Thousands of trees have died in Dubai after costly real estate projects thwarted attempts to halt desertification

    26 Aug 2021

    Let’s look at the Dubai nature conservation efforts from the point of view of The Guardian. Its journalist states that the One Million Trees initiative went in not such a brilliant way as it could be.

    It all began so beautifully, with the ruler of Dubai photographed planting the first tree of his ambitious environmental initiative, as smiling officials applauded around him.

    In 2010, the One Million Trees initiative was announced by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai. The launch aimed to increase green areas in Dubai through afforestation while contributing to overall beautification of the city.

    On the cover picture: The Washingtonia palm field in February 2016 and then in 2019. Photograph: Hamza Nazzal

    The plan was to establish a nursery for the young trees on land contributed by the Dubai Police Academy to allow them to grow to maturity before sending them out across the emirate. A company called Green Land partnered with a government-backed environmental organization on the project to develop the tree nursery and began planting the trees.

     “This is our attempt to stop desertification and to add to the aesthetic appeal of Dubai,” said Lt Gen Dhahi Khalfan, the deputy head of Dubai Police and General Security, in 2010.

    At its peak, the tree nursery spanned more than 130,000 sq meters, irrigated using recycled wastewater and desalination. The once empty land had more than 30 types of trees chosen to withstand the desert environment, including groves of olive, palms, and ghafs, the national tree of the UAE.

    But then the stark realities of hyper-development in Dubai began to overpower the project when Dubai Holding, an investment holding company that is the personal corporate portfolio of Sheikh Mohammed, announced plans for the Mall of the World, conceived as the world’s largest shopping center, a 4.4m sq-meter project costing more than 25bn dirhams (£5bn).

    The glass-domed city would be built where the Dubai Police Academy and the One Million Trees nursery lay. The legal ownership of the land was transferred from the police academy to Dubai Holding in 2014, a straightforward process for public land given that both are affiliated with the government.

    The environmental initiative in April 2017. Photograph: Hamza Nazzal

    That project was postponed in 2016, but one week after that announcement, another mega project was announced in its place, Jumeirah Central, a 4.1m sq-meter, £14bn multiuse city. This plan was also conceived by Dubai Holding, which had ownership of this land and passed it to subsidiaries.

     “These mega projects convey prestige and modernity to help them attract affluent residents, especially in Dubai. The aim is not necessarily sustainability,” said Mohammad al-Saidi, an associate professor, Center for Sustainable Development at Qatar University.

    According to documents seen by the Guardian, Green Land, founded by Hamza Nazzal, was given several notices between December 2016 and March 2017 to transfer the trees and evacuate the nursery before water and electricity would be cut off as part of the construction process.

    In response, Nazzal highlighted the risks of transferring the nursery prematurely, insisting that the trees needed another three years before they were ready to be transferred.

    “There could be a higher risk to the trees,” said Ahmed El Droubi, a senior campaigner for Greenpeace MENA. “They may not have been ready to be moved.”

    According to accounts given to the Guardian, what ensued was a messy feud leading to legal disputes. It is claimed that water and electricity were intermittently cut off, excavators moved in to start construction, and gates were erected. As a result, workers could no longer access the plants.

    At one point, workers were witnessed sitting inside the pockets of the excavators to prevent demolition in 2017. Some also started to dig from under the gates to give water to the trees.

    Despite multiple attempts by Green Land, no deals were made to sell the trees and transfer them outside of the nursery before construction began. Eventually, Jumeirah Central was put on hold in October 2017, with the company last saying they were “re-evaluating” plans while looking at other projects in time for Expo 2020.

    In the meantime, the trees had almost entirely died. An expert site visit in March 2018 to the nursery concluded that some trees were damaged because of a lack of water.

    The report counted a total of 599,338 unharmed trees remaining on the site, fewer than half of what was initially planted. Now close to 80% of them are dead, according to nursery workers and a foreman who last visited the site in December 2020.

    The initiative after a lack of water in 2019. Photograph: Hamza Nazzal

    “I had a million trees I was taking care of. Everything they needed, I was there to give it to them,” said the foreman, who asked not to be named. “I cried when I saw the trees. Everything is gone now.”

    “This is truly an environmental crime,” Nazzal said. “We are not talking about buildings here. These are trees that need to be taken care of and maintained.”

    Dubai Holding did not respond to questions from the Guardian. However, in communications with Green Land, it denied placing the gates and preventing the entry of the workers or cutting off water and electricity. The Guardian also approached the Dubai police and the Dubai government media office for comment but did not receive a response.

    “Lots of announcements are made in the Gulf region about being more sustainable and taking on initiatives for the planet. Then they hit the headlines, and they have served their purpose,” said El Droubi said.

