Sustainable Identity: New Paradigms for the Persian Gulf

Sustainable Identity: New Paradigms for the Persian Gulf

Nader Ardalan

This essay will address my ongoing academic research and professional applied design studies related to re-conceiving the principles and aesthetic basis of future built environments of Persian Gulf countries, so as to better achieve their potential for phenomenal and cultural sustainability. The study is partially based upon the successful research findings of the ‘Year One Pilot’ focused on the United Arab Emirates, and which was sponsored by the UAE government. These findings were published in summary in the Winter 2008 edition of 2A Architecture & Art Journal in Dubai. Furthermore, a Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative Grant by Kuwait Foundation for Advancement of Science for 2009/10 allowed both an anthropological and architectural research continuation of this general topic, as published in our report on ‘New Arab Urbanism’.1 These studies have now culminated in the major new cross-disciplinary Harvard University Research Project for which I am co-editor related to all the eight countries bordering the Persian Gulf. The book, when published, will be titled the Gulf Encyclopedia for Sustainable Urbanism, and it is being sponsored by Msheireb, a subsidiary of the Qatar Foundation. This body of research complements my current professional practice in the region and over 40 years of built work in the diverse countries and bioclimatic/cultural zones that surround the Persian Gulf.

My research studies focus upon a series of key research questions that have generated the framework of our exploration, and which still remain to be fully answered:

Q1. How have decision-makers and creators of the new developments in the Persian Gulf made their key decisions? In particular, how have they incorporated concerns for the environment and culture into their programming, planning and design process, aside from the standard considerations of material function, economics and marketability? How has environmental responsibility and cultural relevance been defined and managed in the design/build process?

Q2. Regarding sustainability, is the impetus for its consideration – if it exists at all – just reacting to the chaos caused by contemporary civilizations, resulting in the climate change crisis and some of the ensuing governance requirements or media hype? Is the ‘green impulse’ popularly supported by the private and public sectors? Is it a direct expression of deeper ethical beliefs? And if so, which ones? How can future developments become effectively more sustainable?

Q3. With regard to cultural consciousness, is there a holistic dimension to be found in the creative process of the architects and planners working in the Persian Gulf? Is there a design quest to convey a ‘spirit of place’, a Genus Loci, or could the designed work be geographically located anywhere? Does context matter; if so, in what ways?

Q.4. With specific reference to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, do the new developments exhibit a particular cultural character and narrative? One view might be that identity deals directly with a particular civilization’s world view of ultimate reality; if that is so, what civilization is being represented in these new developments? If there are shortcomings in this respect, how can they be improved? What role does globalization play in these narratives?


The topic of ‘sustainable human settlements’ and the well-being of the marine environment of the Persian Gulf is a vast challenge. It requires considerable, ongoing multidisciplinary research, as well as more in-depth and broader surveys and documentation, detailed analysis, discussions and new public policy initiatives. It also requires a dynamic archival base, which suggests the effort should be institutionalized, funded on a much larger basis and capable of being monitored on some dynamic GIS platform, which the Regional Organization for Protection of Marine Environment (ROPME), a United Nations Environment Programme-related entity in Kuwait and sponsored by the eight Gulf countries, has already started with regard to sea conditions.

It is clear that the two major sides of the Persian Gulf are experiencing completely different levels of economic investment and development. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) side on the west is verging on becoming overly developed with extensive unsustainable built environments, while the Iranian side to the east exhibits just the opposite condition, with extremely under-developed built environments but highly strategic port activities. The Iraqi coastal edge, while very limited in geographical size, nonetheless provides access via the Shatt-al-Arab (Arvand River in Iranian) to the port of Basra, while pouring into the Gulf the entire drained marsh lands and waterways of the Tigris/Euphrates valley. Oman, further removed from the Persian Gulf itself, offers a more benign picture of development, but ironically the most rapid urbanization.

However, all these sides are contributing to the unfortunate pollution of the marine environment through a number of factors: offshore and onshore oil industries that spill or seep vast amounts of oil into the waters; by substantial tanker discharges that also introduce invasive alien predatory species that endanger local fisheries and marine life; by urban dumping of raw sewage and industrial waste; by desalination and power plants; and not least by inter-tidal urban developments that destroy biodiversity and coral resources. Together, these problems cause the Persian Gulf waters to be one of the world’s most polluted seas.


16.1 Relief map of the Persian Gulf region


16.2 Bathymetry, ports and oil installations in the Persian Gulf

The current findings of our research and those from an evaluation based on several sustainability criteria such as the ‘One Planet Living Principles’, indicate that the majority of the current planning, design, construction and real-estate practices and models that have been used – particularly in the GCC part of the Gulf region since the 1990s – now demonstrate serious shortcomings.2 This working conclusion is principally due to the documented observations by various international agencies and professional critics of the following phenomena:

• The region’s high energy and resource consumption that showed Abu Dhabi in 2007 had the world’s highest carbon footprint per capita;

• Measures of urban and water pollution in the Gulf, as specifically recorded in the State of the Marine Environment Report 2003 by ROPME.3 This showed the four primary causes were:

1) Oil industries

– 25,000 tankers, 60 per cent of world oil transported through the Gulf;

– World’s highest oil pollution risk (1.2 million barrels a year spilled);

– Hydrocarbons in water exceed by 3 times the levels in North Sea.

