Oil won’t last forever, so Dubai is betting big on science and tech

The future-proofing engine.
Mohammad Al Gergawi

The minister charged with Dubai's vision stands outside the Future Foundation; the building is 3D-printed. Siddharth Siva

A comic-book skyline. Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

I. After Oil

Dubai drops away behind us, its ­comic-book skyline replaced by khaki sand dunes and the occasional wild camel. The first sign of the technological ambition we are about to see is a billboard: a 20-foot-tall ­portrait of Dubai’s ruler, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid ­Al Maktoum, rendered in a mosaic of solar panels.

solar panel billboard
His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, rendered in a mosaic of solar panels. Andrew Blum

At a cluster of buildings about a half-hour south of the city, a guard slides open a high steel gate for our white SUV, with Alhaz Rashid Khokhar at the wheel. A project manager for the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority, Khokhar has, for the past several months, been working toward the opening here of a 200-megawatt expansion of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park. The dark panels stretch across the desert for more than 2 miles, a distance so far beyond the vanishing point that standing at one corner is like ­looking through a double mirror. The largest operating solar plant in the United States is just over 550 megawatts, but Dubai grows by exponents. This 200-megawatt section will soon be a smudge on the map beside an additional 5,000 megawatts planned to come online over the next 13 years—a $14 billion investment targeted to meet 25 percent of Dubai’s electricity needs. It is only one piece of a technological jigsaw puzzle that, once assembled, is intended to reinvent Dubai’s role in the world.

For more than a decade, this city-state’s story has been all about superlatives: the world’s tallest building, the biggest fireworks display, the busiest international airport. But a new ethos has taken hold, a broad and purposeful strategy to swap profligacy for ingenuity. Unlike some countries, Dubai believes the planet is warming—and is determined to use science and technology not only to adapt to a new era of extremes, but also to make that adaptation the basis of its economy. Dubai wants to be known more as a laboratory for world-saving technology than for the man-made beaches, indoor ski slopes, and vast air-conditioned malls that defined its recent past. Its plan would seem hard to believe if the contemporary reality of Dubai itself weren’t already so improbable. Dubai’s transformation from a blip on the map to a global hub was a neat trick. But can it pull it off again?

Khokhar moved here with his family nearly five years ago, after turning down a job at home in India working for an international consulting company. In doing so, he became a leading indicator of Dubai’s aspirations. Khokhar’s not a laborer from the subcontinent, living in an un-air-­conditioned work camp and toiling ­manually in the heat—the notorious ­scenario that blemished Dubai’s recent rise. He ranks among the region’s best minds, and was attracted by the pay and lifestyle, as if Dubai were New York or London. “Here we have plans,” Khokhar says about the solar park, but he just as easily could be talking about his family and Dubai itself.

He and his peers believe they are building a better future, the outlines of which are all around us. Inside the park’s R&D facility—a small concrete slab building with big solar wings on the roof—researchers are working to improve the performance of photovoltaic modules in the parched, dusty environment. “You can easily lose 30 to 70 percent of the power from dust,” explains Jim Joseph John, an Indian engineer who recently relocated here from Phoenix, Arizona, where he’d finished up some research for his Ph.D. On an adjacent patch of sand, three visiting technicians fiddle with a sophisticated weather station, their tools spilling out of their rental car’s trunk. Behind another fence is a photovoltaic reverse-osmosis system, which transforms brackish groundwater into drinking water. Across a construction laneway, two steel towers a couple of stories tall poke at the sky like half-erected cranes. Technicians are preparing to install 3-D printers on them, which will extrude—in a matter of weeks—a whole building intended to house (naturally) a drone lab. The laneway itself will then be ripped up, its brick pavers replaced with solar panels and a system to wirelessly recharge electric cars as they drive along. For the moment, a run-of-the-mill plug energizes a white subcompact with a Dubai Electricity decal.

“You’re going to be surprised,” John says. “The whole place is going to change.”

