There will surely come a day when Dubai runs the world’s reserves of hyperbole dry. But in the meantime, we continue to draw a sharp intake of breath each time a new construction project is announced. We have had ski domes built in the desert, seen vast artificial islands rise from the sea and watched several structures vying for the title of world’s tallest building. Dubai represents the will, vision and ambition of our species. Yet many believe it shines an unflattering light on our tendency for folly and hubris, too.
This week, it was reported that the Palazzo Versace hotel — the emirate’s latest offering for those still in the market for exorbitant luxury — will boast, when completed in 2010, a refrigerated 820m2 swimming pool and a beach with artificially cooled sand to protect its guests from the excesses of a climate that can see summer temperatures exceeding 50°C. Wind machines will even be on hand to provide a gentle breeze.
“We will suck the heat out of the sand to keep it cool enough to lie on,” said Soheil Abedian, founder and president of Palazzo Versace, a hotel group with plans for a further 15 luxury hotels around the world to add to the one that already exists on Australia’s Gold Coast.
“This is the kind of luxury that top people want,” he said.
The energy required to run this project can only be guessed at (when questioned, Hyder Consulting, the British company hired by the hotel to build these facilities, said it has signed a confidentiality agreement with Palazzo Versace and therefore couldn’t comment), but it is likely to leave the world’s environmentalists with their heads in their hands. First there is the energy required to power giant wind machines all day long, not to mention the electricity needed to pump coolant around tubes laid under the sand. However, the most energy-intensive element of this plan is likely to be the power needed to refrigerate a whole swimming pool under Dubai’s baking sun.
Of course, in a place like Dubai, this kind of audacious project goes relatively unnoticed, among the many others under way. To pick just one other example, 30,000 mature trees are scheduled to be shipped to Dubai to help landscape a new Tiger Woods-designed golf course that will be bordered by “22 palaces and 75 mansions.”
Even without the twin threats of climate change and a global economic recession, Dubai’s grandiose plans might seem short-sighted to some. Is it really wise to be building at all, let alone on this scale, in a place that the UN describes as one of the most “water-imperiled” environments on the planet, but where per capita water use is three times the global average?
“It’s grotesque that while the world’s poorest people face the loss of their homes and livelihoods, as well as disease and starvation, because of climate change, the world’s richest people think it’s acceptable to waste precious energy so pointlessly on things such as artificially cooled beaches,” said Robin Oakley, head of climate and energy at Greenpeace UK. “While Abu Dhabi, like [US president-elect] Barack Obama, is betting on green technology as the engine for growth this century and even building a zero-emissions city, Dubai is apparently still stuck in the 1980s.”
Dubai’s ruling elite insists it now places “sustainability” at the heart of its plans for existing and future projects. Last year, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai’s ruler, spelled out the “Dubai Strategic Plan 2015” in a speech. He explained that oil now contributes only 3 percent to Dubai’s GDP and that his plan is to “sustain Dubai’s environment, ensuring that it is safe and clean”