Going Green in the Desert: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Dubai

By: Virgin Atlantic

May 13, 2016

Virgin Atlantic - The Dubai skyline - Simon Bierwald - Eco-Friendly Dubai.jpgThe Dubai skyline from Burj Khalifa; Image by Simon Bierwald


Since the discovery of oil off Dubai’s coast in the 1960s, the city has quickly expanded from a modest fishing and trading community to the ultra-modern, glamorous metropolis we know today. Renowned for its record-breaking architecture, extravagant shopping and booming tourism industry, it is one of the world’s wealthiest and most cutting-edge cities. But how green is this glittering, futuristic destination?

As Dubai prepares to host the World Expo in 2020, green issues are in the spotlight more than ever, both in the city itself and throughout the United Arab Emirates. We take a look at some of Dubai and the UAE’s most exciting upcoming projects with a sustainable angle, which aim to ensure the nation remains a top destination for leisure and entertainment for years to come.

Eco-issues in Dubai

Dubai’s rapid expansion has not been without its challenges. Rising almost miraculously from the barren desert surrounding it, Dubai exists in defiance of its natural setting. Because of this, its very existence demonstrates the extent of human ingenuity and resourcefulness; but it also means the city is subject to a range of environmental pressures, from sandstorms, intense heat, sudden downpours and lack of fresh water, to shifting sand beneath the foundations of its buildings. As Dubai’s human population continues to grow, so does its carbon footprint and demand for scarce resources – particularly water.

In such an innovative city, however, it’s hardly surprising that a number of clever minds are taking the matter in hand. Recent years have seen the emergence of a number of companies dedicated to sustainability, both in Dubai and throughout the UAE more widely. Whether by initiating more sustainable practices in their own businesses, or through the creation of products and services that lessen the impact of the city’s burgeoning population and growth, these forward-looking initiatives aim to make Dubai’s characteristic extravagance more sustainable.

Virgin Atlantic - The Burj Al Arab Jumeriah - Sam Valadi - Eco-Friendly Dubai.jpgThe Burj Al Arab Jumeriah; Image by Sam Valadi

Environmentally-friendly tourism and entertainment

Given Dubai’s status as a major hub for entertainment and leisure activities, it’s not surprising that many projects focus on enhancing tourists’ experiences in a sustainable way. For example, Dubai boasts 35 Green Globe Certified Properties, with 10 hotel brands represented – more than any other city in the world. Green Globe is an international certification for sustainable tourism; in order to become a member, hotels, attractions and other travel operators must demonstrate high standards of commitment to operating in a sustainable manner.

“There are 44 steps of criteria for certification,” explains Sandrine Le Biavant, Director of Consultancy for FARNEK, the facilities management company that has represented Green Globe in the Middle East and Africa since 2010. “Hoteliers are not specialists in sustainability, so Green Globe developed a checklist that enables each department to implement the measures needed, instead of spending time trying to understand and search for what needs to be done.

“At FARNEK, we support the properties we manage in implementing sustainable practices that will reduce energy, water consumption and reduce waste with dedicated teams of energy auditors and waste consultants. We also create awareness in the market of how to integrate these activities in the heart of building maintenance.

“In terms of renewable energy, all types are considered, so the properties can pick and choose according to the local and economic opportunities from possibilities such as solar energy, wind energy and geothermal energy. For transportation, we provide them with options for bio-fuel or perhaps integrating hybrid cars into their fleet. The objective is truly to have properties’ management think outside the box…and look at sustainable service as a chance to impress the client with innovation, versus the additional cost to shift to a sustainable mode.”

Jumeirah and Mövenpick are among the well-known hotel brands that have achieved certification for their properties, which means they have met all the mandatory criteria and at least 50% of the optional elements. Some examples of interesting programs run by individual hotels include the JA Jebel Ali Golf Resort’s bio-garden, which comes complete with an aquaponics system to provide fresh, organic produce for the hotel’s restaurants, and the hospital for injured sea turtles at the Burj Al Arab, which treats almost 100 turtles a year and has helped release more than 800 back into the wild since 2004.

Virgin Atlantic - Dubai Creek - Jay Tornaquia - Eco-Friendly Dubai.jpgAfternoon rush hour at Dubai Creek; Image by Jay Tornaquia


Other projects focus on solving specific ecological challenges. For instance, several of the luxury hotels located along the beach at Jumeirah in Dubai commissioned beach management specialists Ecoplage to design a drainage system to reduce erosion along the beach, which was previously losing two meters of sand a year and required constant maintenance and replenishment.

Another UAE attraction which recognizes the value both of protecting the environment, and allowing visitors to experience it first-hand is Sir Bani Yas Desert Islands. This group of eight islands to the west of Abu Dhabi forms a conservation zone for a wide range of plants, animals, birds and marine life, including a number of endangered species. The islands are strictly managed in order to maintain the natural balance of the ecosystem and preserve the area’s unique archaeological sites. For this reason, the three luxury resorts on the main Sir Bani Yas Island are all designed to minimize their impact on the local environment, and to allow guests to enjoy the area in a sustainable fashion.

Virgin Atlantic - Expo 2020 Dubai - Eco-Friendly Dubai.jpgExpo 2020 has already helped raise awareness of sustainability in Dubai and the UAE; Image courtesy Expo 2020

Sustainability at Expo 2020

Dubai chose the theme Connecting Minds, Creating the Future for Expo 2020, to emphasize both the interconnectedness of our modern world, and the need for societies to work together to overcome many of the challenges we collectively face. As His Highness Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Chairman of the Expo 2020 Dubai Higher Committee, explained, “Expo 2020 Dubai will be an international focal point where people and countries will come together to celebrate human ingenuity, and our shared ability to build a better future.”

Within this focus are three main sub-themes: Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability. The Sustainability theme considers how progress can be achieved in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the environment and create problems for future generations to face. Inspired by Dubai’s desert location, there’s an emphasis on energy and water supplies, and how these can be managed more effectively to protect these vital resources in the long-term and provide more equal access to people across the world.

Sandrine Le Biavant agrees that Expo 2020 is already helping raise awareness of sustainability issues in Dubai. “There are now more and more communications in the city about sustainability and achievements in this area,” she says. “Already we are seeing some groundwork to make [the Sustainability theme] happen.

“The UAE Vision 2021 led by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum – which encompasses the Dubai Green Economy program and aims at showcasing Dubai as a Green City with the best practices in sustainability – is already generating a high level of interest; as are sub-programs like the Dubai Integrated Energy Strategy (DIES), which aims to reduce the energy consumption of 30,000 buildings by 30%, and the COP21 commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emission by 16% by 2021.”

Virgin Atlantic - Dubai by night; Image - Crazy Diamond - Eco-Friendly Dubai.jpgDubai by night; Image by Crazy Diamond


In keeping with this focus, a number of the major building projects planned for completion in time for Expo 2020 are being designed with green features in mind – in part to help offset the effects of the 25 million international visitors the city is likely to receive during Expo’s six-month run. Here are just a few of them:

Museum of the Future

Planned as a showcase for the very latest in technological advances, the Museum of the Future is dedicated to the celebration and promotion of human innovation. Instead of static exhibits, you’ll find a variety of working prototypes and futuristic designs that will offer a glimpse into the future of global development, particularly in terms of the challenges facing major cities today. The museum will also act as a venue for conferences, workshops, talks and other events to foster a spirit of scientific and technological collaboration. Other planned features include an example of a 3D printed building, which will sit in the museum grounds and provide office space.

Bluewaters Island

Currently under construction, the Bluewaters Island development is being built on reclaimed land located 500m off the beach near Dubai Marina. It will ultimately include a mix of residential, entertainment and retail facilities, including restaurants, boutiques, a five-star hotel and a food market. The highlights of the complex will be the Dubai Eye – which at 210 meters high will become the tallest Ferris wheel in the world – and a giant LED screen for public broadcasts of films and special events. The residential towers on Bluewaters Island will be built in accordance with Dubai’s Green Building Regulations, which include strategies to improve energy efficiency, water conservation and waste management within the buildings.

Dubai Frame

Standing 150m high and 93m wide, the Dubai Frame is exactly that – a giant picture frame positioned to show off some of the most iconic views and landmarks in old and new Dubai. Visitors can take a glass elevator to the top of the structure to enjoy the spectacular views from the spacious walkway – which is partially floored in glass. The frame will be paneled with photovoltaic tiles that generate solar energy, to help keep the structure green.

Virgin Atlantic - Masdar City in Abu Dhabi - Nrman Foster - Eco-Friendly Dubai.jpgMasdar City in Abu Dhabi; Image courtesy 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia


Masdar City

Currently under construction near the Abu Dhabi International Airport, the Masdar City project was conceived as an entire eco-community based around sustainable technology. As the home of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, which focuses on clean technology and alternative energy sources, the city’s economic and business focus revolves around the development of eco-friendly systems.

What’s more, Masdar City itself has been constructed to minimize its own environmental impact. Solar energy is the chief power source, and energy and water use are controlled by motion sensors. It may have a desert location, but the city is kept cool through a combination of short, narrow, shaded streets and an innovative wind tower that funnels a cool breeze through the passageways. Essentially, the city’s developers see it as a “greenprint” for how modern communities can be designed in a more sustainable way, to reduce the impact of rapid urbanization and growth.

Virgin Atlantic - Smart Palm - Eco-Friendly Dubai.jpgSmart Palm is a palm tree-shaped technological hub offering WiFi and more. Image courtesy of Smart Palm

Dubai as a Smart City

As part of the preparations for Expo 2020, Dubai has also launched a Smart City initiative that aims to use sustainable technologies to create a more connected community. A key player in this is the Smart Palm, a palm tree-shaped technological hub created by D-Idea Media. These innovative structures run on solar energy and provide a range of useful services, including a free WiFi hotspot, rapid device charging points and touchscreens with multilingual information on local businesses, weather forecasts and news.

There are currently three Smart Palms in Dubai, with plans to add up to 50 of the structures across the city. The most recent model is being created with 3D printing technology, and unlike earlier versions, which were crafted from steel, will be made from Fiber Reinforced Plastic (FRP). This material is lighter, more durable and more resistant to UV light and humidity, meaning the new generation of Smart Palms will last longer, with less maintenance.

Virgin Atlantic - Dubai sunset - Sakena - Eco-Friendly Dubai.jpgDubai sunset from the beach; Image by Sakena

Explore Dubai’s new sustainable attractions

Want to check out Dubai’s new green technologies in advance of Expo 2020? Virgin Atlantic offers regular, affordable flights from London to Dubai. Book your flight today and discover everything this fantastic city has to offer – from world-class shopping, dining and spas, to unforgettable desert adventures.

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