23 June 2021

Dubai: Why the glittering emirate is on route to going green

23 June 2021

In a glass cabinet, wardrobe rails are crowded by of a jumble of dresses, shirts and jackets. Opposite, a fridge overflows with cartons of milk, platters of meat and stacks of ready meals.

In a city famous for excess, this could be an average Emirati household. Dubai is, after all, the land of no limits, where bottomless brunches are endlessly replenished and towering skyscrapers reach for the stars.

As part of an immersive installation themed to sustainability, however, these dioramas of domesticity are alarmingly dysfunctional.

Expo Sustainability Pavillion (EXPO/PA)

“The idea is to stimulate conversation about the number of day-to-day products we consume,” says Mona Al Ali, who helped co-ordinate the artworks, as we study a collage of disposable plastic moustaches, the sort typically found inside a Christmas cracker. “It forces us to ask questions about how our lifestyles impact nature, and where our priorities lie.”

Sustainability is one of the key themes for EXPO 2020, postponed due to the pandemic but scheduled to take place in Dubai from October 1, 2021-March 31, 2022. The first world expo to be held in the Middle East, Africa and South East Asia region, the event is epic in scale and ambition – even more so given the timing, although organisers are adamant the event will go ahead as planned.

With 40% of the UAE already vaccinated and workers hurriedly giving the final touches to pavilions representing 192 nations, it’s a realistic vision. Even isolationist New Zealand are on course to complete their area in time.

Following a period of global detachment, when international borders have been closed and few people have been able to travel, even the idea (let alone logistics) of uniting so many countries in one place seems incredible.

And by seizing the zeitgeist for climate concern, it’s set to be the most memorable world expo in modern times, with organisers anticipating 25 million visits.

Although environmental themes have been adopted by many of the participating countries, a standalone pavilion, Terra, has also been dedicated to the topic. Claiming to be the UAE’s most sustainable building to date, it’s on course to achieve net zero status with the help of water condensing and solar gathering trees that rotate to follow the sun.

Visitors have a choice of two journeys: one dives beneath the ocean, while the other tunnels below a forest. Both follow a fairy-tale narrative of an idyllic world threatened by the villain of human consumption, tempered by a happy ending of hope.

Ideas are creative and the use of technology is clever.

As I step over a rope bridge symbolising a tangle of tree roots, LED lights illuminate to represent a communication network of fungi – known as a ‘wood wide web’; and while walking between a collection of seashells, I listen to the pounding of an oyster’s heartbeat.

Things get a little darker when I enter a room stacked with plastic bottles, where a carousel of macabre sea creatures perform in a fairground theatre, disappearing when the final fishing net curtain falls.

“Everyone talks about sustainability in this day and age, but we wanted to create an experience that gets to people’s hearts, and hopefully get them to act differently,” says EXPO senior manager Mona, as we stand beneath a mobile of 1,851 iridescent butterflies – a number referring to the year the first world expo was held.

Although ideas of sustainability and nurturing nature might be alien for a city artificially built in the desert, Mona claims they have been at the heart of Emirati culture for centuries. She cites the example of Bedouin tribes who travelled with few possessions, and points out a traditional ‘falaj’ irrigation system and outdoor corridors used as cooling wind tunnels in the Terra pavilion – both ancient Arabic architectural features.

“I think now it’s time to revisit that and see how we could learn from the past and our ancestors,” she says.

Looking beyond the bright, shiny buildings of Dubai, there’s a very distinct celebration of tradition and culture – in fashion, design and food. British expat Russell Impiazzi, executive chef at the new Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk, has passionately embraced typical Middle Eastern cuisine.

On an early morning trip to the Dubai Waterfront Market, he enthuses about the variety of seafood available locally. Pink-eared emperor fish, milkfish and hammour all glisten on beds of ice in the covered market popular with restaurant traders.

Dubai Waterfront Market (Sarah Marshall/PA)

“This is the birthplace of nose-to-tail eating,” he laughs, as we walk past a butcher’s counter selling a bucket of lamb’s testicles. “One man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure!”

While seared scrotum might not be gracing restaurant plates anytime soon, Russell is on a mission to source more ingredients locally, making use of what the Gulf region has to offer. Already, he’s planning to feature local fish on the hotel’s events menus, and many of the vegetables he buys are from pioneering Emirati farms, who have developed techniques to grow organic produce in the desert.

“It’s amazing to see where we were five years ago compared to today; it’s a night and day difference,” he grins.

The dynamic kitchen conservationist is also tackling food waste – a universal problem in the hospitality industry. During the pandemic, short shelf-life ingredients were transformed into 1,000 meals for the UAE Food Bank, a project he hopes to repeat in the future.

Plans to pursue a “full cycle” philosophy by creating composts and recycling waste on site fit with the hotel’s green philosophy.

Opened at the end of last year, the new addition to the Wafi mall complex has its own water filtration system, refilling glass bottles in rooms and eliminating plastics.

Although an Egyptian-inspired entrance mimicking the grand façade of Abu Simbel is outrageously ostentatious, the hotel’s Art Deco interior is impeccably stylish, and the modern, progressive mood of the property is a perfect fit for the ever-evolving face of Dubai.

No matter how big or beautiful its buildings might be, however, Dubai will always be a desert, where heat, dust and the smudgy glow of sand-haze colour daily life. On a trip with Platinum Heritage to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, I cruise past snow white oryx, whose shimmering pelts reflect the sun, and I learn about the variety of scrubby plants surviving in the sands.

Driving in vintage open-air Land Rovers, the company has a policy of no dune bashing, claiming the activity is harmful to native flora, which requires decades to grow back. In a bid to preserve the environment, they also organise regular desert clean-ups.

Sarah on a desert safari with Platinum Heritage (Platinum Heritage/PA)

Reclining on a bed of embroidered floor cushions as the sun is setting, I settle down for a falconry display. Whooshing above my head, an avian missile reaches a speed of 100km per hour. But even more impressive is the fact she holds a UAE passport and is permitted to travel in the cabin of planes – although only in business or first class. (She needs enough space to spread her wings.)

Outlandish verging on ridiculous, it’s classic Dubai. But in a nation adept at mastering flights of fancy – from planting tomatoes in the desert, to creating compost heaps on the rooftops of shopping malls – anything is possible.

Even moderation is no longer such a far-fetched idea.

How to plan your trip

Rooms at Sofitel The Obelisk (sofitel-dubai-theobelisk.com) start from £160 per night with breakfast.

Flights to Dubai from London Heathrow with Emirates (emirates.com) cost from £399 return and £459 return from Manchester. Emirates is the world’s first airline to provide multi‑risk travel insurance with every flight, including cover for Covid‑19.

Platinum Heritage (platinum-heritage.com) offers a Heritage Desert Safari from £115 for adults and £95 for children.

For more information about Dubai, visit visitdubai.com.

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