2) Wars from 1980 to 2003

– Iraq/Iran War (1980–1988) = 2–4 million barrels of oil spilled;

– Iraq Invasion of Kuwait (1990–1991) = 2 million mines, 730 oil well fires, 9 million barrels spilled into Gulf;

– Iraq War (2003) = Oil well fires in Basra, etc; shipwrecks, oil spills.

3) Urban development and population growth

– From less than 34 million people in1960 to 140 million plus in 2008;

– Inter-tidal zone/biodiversity destruction by offshore construction;

– Sewage, industrial chemicals and agricultural pesticide discharges;

– Chlorine, brine & elevated temperatures at desalination/power plants;

– 66 per cent of Gulf’s coral reefs are now at risk;

– Over-fishing, use of industrial gill nets close to marine nesting areas.

4) Natural occurrences

– Shallow water, 50 m average depth, slow moving three-year cycle;

– Persian Gulf’s high water salinity and unusually high temperatures;

– Red/Green Tides (algae blooms) are disease agents for marine/human life;

– Invasive marine species due to tanker ballast emptied into Gulf.

• Uneven urban quality and cohesion, lack of human scale in cities, plus traffic congestion that is evident from even a casual drive through any of the Gulf’s urban centres now experiencing rapid growth;

• Unresolved socio-demographic dynamics due to the majority of the resident populations of the GGC being expatriates of widely diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds. As a late phase of modernism, globalization magnifies these structural problems by superimposing onto them populations from starkly different backgrounds. The resulting cultural disorientation, alienation and identity crisis remain to be resolved. What is the path forward?

Identity Crisis: a visual/spatial loss of a vital sense of cultural identity, collective memory, traditional knowledge and values, indigenous narratives, historic textures/patterns, and sense of place. In other words, the intangible elements of heritage.


The forms of nature are meaningful. They are the resultants of a fit-for-purpose process. Similarly, the forms of the built environment, such as cities and architecture, must ultimately be fit for their bioclimatic/cultural context or else they will not be efficient enough to be maintained, and finally will not survive. This ecological observation can apply to the existing conditions of the Persian Gulf and its surrounding built environments, where the rules of economic determinism have principally dominated development in the last decades with the noticeably retrogressive and destructive shortcomings observed above. Imagine then what the prospect might be for these communities over the next decades if more positive and constructive values – based upon a more holistic ecological fitness and the well-being of human processes – became the motivating rules and forces that governed development in the Gulf region.

Such a model was proposed by Ian McHarg, the acclaimed ‘ecological planner’, in his seminal 1969 book entitled Design with Nature.4 In it, he proposed that in order to comprehend holistically an ecological bioclimatic zone, for instance the Persian Gulf region, an inventory of all its ecosystems and life processes had be made first to understand the systemic issues involved in that region, and then to determine the most adaptive processes to achieve the solution that offered the least social/ecological cost for the maximum social/ecological benefit. Nine sectors might be considered in such an inventory, which together can provide an integrated picture for future planning and action: Ecosystems; Built Environments; Transportation; Agriculture; Socio-Cultural Patterns; Health; Water; Energy; Economy.

Without having the benefit of such an informative and detailed inventory and analysis available as yet for the Persian Gulf, but based upon our on-going Harvard University investigations to date – and those published by ROPME or reviews of the master-plans for various regional cities and major projects – the following observations and impacts can be made generically about the prospects for the Persian Gulf region:

1. The marine ecosystem will reach its ‘tipping point’ in terms of pollution in the near future due to the four primary causes discussed earlier.5 The mitigating steps proposed by ROPME include:

– Conservation and restoration of the marshlands of Lower Mesopotamia

– Integrated management guidelines for coastal areas and legislation to harmonize development activities in these coastal zones, with its member states pledging to prevent, abate and combat further pollution from land-based building activities.

– MARPOL Convention to be ratified by member states to prevent further pollution from ships.

– Legislation for the conservation of biodiversity and the establishment of protected areas to prevent increasing mortality of fish and coral.

– Attention needed to the rise in sea-level and water temperature which are increasingly threatening the marshes and mangroves that protect coastlines and support healthy ecosystems.


16.3 Fire plumes of Kuwaiti oil fires in 1991

2. Built environments will need to avoid building in the coastal intertidal zones to protect biodiversity, and they must adopt more sustainable development strategies for water desalination, power generation, sewage and waste disposal. The estimated sea-level rises of 600 mm over the next decades and storm surges will only increase the threats to coastal development and infrastructure.

3. Transportation strategies are already under way to build major port facilities and a regional rail system. Within the regional cities, there need to be more mass transit networks and greater use of alternative energy systems for vehicles planned, plus the development of protected, shaded, cooler microclimates to encourage greater pedestrian movement.

4. Agriculture will face problems from increasing heat, pests, weeds and water scarcity. So there needs to be an encouragement of alternative agricultural systems, such as hydroponics, especially in close proximity to urban settlements. More effective approaches to saving water in agriculture must be legislated for.

5. Socio-cultural patterns exhibit many unresolved socio-demographic dynamics in the Persian Gulf region, and these need to be considered. In the GCC countries, the majority of the residents are expatriates of widely diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds, with more than 70 per cent of the work force being non-nationals. However, in these lands of great prosperity, many of these expatriates live in poverty. Expatriates do not have citizenship status and associated rights, with limits to freely perpetuating their respective social and cultural values and personal dreams of self-realization, while they are also actively building the global, branded ‘Images of Unlimited Prosperity’ in these new lands.

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Oct 25, 2020 | Posted by in General Engineering | Comments Off on Sustainable Identity: New Paradigms for the Persian Gulf
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