II. Minister of the Future

“We decided that we will go to the future—we will embrace the future without worry,” says Mohammad Al Gergawi, the architect of Dubai’s vision for the next half-century. He sits in the center seat of a vast table in the lush boardroom of one of the city’s newest hotels. A waiter comes with a three-tiered curate stand piled with dates and nuts, his hand trembling with anxiety as he places it in front of Al Gergawi—one of the most powerful men in Dubai and close adviser to Sheikh Mohammed, the city-state’s hereditary monarch and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, the federation of which Dubai is a part.

“We believe that we in the UAE and in Dubai have a mission,” Al Gergawi continues. “This region needs a puller from its misery. There is tremendous conflict. There is a lot of hatred, sectarian war, religious war, ethnic cleanses, refugees. We see the story. Then you come to Dubai.”

The city appears a postcard for ­prosperity, youthful diversity, and ­cosmopolitanism. Taxi drivers skydive on their days off, and the fanciest hotels fill up with civil servants and white-collar professionals on special-­occasion dates—alongside Russian oligarchs and Indian industrialists who arrive in 20-foot-long Rolls-Royces. The malls and streets are busy with people of all skin colors and ethnicities, in all kinds of national dress. The sense of mutual tolerance is palpable, sometimes joyful.

Sitting beside Al Gergawi are two 20-something advisers. The three of them are dressed in the kandura, the Emirati version of the flowing gown that’s an icon of the Arab world. In golden cream, gray, or blue, perfectly pressed and fitted, with a sleek collar and a tassel at the neck like a bolo tie, they wear them like power suits, the costume of Emirati privilege. Al Gergawi accessorizes his with black titanium-rimmed eyeglasses and blue mesh Skechers, like an Arab Steve Jobs. This might not be an accident.

Early last year, in a move that didn’t go as viral as footage of Dubai firefighters on jetpacks or a tennis match on a helipad, Sheikh Mohammed reshuffled his cabinet. He created new positions for a Minister of Climate Change and Environment, a Minister of State for Happiness, and a Minister of State for Youth Affairs (a 22-year-old). Al Gergawi—already Minister of Cabinet Affairs, got a new appendage to his title: and the Future. This was a declaration of purpose. For the past 13 years, among other roles, he served as chairman of Dubai Holding, a state-owned investment vehicle, where he assembled a diverse empire of hotel, real estate, and telecommunications businesses. Now he would shift full time to planning the future of Dubai. “Today I’m excited, actually,” he says, in a guru-like cadence. “I’m very excited. I’m excited because I know we’ll have a beautiful journey to the future. I can see it. I can feel it.”

Cities are machines, the largest things we build. Their airports and seaports digest and expel people and goods, while their roads and rails siphon both through the urban landscape. Their tunnels carry data, power, water, and sewage. Their governing authorities work (one hopes) with deliberateness, imposing coherence on what otherwise could be chaos. It can all hum efficiently—or fail spectacularly. Typically, all of this is constructed over centuries. The Parisian sewer system dates to the 1850s; New York’s first subway line opened in 1904; London got its first central power station in 1891. Avenues follow cow paths; creeks become water tunnels; fiber-optic lines slowly take their place beside electric cables. The lesson of city building is that infrastructure takes forever—the tortoise to technology’s hare.
But Dubai has done it differently. Dubai has built in 50 years what has taken most cities 100. That isn’t hyperbole or a PR stunt—though Dubai is famously expert at both—but a reality plainly visible in this metropolis of nearly 3 million people. For centuries Dubai was a sleepy port, serving the pearl trade in the Straight of Hormuz. In 1966, when Al Gergawi was 3 years old, the newly formed Dubai Petroleum Company found oil off the coast. While engineers worked to pump it up from the seabed, his boyhood school still lacked electricity. He drank rust-colored water, filtered with a piece of cloth. “Nothing was here, ­actually,” he recalls. The site of the beachfront hotel we’re sitting in had been a smallpox sanitarium. “While you were coming from the airport, probably you drove down Sheikh Zayed, which is an eight-lane highway? My first trip on this road was when it was a dirt road. It was sand dune.”

