The transformation from an arid land into a world-class city

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

Guest Commentary

I was born on the shores of a desert, a harsh unforgiving environment where even polluted sour-tasting ground water was scarce and had to be hauled daily from distant man-made wells. Those of my generation know what it is like to go thirsty and how hard it is to find shelter from the scorching sun. We would often take refuge in the shade of a single tree during the summer months, let alone a flowering plant on which to feast our eyes.

Other Gulf States were in even worse straits than us. There was a time when Bahrain’s water was delivered by divers who filled leather containers from underwater springs. I still remember the day when water had to be imported and was delivered to homes in jerry cans. Kuwait’s water was brought in on dhows until a desalination plant was built in 1953. The same was true in Qatar.

Oman was the sole exception; its flowing natural mountain springs were channelled to its cities, towns and farms through a time honoured irrigation system, known as ‘aflaj,’ shielding the country from drought.

No homes in Dubai had running water until the late 1960s when drillers discovered an underground reservoir of clean water in Al Aweer, which resulted in a system of below ground pipes transporting that sweet water to people’s taps. Our bleak surroundings began to change in the 1970s with the arrival of a sewage treatment plant producing non-potable water used to irrigate Dubai’s first parks when residents were encouraged to plant gardens.

If someone had told me then that thousands of years ago my country and others on the Arabian Peninsula was covered with rain forests, lakes and lush vegetation I might not have believed them. A gradual change of weather robbed us of the liquid essential for life.

My homeland, the United Arab Emirates, is unrecognisable today thanks to the foresighted policies of the country’s founding fathers, who not only discovered ways to ensure that thirst was a thing of the past but were also intent on turning our desert land green.

This astonishing transformation was inspired by the late President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. His passion was to see the desert bloom again at a time when people believed it was an unattainable dream. He planted thousands of acres of trees irrigated with ground water, established green belts around towns and farms, levelled sand dunes, used technology to maximise the availability of underground water and constructed desalination plants to harvest the sea.

His environmental legacy is encapsulated on the once desert island of Sir Bani Yas that hosts the 87.5 sq. km. Arabian Wildlife Park where over 10,000 endangered animal species roam free, hence it is often referred to as Noah’s Ark Island.

Today, every city in the UAE is an environmental haven with tree-lined roads, parks, flower gardens, lawns, water features, lakes, canals, waterparks and some of the most spectacular interactive fountains anywhere on the planet. At the same time the government understands the importance of conservation and waste is forcefully discouraged.

Desalination plants provide almost 99 per cent of Dubai’s water resources, the largest known as ‘M Station’ in Jebel Ali has the ability to produce 140 million Imperial Gallons daily along with 2,060 megawatts of electricity. The water produced by sewage treatment plants is used solely to irrigate green spaces.

This year, Ras Al Khaimah opened a groundbreaking sea water reverse osmosis desalination plant and, with an eye firmly on renewable energy, Abu Dhabi companies signed a research contract with GDF Suez to study the feasibility of using 100 per cent solar energy to fuel desalinisation.

Although, according to the Emirates Environmental Group, water out of the tap is completely safe to drink, most residents feel more comfortable with the installation of a home filtering system or prefer to rely on bottled mineral water either due to personal taste or out of habit.

Bottled water is big business in the UAE; many use it to make coffee or tea or even for cooking purposes. Local bottling companies variously use mineral water from the mountainous emirate of Fujairah, the wells of Al Ain or treated municipality water. Emirati companies export 58 per cent of the GCC’s bottled water requirements, yet just about every foreign brand of bottled water can be found on the shelves of our supermarkets.

In many parts of the world opening a tap is taken for granted. Being able to take showers and water the garden daily is accepted as the norm. But we Emiratis have a greater appreciation than most Americans and Europeans because many of us have experienced life without water first-hand when simply washing our faces to remove the dust from our eyes was a luxury.

Thank goodness our children and grandchildren will never know what that’s like, but there are millions all over our planet that are not so lucky. I know that HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, is conscious of that sad reality because, like me, he remembers how water deprivation impacted our young lives.

Last year, Sheikh Mohammed launched the UAE Water Aid campaign (known as ‘Suqia’) aimed at providing five million people with water worldwide via new technologies and solar desalination plants; it has succeeded beyond its target with enough in the kitty to help not five million parched souls, but seven million.

Our deserts are no more hostile dustbowls but an attraction for tourists enjoying the thrills of dune driving or camping out under the stars. I only have to stroll through the grounds of my home and smell the air sweet with the aroma of malikat el leil (the queen of the night) to feel gratitude for God’s generosity and for the extraordinary wisdom of our exceptional rulers who guided us through hardship’s dark days into a light that shines not only on us, but outwards illuminating the region and beyond.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top