    GCC countries and carbon footprints

    Gulf countries, including UAE, have some of the world’s largest per capita footprints of carbon emissions, waste, and water consumption. Rising sea levels will hit this part of the world hard – according to the Stockholm Environment Institute’s US center, the UAE could lose 6% of its developed and populated coastline by 2100. The region is experiencing hotter summers, with predictions of strong sandstorms and extreme rainfall drawing closer.

    “It’s a good idea to have more trees and to plant trees in the Gulf,” said Al-Saidi. “If we plant these in cities, we provide more green cover and life qualities improve.”

    The government has announced plans to protect Dubai from the climate crisis, including via a clean energy strategy, which aims to make Dubai 75% reliant on renewable energy by 2050 and to reduce water and energy consumption by 30% by 2030. In May, the UAE pitched to host the UN’s annual climate change summit in 2023.

    Meanwhile, the One Million Trees initiative survived for less than a decade. A newly planted tree can take 20 years to become carbon sinks effectively.

    “There was more attention and importance given to massive, unsustainable and costly real estate developments, which eventually did not take place,” Nazzal said.

    Dubai tourism and “the Instagram aesthetic”

    Everything the eye lands on in Dubai was created for a purpose; nothing is natural or accidental, from the smooth skyscrapers to the purpose-built islands that function as gated communities. Dubai’s planners are now consciously building with the Instagram aesthetic in mind, The Guardian states. One of the city’s attractions is “The Frame,” a 150m gold filigree hollow rectangle that, from the right angle, with the onlooker’s back to the working-class neighborhood of Al Karama, frames the Burj Khalifa. Across the city, cafes and restaurants serve food created for online consumption: a cappuccino adorned with gold leaf or a cocktail served on a platter that looks like a scene from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, complete with dry ice, fake grass, and white chocolate butterflies.

    This city, powered by the overlap of aesthetics and a desire to make money, holds an irresistible appeal for Instagram itself. The social network has its Middle Eastern headquarters in Dubai, with that of the parent company Facebook. Dubai-based head of communications Nada Enan tells media, “Instagram is a platform that inspires people, and this is manifested in this city.” Data from the Global Web Index shows that generation Z now rely on influencers for information almost as much as the brands they represent, and 69% of all internet users in the UAE use Instagram, far outstripping the UK at 53%.

    If Saudi Arabia is eager to snatch Dubai’s luxury tourism, finance, and influencer crown, the emirate is unlikely to give it up easily. It is a place of incessant construction, where 92% of its population are foreign nationals, notably the migrant laborers building the glass towers. Unlike buttoned-up Abu Dhabi, Dubai has hardly any oil reserves, opting instead to trade on its name as a freewheeling tax haven to attract international commerce and as a place where tourists can ignore the more conservative mores of its neighbors.

    In 2019, tourism provided 11.5% of GDP, according to official data; other estimates suggest its contribution is closer to a third. Influencers are now so important that a subsidiary of the tourism ministry, Visit Dubai, showcases handpicked “curators”, including the Emirati racing driver Saeed Bintowq; Louise Nichol, a British fashion consultant who “fell in love with Dubai”; and Emirati designer Mona Almotawa. Their social media accounts typically show them mingling with the city’s high flyers, sightseeing in the desert, or watching horse racing.

     “Dubai doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room when it comes to its image,” says Jim Krane, author of City Of Gold: Dubai And The Dream Of Capitalism. “It trades on that and it doesn’t have a back-up plan. It doesn’t have oil. It’s the first successful post-oil economy in the Middle East, full stop.” But trading on brand is a high-risk strategy, as this year has proved.

    As COVID-19 has spread around the world, Dubai has had to rebrand itself once again – this time as a safe haven from the virus. Still bruised by the memory of the 2008 crash, which shattered its construction industry and financial markets, it imposed a harsh lockdown last spring, under which residents could leave their homes only once every three days, with permission. Dubai saw an exodus of 8.4% of its population in 2020 (primarily low-income workers affected by the downturn), double that of anywhere else in the Gulf. Homeless blue-collar workers, whose sudden unemployment meant their visas were revoked, slept rough in the city’s parks as they waited to be repatriated.

    By early 2021, Dubai was handling COVID-19 in a way that almost let visitors forget about it. Indoor dining was permitted; bars, cinemas and malls remained open, with limits on capacity. An efficient vaccine drive means UAE has now fully vaccinated over half its population, third behind only Israel and Seychelles in the global race to immunise. Positive cases dropped to less than 3,000 a day in March.

    A government-led initiative prioritized tourism workers for the jab, including at the Dukes Hotel on the Palm Jumeirah. “We want to promote that Dubai is safe, everything is open,” says marketing manager Cyrine El Klifi, as sunlight glitters across a nearby infinity pool ringed by lounging bronzed tourists.By the way, only the UAE can afford such a luxury lifestyle: the world’s highest infinity pool has opened in Dubai in May.

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