Abu Dhabi.

Meanwhile, the company focused on grooming its special economic zone in order to attract clean technology firms and other companies to Masdar City. From 50 companies in 2012, then 200 companies in 2014, that number is now over 360. Yes, some companies are a rep with a flexi-desk for firms that want to minimize their expenses until they commit to the UAE and region, but other companies include the likes of Lockheed Martin and Siemens.

Ten years ago, few companies, or residents, would have wanted to locate at Masdar City, as it really was in the middle of no where. But Abu Dhabi has grown far beyond the original island on which it was founded, Abu Dhabi International Airport is in the midst of a massive expansion and Jebel Ali, now a huge business hub in Dubai, is only a 45-minute drive away. Masdar City not only has the opportunity to become a large business and economic center, but with more shops and restaurants, it could also become the entertainment hub of what is best described as suburban Abu Dhabi. Once visited largely by delegations and individuals largely on a smart cities fact-finding mission, the city and its amenities are a destination for almost everyone now—making the city socially and economically sustainable for the long term.

But as some visitors would say, you cannot call a place a “city” if no one lives there—a fair point as the only residents had been the students in the dorms at Masdar Institute. But that is now changing.

Cranes are now towering all over Masdar City as development will increase six-fold by 2020. As the City’s director, Anthony Mallows, described in an interview with a local English newspaper, the city has agreements to develop 200,000 m2 (50 acres) annually through 2020. The plans include energy-efficient apartments and villas, schools, hotels and more office space. Additional projects include research centers, such as one that will develop feedstock for biofuels and what Masdar Institute says will be sustainably grown seafood. Plans are also underway for relocating the UAE pavilion at last year’s Milan Expo; that structure will become a visitors’ center. For Masdar City’s staff, the first few phases of Masdar City have offered lessons as to what green building techniques work and should be scaled for future projects, as opposed to others that are obsolete.

So while all eyes will continue to zoom on Masdar City’s growth, it is important to remember that the company is still embarking on renewable energy investment efforts across the world. While some of Masdar’s projects, such as the London Array offshore wind power development, are massive, many strive to increase energy access in some of the world’s poorest countries, from Egypt to Afghanistan to the South Pacific. And all this activity is going on despite record low oil prices, which have been devastating for government budgets throughout the region. Whether you believe in Masdar’s agenda or not, one thing is clear—this is a company on the move, with a stubborn focus and will continue to push ahead. If anything, the criticism of Masdar has motivated its staff to do what they can to help fulfill Abu Dhabi’s goal of becoming a city in 2030 vastly unrecognizable from what it is today.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Disclosure: Leon Kaye has worked on several consulting projects with Masdar since 2013.

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye