Desert Cities: Socio-Ecological Resilience in Dubai

Resilience is in no way a new concept; there exist many traditional societies who have sought to ‘buffer’ themselves against external shocks for a long time (Walker and Salt, 2006, xi). This term itself however came from the discipline of physics (Sander et al, 2000, 9), later adopted by ecologists to refer to the ability of an ecosystem to absorb shocks and disturbances whilst retaining its fundamental structure. More recently, this idea has also developed to incorporate social concerns, expanding to represent the capacity of societies to cope with social, political and environmental change (Adger, 2000, 347). Socio-ecological resilience today involves sustainable resource management, ecosystem adaptability, social justice, food and energy security and livelihood security; it is a way of approaching social and environmental issues without one undermining the other. This paper will draw on the case study of Dubai to explore the ways in which a city’s socio-ecological resilience may be threatened.

Resilience differs from the theories of optimisation which have often dominated mainstream discourse, which attempts to obtain maximum yield through increased control, intensification and efficiency of ecosystem management. In optimisation, it is assumed that nature, without human interference, acts in a linear and straight forward trajectory with very little change, yet this has been criticised for its inclination to place humans outside of socio-ecological systems. Instead, resilience works towards an approach which ‘creates opportunities rather than limits them’ (Walker and Salt, 2006, xiv), critically rethinking contemporary environmental problems as socio-natural problems (Sander et al, 2000, 28). This idea of humans as being a constituent part of the ecosystem, rather than exterior to it, is a critical aspect of resilience thinking, and has prompted scholars to reconsider studies of how humans live in and interact with their environment.

From a resilience perspective, all human built environments can be considered as a socio-ecological system, in which human and natural processes collaborate to enhance their respective capacities to absorb shocks and disturbances. According to the UN, towards the end of this decade, the world is expected to cross an unprecedented threshold, and for the first time in history there will be more people living in urban areas than outside of them ( Therefore, the ability to take this stance is perhaps becoming ever more important to understanding the various threats posed in contemporary socio-ecological systems.

A particularly challenging task is extending this to incorporate the city as a socio-ecological system. Although it is often assumed that cities are inherently and exclusively human constructions, many scholars have already begun to embrace the idea of cities as an ecosystem (Douglas, 1981; Whitehead, 2006). Cities consume 75% of the world’s energy and emit 80% of the greenhouse gases (Beatley et al. 2009, 4), and with increasing urbanisation, an understanding of how these systems function is crucial if we are to explore ways in which they can be made more resilient. This, again, is taking a broader view of the city as intrinsically linked to natural processes within and external to the city; “the social, economic and cultural systems cannot escape the rules of abiotic and biotic nature” (Tjallingii, in Newman, 1999, 220). In an age of global difficulties such as peak oil and climate change, cities have been deemed responsible for leading the way in change (Beatley et al. 2009, 5). In this next section, I will look to the example of Dubai as a socio-ecological system, and in what ways its resiliency is being challenged.

Located on the southeast coast of the Persian Gulf, the city-state of Dubai has earned itself a place in the spotlight over recent decades. Owing to the scale, pace, and nature of its development, the city has progressed from pre-industrial to industrial and through to a post-industrial status (Pacione, 2005, 255). Dubai had relatively humble beginnings, and up to 200 years ago was a mere fishing village, built around an oases and consisting of barasti houses constructed from palm trees; and the first concrete building wasn’t built until the 1950’s (Barrett, 2010, 5).

The state is ruled by the Al-Maktoum family, whose ancestors formed an independent Sheikdom after a tribal dispute with their ruler in Abu Dhabi (Pacione, 2005, 256). Its early economy was based on pearl fishing and smuggling, but the later 20th century development of the port- along with its advantageous geographical location on the Gulf, made it a prime site for import and export. Although Bloch is keen to eradicate claims of an “instant city” (Ibid.), the sheer speed of its development is undeniable, made ever more striking by its scale and the extremity of its environment; located within the Arabian Desert,. Despite its oil rich reputation, most of it belongs to its surround Emirate neighbours and oil constitutes less than 6% of Dubai’s GDP. Nevertheless, using its modest oil wealth to invest in becoming the principle economic and urban growth centre of the UAE, it has managed to benefit enormously from oil prices indirectly through the investment of its surrounding Emirates (Ali, 2010, 6).

With a desire to ascend to global city status the Sheik has harnessed the prevailing liberal economic approach to attract investment through low-taxation, business friendly environments- such as the business enclave of Jebel Ali Free Zone allowing businesses to benefit from low customs and legislative barriers and low wage, non-unionised labour (Pacione, 2005, 257). The main focus has been on the tertiary sector, particularly up-market tourism and real-estate based on predictions for a huge population growth, through which the government hope to reduce oil dependency.
The population has increased enormously; from 1,500 in 1833, through to 10,000 in 1900, which increased five-fold from 59,000 in 1968 to 370,788 in 1985 (Pacione, 2005, 257). According to the ‘Dubai Population Clock’, Dubai’s population at the time of writing was 2,234,485 (Dubai Statistics Centre). However, high demands led to what Bloch refers to as ‘Dubai Fever’, in which real estate and development became “hyper-aggressive, free-wheeling, super speculative and largely uncoordinated” (Bloch, 2010, 946, 950) and following the economic crisis of 2008, triggered a property bubble burst. After this, construction was largely shelved or cancelled altogether and property values halved, leaving the city in enormous debt.

Dubai today is a city of superlatives; the tallest building in the world, the largest shopping mall, the most luxurious hotel, (Barrett, 2010, 1), a far cry from the modest barasti dwellings which occupied the land scarcely two centuries ago. Inevitably, with such grandeur comes great criticism, and this has been plentiful in terms of its failings in sustainability. As Bassens et al outline, Dubai has been deemed highly unsustainable, both ecologically; with reference to its indoor ski arenas, golf courses and artificial islands, and socially; with its ‘three-sphered society’, as well as economically; made evident by its recent crisis (2010, 300). Here, its superlative status continues, gaining position as one of the highest water and energy consumers in the world (Bloch, 2010, 947). The following section will examine the main threats that exist to Dubai’s socio-ecological system using the four key coordinates of urban resilience outlined by the Resilience Alliance (Fig. 1), namely; metabolic flows, social dynamics, governance networks and built environment (

Metabolism is a biological systems way of looking at a settlement’s resource inputs and waste outputs, much like the human body’s metabolic process (Newman, 1999, 220-221). Inputs to a city include things like water, energy, land, food, building materials, whilst outputs include sewage, air pollutants, and greenhouse gases (Fig. 2). According to Newman, the main environmental problems associated with cities are often related to the growth of these inputs and managing the subsequent increased waste outputs. Using the metabolism model however, one can determine which management systems and technologies could best integrate natural processes, allowing for more efficient resource use, energy consumption and potential recycling of wastes (Ibid. 220). In terms of inputs for Dubai, its huge population increase, high levels of consumption, ambitious building projects, and overall neoliberal ethos make it a highly resource intensive city. Geographical contexts are crucial to urban metabolism thinking, which aims to better fit the city in correspondence with its surrounding local, regional and global ecosystems. With this is mind, we can refer back to my earlier point being that Dubai is built in the Arabian Desert, prompting the question: Does the resource consumption and waste production of Dubai fit with its desert ecosystem?

However, as Newman points out, cities are far more than just mechanisms for processing inputs and outputs; they are also inevitably about creating human opportunity (1999, 222). As seen from the diagram, this model has also been expanded to include aspects of livability, integrating socio-economic factors with the environmental. These will be explored in the following sections.

Another key aspect of urban resilience is social dynamics, examining demographics, human capital and equity. Foreign workers make up 90% of the population Dubai, which depends on the “permanent impermanence” of its workers who mostly live on 3-year renewable visas (Ali, 2010, 3). While this has allowed for flexible labour, Polèse notes how the ‘porous nature’ of the urban economy also caused problems in attracting and holding onto human capital (Polèse, 2010, 10-20).

Polèse refers to a-resilience; the ability to survive shocks, and b-resilience; the ability to change in the face of shocks; the latter being the ‘resilience’ in question here; relating to how cities succeed in preventing their residents from fleeing when confronted with a disaster. Dubai’s race to global-city status has meant that it lacks a sufficiently ‘adhesive’ identity to make its young and ambitious want to ‘stay and fight’ rather than flee (Ibid.). This was certainly a problem following the crisis in 2009, when apparently fleets of deserted cars were left by fleeing expats at the airport (Bassens et al, 2010, 300). Forms of cohesive, civil participation were evidently not part of the Sheik’s vision, and Ali states that this lack has meant Dubai has become a ‘market society’, perhaps causing an absence of values and social cohesion (2010, 9). Building upon these aspects could well improve Dubai’s b-resilience and ability to maintain its basic structure.
Dubai has been heavily criticised in the media for being “a kingdom built on the backs of a south Asian workforce” (Davis, 2006, 68), accused by the Human Rights Watch of building prosperity on forced labour. Indeed, 99% of private-sector workforce are immediately-deportable non-citizens; mostly from South Asia, with very little rights and absolutely no voice. Trade unions, strikes and all agitators are illegal, and while the government is quick to jail or deport those who speak out, the local press is restrained from reporting on such matters (Ibid. 64). Working and living conditions are terrible; they work long shifts away from their families for years to save £30 a month to send back home, they live in dormitory rooms of 6 and work in temperatures of up to 50 degrees centigrade in summer, and high fatality rates are often covered up by the government (Meo, 2005). Here, Barrett’s assertion of Dubai as “a place for the haves rather than the have nots” (2010, 8) could not be any truer.

Analyses of resilience also look at how institutional structures and organisations demonstrates social resilience; the ability of society to learn, adapt and reorganise to meet urban challenges. Social resilience is often observed by examining aspects of social exclusion, marginalisation and social capital (Adger, 2000, 352), and therefore as we have read in the last section, is a particularly challenging aspect to Dubai’s resilience.

Although the top-down, undemocratic governing has no doubt facilitated rapid development, the centralised structure of government and economic imperatives allow no room for local democratic participation (Pacione, 2005, 264). Although power struggles after the ‘flop’ of 2009 led to recentralised decision making and power within government rather than within state-linked companies (Bloch, 2010, 949), the state remains undemocratic, and continues to be run “as a private business for the sake of the private sector, allowing no conflict of interest and one ultimate landlord” (Davis, 2006, 61). In this market society, political freedom is replaced by economic freedom (Ali, 2010, 11), or rather, economic freedom for some.

There have thus been calls for more resilient governance, which according to Folke relies critically on the collaboration between a diverse array of stakeholders operating at different social and ecological levels, involving community members, local and national governments, business and political groups, voluntary groups and NGOs(2006, 262). Olsson et al agree, explaining that such adaptive governance strategies working at multiple scales provides a vital balance between centralized and decentralized control (2006, 2). More bottom-up approaches could involve local participation in resource management as a form of self-organisation, leading to adaptive learning and greater resilience (Tidball and Krasny, 2007, 150). Tidball and Krasny advocate a ‘civic ecology’ approach to reduce risk in cities by helping communities develop resilience before and demonstrate resilience after a disaster, building strong, resilient neighbourhoods (Ibid.). This could also provide more social cohesion and solutions to the lack of shared values and city identity.

The Resilience Alliance addresses the built environment as a way to explore ecosystem services in the urban landscape, which according to Bolund and Hunhammer refers to “the benefits human populations derive from ecosystems” (1999, 293).
Bolund and Hunhammer raise questions of urban expansion; should development be directed towards urban density or urban sprawl? (1999, 295). Thus far, Dubai has created enormous urban sprawl, with spacious street layout and the recent creation of urban ‘green spaces’, but is this viable in a desert environment? The sheer costs of water-intensive developments such as parks, golf courses and other green areas surely render justifications of increased quality of life futile. While urban sprawl may allow for increased resilience and well-being in more temperate cities, the desert climate of Dubai better suits its early, densely-built environment of thick walls to block out heat and narrow streets to offer shade. Progress in technology has facilitated water supply and easy transport but decreased typological coherence; spacious developments causing high personal transport demands and high domestic, retail and business energy demands. A more logical development should perhaps take into account imperatives towards reduced private car ownership and travel in the face of peak oil, as well as water conservation.

A key element of Dubai’s development strategy has been the rigorous spatial segregation of economic functions, and ensuing ethnically bounded social classes associated with the migrant workforce has led to “a vast gated community” (Davis, 2006, 60, 62). Asian workers have been banned from those places aimed at up-market tourists or wealthy expatriates, and segregation challenges Dubai as a cosmopolitan city. There exists, consequently, a need to a more even spread of development, as well as reflections on the cities prejudices about certain ethnic and social classes.

Through investigating the four key coordinates of urban resilience, we have seen that socio-ecological resilience incorporates many of the major contemporary concerns in human geography, ranging from climate change, to sustainability, issues of governance, globalisation and resource management.

Notions of an urban metabolic system revealed threats of increased inputs and insufficient management of outputs, and there are calls for perspectives of cities as a biological system as a tool in creating more efficient city planning policies, as it is presently rarely if ever used (Newman, 1999, 220). Examinations of social dynamics exposed the existing threats of abandonment and social conflict in Dubai, as well as issues of human rights, advocating perhaps a greater focus on wealth distribution as well as wealth creation (Pacione, 2005, 265). In turning to issues surrounding governance networks, we saw that despite changes in its ruling elite, more transparent, democratic and even bottom-up governing could provide more resilience. While the built environment faced threats of water sourcing and conservation, it is perhaps an appreciation and understanding of ecosystem services by planners and decision-makers that is necessary. It is not just desert environment which has caused Dubai’s lack of resilience but also its type of development, its ambitious capitalocentric growth strategy has meant that other social and environmental issues have been demoted to second priority. Inevitably, cities will never be able to be completely benign in their actions, as they are involved in a complex system extending much further than their own city limits. I do, however, believe that it is possible for cities to become more resilient, accepting responsibility and a certain amount of stewardship on their supporting ecosystems and striving for more sustainable consumption and more equitable societies.

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Whitehead, M (2006) Spaces of Sustainability: Geographical perspectives on the Sustainable Society (Routledge, London) Ch. 1


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