Growth came with infrastructure. Flush with petrodollars, Dubai began to build: roads, a massive seaport, an airport, an airline, and power plants. But they knew their resource wealth was only temporary, while the scarcity of the desert ­environment was forever. Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al ­Maktoum, Dubai’s ruler at the time, put it in a maxim: “My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel.” The prophesied second generation of Land Rover drivers are the 20-­somethings sitting beside Al Gergawi. (One drives not a Land Rover but a Mercedes G-Wagen.) Al Gergawi’s challenge is to bend fate, to keep the camels in the desert, and to put his grandchildren back into Mercedes—or perhaps flying cars.

Over the past generation, Dubai’s advantage has been the new geography of air travel. The city is perfectly situated to link Europe and the Americas with Africa, Asia, and Australia. An estimated 95 percent of the world’s population is within flying range of the Airbus A380, the giant double-decker flagship of Emirates, Dubai’s airline.

For the next generation, Dubai’s advantages are more fraught, tied as they are to impending climate catastrophe. Many cities are about to face new extremes of temperature and drought. Dubai already does. Many cities will struggle to find fresh water and clean power. Dubai already does. Viewed in this light, Dubai is a place where the future has arrived early.

Rather than be intimidated by its ­potentially catastrophic challenges, withdrawing from the world and doubling down on outdated technologies, Dubai is accelerating toward it. The plan is simple: Turn the traditional mechanisms of urban life into a platform for confronting the hazards of contemporary society. Then export those innovations. If a city is a machine, Dubai wants to be the most advanced city-­machine the world has ever seen—and it wants to sell its blueprints to everyone. “Dubai is recognizing that climate change is an existential threat to its ability to be a prosperous part of the world,” says David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, a watchdog group.

To publicly speculate about the jigsaw puzzle of technological possibilities, Dubai opened a Museum of the Future, housed temporarily in a white-wrapped pavilion until permanent space can be constructed. An opening video, projected in a 360-degree cyclorama, pretends to look back in time from the Dubai of 2050. “Not too long ago, climate change brought us to the edge of extinction,” a narrator warns in Arabic and then English as a montage of destruction flashes on the screen: skyscrapers subsumed by sand, riots in the streets, forests disintegrating into dust. “But the UAE saw an opportunity: to move fast and create breakthroughs that the world had never seen.”

In this imagined Dubai of the future, the electricity and water authority has blown past today’s supersize desalination plant and opened a bio-desalination plant, grown from the genes of a jellyfish (the “most absorptive natural material”) and a mangrove tree (“one of nature’s best desalinators”). And it sold them too: “We also export jellyfish bio-desalination plants to cities across the world,” the stentorian voice continues. Robots construct buildings from sand. An artificial intelligence selects and grows food in indoor farms. And flying cars pulse through traffic-free streets. It’s all presented with enough science-fiction flair to maintain a sense of humor. But the punchline is serious: “We solved our own problems, and now climate solutions are our greatest export.” At a historical moment when—in the United States, at least—global-warming predictions remain politically ­controversial, it is startling to see Dubai planning its ­economic future around these challenges.

“Because we don’t have, we need to think harder,” Al Gergawi says, tacitly acknowledging that the pieces of the puzzle don’t yet fit together. “We need to think faster, and we need to reinvent every single product. You look at history. You look at the future. You look at research and say: ‘You know what? How can I create this journey?’” Then he pops a cashew into his mouth.

Dubai's Financial Centre Metro Station

III. The Laboratory City

One evening, walking along the beach, I come upon a team of workmen busily disassembling a small wooden platform with a bold “E” stamped into the middle of a blue circle. I was mystified when I first saw it that morning, appearing as if out of nowhere. Was it a dance floor for some extravagant party on the beach? A helipad? These didn’t seem unusual questions in Dubai. Why did it appear, only to be removed 12 hours later under cover of night? But if the purpose was a secret, the workmen were never told to keep it. “It’s for a drone,” says the man who seems to be in charge, momentarily pulling his phone away from his ear. Why were they dismantling it? “Technical challenges.”

The next day, Ahmed Hashem Bahrozyan, a senior executive at Dubai’s Roads & Transport Authority, clarifies things. “Anything that moves people, we’re looking into,” he says. We’re standing beside what looks like a carnival ride, caged behind velvet ropes: the Ehang 184, a Chinese-designed drone big enough to transport one passenger and one small bag 30 minutes across the city. The official plan is for trial service to begin in July. But later, when pressed on the feasibility of that immediate goal, the chairman of the RTA only laughed. Dubai knows flair. The announcement had the desired effect of generating headlines worldwide. The same went for the fanfare around Dubai’s plan to build a Hyperloop passenger-transport system connecting with its neighbor, Abu Dhabi—an ­announcement that was later downgraded to a “pre-feasibility study.”

Dubai’s other transportation plans are more proven. In 2009, when it was reeling from the global economic collapse, the city opened a metro line, the first in the region, with driverless trains. Its nearly 200 million annual rides (compared with 1.763 billion on the New York City subway system) form the basis for Dubai’s goal that 25 percent of all local trips be made via autonomous vehicles by 2030. The RTA is looking at driverless buses and aerial gondolas, and is pushing to compete with cities around the world to attract the companies that are developing self-driving technology.

This is a case where being a monarchy has its advantages. Dubai can change regulations quickly to better attract companies like Uber and Daimler to use the city as a lab. “The ability to meet their needs faster than other possible cities around the world—where there’s much more bureaucracy, and it takes time to change regulations and policies—that’s attractive to them,” Bahrozyan says, “because even they don’t know exactly what they need unless they come and try.” The RTA is working ­toward providing the sophisticated ­mapping necessary for autonomous transport, as well as a citywide cloud that would share data among thousands of vehicles from many different manufacturers.

This is the kind of backbone building that has proved worthwhile for Dubai in the past—not only to improve efficiency at home, but also to export for profit abroad. It’s the same strategy that has driven the growth of DP World, operator of Dubai’s enormous Jebel Ali seaport, which sells its automation technology globally.

Supercharging the plans is infrastructure spending—$3 billion of it on transportation—in advance of the World Expo, which Dubai will host in 2020, the first ever in the Arab world. The RTA will extend the metro line 9 miles to the site, adjacent to Dubai’s sprawling new airport, and starchitects like Norman Foster and Santiago Calatrava are designing pavilions.

Technically speaking, the sustainability goals are bold. Fifty percent of the energy used during the event will be generated from renewable sources, and 50 percent of that is expected to be generated on-site. The Emirates pavilion, designed by Calatrava, will have deployable wings with integrated solar panels.

Whereas past expos—like those in Shanghai and Milan—have been primarily focused on a domestic audience, Dubai expects 70 percent of the fair’s 25 million visitors to come from outside the UAE (most likely on an A380). They’ll be unwittingly celebrating something else as well: the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Arab Emirates. It’s all a chance for Dubai to punctuate that international outlook—what Reem Al-Hashimy, director general of the Expo, describes as an interconnectivity. “That’s how Dubai has survived,” she says. “It’s been this place where people come from all over and find a better way of life.”

Dubai’s middle class appears to be far broader and more diverse than it was a decade ago, when the dominant media narrative was about a fantasy city built on the backs of slave labor. The extent to which working conditions have improved is hard to judge, but the reality of the city as a business and commercial hub is plainly apparent. If Dubai’s future is as a knowledge hub, it will have to fulfill the dreams of more than just the Emiratis. With rare exceptions, only they are allowed to be citizens, and since visas are based on employment, deportation isn’t so much an extreme consequence as an everyday worry. That may have mattered less to the Emiratis when labor was expendable. But to compete for global talent, Dubai needs to transform from a transitory polyglot society to a permanently cosmopolitan one—an ambition that has become a talking point of Sheikh Mohammed. “The uniqueness of Dubai is the fact that it is a melting pot of the world’s cultures, ethnicities, and minds in one city,” he said in a statement.

Al Gergawi acknowledges the challenge of that transition in his own vague way. “I’m saying we’re not perfect,” he says. “We are young kids on the block, if you look at the block as the world. Every day we say: ‘How can we improve? How can we move to the next step in every single aspect?’”

