• UAE’s $18 billion Sustainable City Is A Ghost Town

    If you build it, they probably won’t come. This is the story of Masdar City, the world’s first “sustainable” city, that was built in the middle of the desert in the United Arab Emirates.

    The city was supposed to be a model for high-tech, carbon-neutral cities powered off green energy, but instead the city has become a ghost town.

    Reporters with Co.Exist found that, despite the hype, the city was virtually empty with barely one hundred people living there. The $18 billion city was supposed to attract 50,000 inhabitants and thousands more commuters who would work at large international companies and new tech companies expected to locate offices there.

    “Walking around, there are some seemingly deserted buildings,” according to Co.Exist. “The loud drone of natural air conditioning, a huge wind tower, is omnipresent, even oppressive. Some students–there are barely a hundred, the only inhabitants in the city–seem lost even though the surface area is small.”

    Masdar City is the brainchild of the company Masdar, which is headed by Dr. Sultan Al Jaber — who is also the UAE’s climate change envoy. The company’s ambitious project to build a walled-off carbon-neutral in the middle of the desert, near the historic city of Abu Dhabi, attracted attention of politicians, investors and media around the world. This included the possibility of $2 billion in green energy financing from the U.S. Export-Import Bank.

    In 2013, Ex-Im officials signed a memorandum of understanding with Masdar to look for possible green energy projects to finance using U.S. taxpayer dollars. Ex-Im’s interest in green financing is part of a larger Obama administration push to make the U.S. a major green energy and eco-product exporter.

    But Ex-Im has not authorized any financing for any Masdar projects to date, according to a bank spokesman.

    Hillary Clinton even gave a speech in Masdar City in 2011 while working as secretary of state in the Obama administration, touting the potential benefits of the project and how it could be a model for future developments.

    “The old strategies for growth and prosperity will no longer work,” Clinton said. “For too many people in too many places, the status quo today is unsustainable. And the UAE is leading our work and the path we must take into the future. It is putting into practice what it means to be sustainable and laying the groundwork for economic, environmental, and social progress.”

    Masdar City bills itself as a “model for sustainable urban development regionally and globally, seeking to be a commercially viable development that delivers the highest quality living and working environment with the lowest possible ecological footprint.” Yet, the “commercially viable” claim made by Masdar might be a little premature.

    Co.Exist notes that only a few shops are open in the vacant city. Some 1,500 startup companies have announced their intention to set up shop there, only about one hundred are even in the development stage. Co.Exist notes that the Germany-based “Siemens has offices there and General Electric a showroom. The result is that life is simply impossible: one must drive many miles to do basic shopping.”

    “An advertising fence surrounds the city and promises a bright future,” Co.Exist reports. “On the other side, the dizzying empty spaces are surprising: no cranes on the horizon, a striking contrast to the rest of the region.”

    A Masdar representative was cautiously optimistic about the project when asked by Co.Exist, saying patience was needed. The Masdar rep did, however, admit that it was politically “unthinkable to abandon such a project.”

    But it looks like it’s been at least a couple of years since any major developments have occurred in Masdar City. The project’s press release archive stops in the summer of 2012, when the city installed rapid charging stations for electric cars — the first in the Middle East.

    Beyond that, nothing of import seems to have been going on in the world’s first sustainable city.

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