As magnificent, enthralling and mind-blowing as Dubai may be, the Arabian Desert is not the most sustainable place to build a metropolis, and the fast-developing city's impact on the environment has long troubled climate scientists. In places like this, where summer temperatures often top 38°C, massive amounts of energy must be used to keep the populace cool, not to mention the amount of water needed to keep the golf courses and manicured spaces green year round.
However, times and attitudes are changing in the region and over the past decade the local government has been making large strides to reduce Dubai’s carbon footprint, advocate sustainable development and improve the eco-friendly options for travelers.
This is a city that thinks big and makes change quickly, and the delayed Expo 2020 (1 October 2021 – 31 March 2022) aims to show us how the city is becoming a champion of sustainability with a packed program of talks, events, interactive exhibitions and hard-hitting installations. They’re leading by example with an events pavilion that’s projected to hit net-zero carbon status by the end of the expo, – specifically with the help of high-tech water-condensing and solar-gathering ‘trees’ that rotate to follow the sun.
There’s plenty of momentum in the right direction and it’s a hopeful time for a place that’s very good at implementing change on a monumental scale. Of course, the initiatives will take time to pay off, but as a visitor, there are even small choices you can make that can make a world of difference. From choosing a hotel with solid eco-credentials to supporting local conservation efforts, let’s look at some of the simple ways you can lessen your impact when you’re in town.
FIND THE RIGHT PLACE TO STAY
Six-star hotels set in gleaming skyscrapers and perched on man-made islands may not seem the most obvious ambassadors for tackling climate change, but you’d be surprised how many properties have introduced measures to lessen waste, reduce plastics and embrace ground-breaking technologies to save energy.
Among those leading the pack, the three properties that form JA Resorts & Hotels have incorporated solar panels to heat water for guest rooms and pools, and there’s an on-site desalination and bottling plant that provides complimentary water to guests in reusable bottles. Across town at Sofitel Dubai The Palm, they’ve taken a holistic approach with an efficient recycling campaign for paper, plastic, cardboard, oil and glass, LED energy-saving lighting, and a water-management system that’s affecting real change. What’s more, for every five towels guests reuse, the hotel group plants one tree in deforestation areas.
Out among the shifting sand dunes, Al Maha, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort and Spa, in the middle of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, is one of the original eco hotels. Since it opened in 1999, it has planted more than 6,000 indigenous trees and employed a team of dedicated field guides that actively protect the local population of oryx, gazelles and birds.
It’s almost as if shopping is a national pastime in the UAE, and Dubai is a place where local names and international brands stand side-by-side in gleaming, air-conditioned mega malls, while old-school souks still trade in spice, textiles and gold.
It’s among these loud, fragrant alleys that you’re going to be supporting the local economy the most. For handmade jewelry, head to the Gold Souk, where the skilled makers can craft bespoke designs or help you choose off-the-shelf pieces. As always in the souks, no price is set in stone, so be prepared to haggle. In the Spice Souk, don’t miss the high-quality saffron strands at local prices, fresh, organic dates, and locally blended teas.
While it’s unlikely you’ll be doing much cooking during your time in the Emirates, this shouldn’t stop you heading to Waterfront Market to marvel at the produce that artisans manage to grow, rear and catch in the region – the fish section is particularly impressive with pink-eared emperor fish, milkfish and hamour all glistening on beds of ice. There’s also a farmer’s market at the Circle Mall on the first Saturday of each month, which is a fantastic place to pick up locally produced souvenirs and gifts for friends back home.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Restaurants the world over use the buzz words ‘local’, ‘seasonal’ and ‘sustainably sourced’ to describe the ingredients used in their dishes, and while this is the case in Dubai, it’s more of a challenge for chefs and restaurateurs to find truly local ingredients in the desert.
However, there are some restaurants that put in extra effort to champion local producers, and plant-based pioneer Just Vegan is among them. The original branch in the Dubai Marina was one of the first totally plant-based dining spots in the city when it opened in 2017, and five new restaurants are planned for 2021 as a result of its success. The latest opening on Jumeirah Beach Road is bigger, and greener, with plenty of foliage hanging from the ceiling and a menu that puts a vegan twist on all of their dining classics – from burgers and hot dogs to pizza and pasta.
SUPPORT LOCAL CONSERVATION EFFORTS
Set to the backdrop of skyscrapers and highways, the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary at the end of the Dubai Creek is an important (if unlikely) migratory stopover for hundreds of waterbirds. In winter, vibrant pink flamingos steal the show, but keen-eyed birdwatchers can spot more than 170 species in this network of mudflats, mangroves and lagoons. The small entrance fee contributes to the continued upkeep and protection of the land, ensuring no new developments are constructed nearby.
There’s more great conservation and research happening in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, which was founded in 1999 to reintroduce mountain gazelles, sand gazelles and Arabian oryx, and now covers more than 5% of the Emirate of Dubai’s total land. To experience the solitude of the desert away from the roaring 4x4s of the Big Red sand dune, contact Arabian Adventures, one of eight approved tour operators that arrange camel trekking, wildlife watching, falconry exhibitions, and overnight stays in traditional Bedouin tents.