Maybe it is necessary to grade Dubai on a curve. By the standards of a liberal democracy, Dubai remains retrograde. There is no democratic representation, poor freedom of the press, and homosexuality remains illegal. But compared with the rest of the Arab world, Dubai is a beacon of openness and modernity. Thirty percent of the cabinet members are female (compared with 0 percent in Saudi Arabia and 6 percent in Jordan), as is 66 percent of the government workforce.

Dubai’s long game is to create an ­atmosphere for future growth. It has taken its initial good luck—its limited oil reserves, along with the unlimited ones of its generous neighbor, Abu Dhabi—and made even more out of it, leveraging finite oil wealth into a viable position as a global hub. As part of the plan for the Expo, the government has established a $100 million fund to finance tech startups from around the world and bring them to Dubai. It is banking on the idea that diversity and tolerance can lead to innovation, and innovation can lead to both economic prosperity and—in the current language of the government—a happy city.

Can that happiness be attained without extending citizenship beyond Emiratis? It is a controversial question. Al Gergawi demurs. “We are a young country,” he says.

Sarah Amiri is the science lead and deputy project manager of the Mars mission. Siddharth Siva

IV. Mars and Beyond

Sarah Amiri is a young scientist. At 30 years old, she is the science lead and deputy project manager of what is perhaps Dubai’s most audacious project: the Emirates Mars Mission. Before she even completed her master’s in computer engineering from the American University of Sharjah, next to Dubai, she landed here, at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, a small compound of low buildings with facades of silver square panels, not far past the airport. A circular radio dish points to the sky. A colorful parrot chatters inside the cafeteria, darkened on this weekend morning. The building is otherwise quiet, except for a security guard and a single ­engineer, monitoring DubaiSat-2, the polar orbiting imaging satellite the Emirates launched in 2013 and uses to take daily photographs of the constantly changing region. He sits sleepy-eyed in front of a shiny bank of screens, in a glistening white-walled control room—somewhere between a stage set and a working model of Dubai’s aspirations.

The Space Centre has been methodically building its capabilities, launching a succession of more-sophisticated—and homegrown—satellites. DubaiSat-1, launched in 2009, partly replicated an existing design; DubaiSat-2 was developed in partnership with South Korean engineers. KhalifaSat, launching next year, will be designed, developed, and constructed entirely at the Space Centre. I could see its skeletal frame behind a thick glass window. Down the hall, workers painted a large clean room—the only one of its kind in the Middle East—where the spacecraft would be assembled. The Mars probe, known as Hope, would launch in 2020 and arrive in Mars’ orbit in time for the Emirates’ jubilee in 2021.

But the plan isn’t a “firework,” as Amiri puts it. “Don’t just go and send space junk there,” she says. “Don’t clutter another planet just to say that you’re going to Mars.” The scientific goal of the mission is to measure and map the Martian atmosphere, and its political goal is to create a community of Emirati scientists and engineers—to ­cultivate the talent that will make Dubai a knowledge hub. “We get told by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed that the most important part is the scientists and engineers who are going to come out of this,” she explains. Accordingly, the mission staff skews young. Everyone is under 35, the average age is 27, and 30 percent are female. Amiri speaks passionately about inspiring the youth of the Arab world. “We need to give them monumental challenges to solve.”

In other parts of the world, not even the most talented 30-year-olds are running Mars missions. But Amiri was born into the extreme privilege of her generation of Emiratis, and has a zeal for Dubai’s technological ambitions—and the more-diverse city that they require. “If you block out people from different backgrounds, then you block out innovation,” she says. “Innovation comes from differences in thinking and picking up in different ways.”

Later she tells me, “We’re living in a place that dreams a goal before you can even dream it, and provides you with the right tools to work toward it.”

I’m reminded of something Al Gergawi told me while recounting Dubai’s rapid growth. “We went from no road to Mars,” he said. “This is a human story, and this is what humanity can achieve in one generation.”

If Sheikh Rashid’s great-grandchildren achieve their dreams, the story won’t be about driving cars or riding camels, but about designing rocket ships and flying them to other worlds.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2017 issue of Popular Science.