When people think of the Middle East and environmental issues, often the first thing that comes to mind is the scarcity of water. The region is home to 6.3% of the world's population, but only has access to 2% of its renewable fresh water, a problem which is exacerbated by climate change.1 Of course, water scarcity is not the only environmental challenge in the region; perhaps the greatest environmental impact comes from large scale construction – and particularly land reclamation – projects.
Land reclamation is big business in the Middle East. Since the 1970s, many new mixed-use developments have been built on the sands of the Arabian Gulf using reclaimed land. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the pioneers of land reclamation in the region and are today the two biggest players in the Middle East construction market. Although it is hard to specify the exact figure, researchers tend to agree that nearly 40% of the Gulf coast has been reshaped through construction projects.
Construction in the UAE underpins its economic growth, with over 6000 construction projects currently ongoing, worth a combined USD90bn. More than one third of the private sector workforce in the UAE is working in the construction industry making it the biggest non-oil sector in the country. As Dubai's population is expected to grow from 3.3 million to 5.8 million from 2020 to 2040, so will demand for housing, health and education amenities, transport and utility infrastructure – and land reclamation projects.2
The city of Dubai is home to some of the world's largest land reclamation projects, partly due to both a shortage of land and a growing population. Waterside apartments are more popular and lucrative than those built in deserts and the growth of tourism over the last two decades has increased the demand for coastal hotels. The success of the original Palm Jumeirah project, built by Dubai-based Nakheel in the early 2000s, quickly inspired plans for similar projects such as Palm Jebel Ali, Palm Deira and the World Islands (a group of artificial islands constructed in the shape of a world map). These projects were mothballed for several years during the financial crisis and the subsequent downturn in the Dubai property market, but they are making a comeback – again led by Nakheel, supported by various specialised contracts such as Van Oord Middle East Limited and Gulf Cobla LLC.
But land reclamation is not without its detractors; Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund have criticised Dubai's artificial island projects due to their high environmental cost. Land reclamation has increased demand for rock and similar materials, often sourced from the Hajar Mountains in the UAE. Quarrying these materials threatens the lives of many species including the Arabian tahr, a goat-like animal that lives in the mountains, and the sweetwater wadi fish.
The survival of dugongs – a marine mammal which grazes on sea grasses in shallow coastal waters – is also at risk. The development of coastal areas in the UAE, home to the second largest population of dugongs after Australia, is severely limiting the growth of sea grasses and, worryingly, nearly a 25% drop in the population of dugongs since 1950 is reported.
In 2010, the International Space Station also issued a warning. Their concern is about the rising water levels in the Arabian Gulf which is endangering the man-made islands. The Abu Dhabi Environment Agency predicts that sea levels could rise by 9 metres in the worst-case scenario of climate change. According to NASA, Palm Jumeirah is sinking at a rate of five millimetres per year.
Saudi Arabia’s construction industry is the biggest in the Middle East and one of the largest in the world. Currently, there are approximately 3,500 active projects worth USD120bn accounting for half of all construction projects in Gulf. The industry employs a quarter of Saudi’s private sector workforce, accounts for 14% of total energy consumption and contributes 6% of GDP.3
Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 programme, which aims to diversify Saudi Arabia's economy from oil, is drawing new investment into the construction industry in the country. The total local investment is expected to reach SAR 3 trillion (USD800bn) by 2030, with USD220bn earmarked to transform Riyadh into a global city by the same year.
Most Saudi land reclamation projects focus on the eastern seaboard, especially the area from Tarut Island to Dammam, where almost 7,000 hectares of land have been reclaimed from the sea. Tarut Island – once the largest Saudi-owned island in the Arabian Gulf – is now no longer an island by virtue of a reclaimed connection to the mainland. On Saudi’s opposite coast, the city of Jeddah is also experiencing large scale development through land reclamation.
Oxagon, a 7-kilometre wide, floating city which will form part of the NEOM4 development, is the most recently launched land reclamation project in the Kingdom. Conceived to be the largest floating structure in the world, it aims to house 90,000 residents by 2030.
Like the UAE, the private sector plays a vital and dominant role in land development projects in Saudi Arabia. Although they receive technical and practical help from international construction companies, most contractors that engage in construction and land reclamation projects in Saudi Arabia are local Saudi companies such as Saudi Bin Ladin Group and Al Kifah Holding Company.
Land reclamation has led to major changes in Saudi’s coastal and marine habitats and has caused an increase in sedimentation, negatively affecting the well-being of coral reefs and the habitat of several species of marine turtles and fish. As a result of the loss of marine life, the amount of Saudi fishing from the Arabian Gulf has declined from 26,000 tonnes in 1998 to current levels of 21,000 tonnes – all of which has a real impact on the livelihoods of Saudi fishermen.
Despite the criticism and human costs, large-scale land reclamation in the UAE and Saudi Arabia continues unabated. Entire new islands, hotels, and commercial zones are being built where the water of the Gulf once flowed. While the growth of the construction sector seems inevitable, careful planning is needed to manage the extent of environmental and human impact both locally and further afield.