Is Oman's 'smart city' a model for sustainable development?
For the Arab world, this summer’s headlines about climate change mitigation and the consequences of global warming hardly inspire hope.
Nonetheless, bright spots have emerged in a few of the more news-averse corners of the Middle East. Oman, a sultanate with a strong record on environmental protection, is redoubling its commitment to renewable energy and innovation.
"The smart city will incorporate solar power and water recycling as well as electric vehicles and waste-to-energy plants"
CNN reported on August 17 that the sultanate intends to establish an eco-friendly smart city near the Omani capital of Muscat under the name “Sultan Haitham City.” The CNN article cited a plan drawn up by the American architectural firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, also known as “SOM.” According to the SOM document, Sultan Haitham City will house 100,000 people in 20,000 homes spread over 19 neighbourhoods and 14.8 square kilometres.
The SOM plan places at the forefront many of the features that will integrate Sultan Haitham City into Oman’s wider campaign to transition to renewable energy.
The smart city will incorporate solar power and water recycling as well as electric vehicles and waste-to-energy plants. A SOM executive also told CNN that Sultan Haitham City will employ technology to “monitor environmental factors such as air quality and water management,” a key component of the architectural firm’s ambitious blueprint for a project with a minimal “ecological footprint.”
Much about Sultan Haitham City remains up in the air or will require years to put into action. SOM’s plan indicates that the initial stage of development will take until the end of the decade, with the completion of the project set for 2045.
At the same time, SOM offered little detail on the percentage of the smart city’s energy consumption covered by renewable resources. The architectural firm only made a passing reference to Oman’s wider goal of meeting 30 percent of its needs with renewable energy by 2030, well before Sultan Haitham City reaches full capacity.
The extended timeline and vague metrics leave Oman well behind its neighbors. Saudi Arabia announced plans for its better-known smart city, Neom, six years ago. The $500 billion Saudi project will derive all its electricity from renewable energy, will host 9 million people, and hoped to wrap up its first phase by 2025—though it has since run into delays.
The United Arab Emirates has trumpeted its well-received efforts to convert Abu Dhabi and Dubai into smart cities with projects such as Masdar City, which the country calls “the first attempt in the Middle East to build a sustainable city.”
This year, the International Institute for Management Development gave Abu Dhabi the highest ranking of any city in the Middle East and North Africa in its annual “Smart City Index” report. Except for Dubai, no other city in the region reached the top 20. Muscat ranked 96th, compared to the Saudi capital, Riyadh, at 30th.
This disparity derives from a simple economic reality: Oman has fewer petroleum reservoirs than Saudi Arabia and the UAE, meaning less money, and will exhaust its supply sooner. Oman produced 1.064 million barrels of oil a day in 2022, versus 4.02 million for the UAE and 12.136 million for Saudi Arabia, according to a report released earlier this year by the Energy Institute.
With less oil to pump, Oman’s attempt to escape the resource curse becomes that much more urgent. Sultan Haitham City falls under the umbrella of Oman Vision 2040, a development plan mapping the sultanate’s ambition to move away from its reliance on the petroleum industry and plot a future rooted in economic diversity and sustainability.
A “vision document” outlining the development plan notes, “The future strategy in natural resource management will focus on developing nontraditional sources of natural resources, such as the use of renewable energy to reduce production cost and subsequently enhance the competitiveness of economic sectors.”
The Oman Vision 2040 document emphasizes the importance of bracing urban areas for “climate change effects,” an issue that Omani officials have put front and centre. In July, Oman’s foreign minister stressed the requirement for “more action” on climate change during a visit to Italy, lamenting, “But still the world is moving far too slowly.”
SOM factored the side effects of climate change into its plan. The design of Sultan Haitham City prioritizes materials that create shade and encourage ventilation, crucial in a country where temperatures reached 50 degrees Celsius this summer. The smart city will also feature a dry river to absorb floods, which have grown more common in recent decades.
Oman has found a capable partner in SOM, whose August 22 press release called Sultan Haitham City “a new model for sustainable development.” The architectural firm designed Dubai’s best-known tourist attraction, the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.
Though Sultan Haitham City seems unlikely to achieve a similar level of fame, the smart city showcases to the world Oman’s commitment to sustainable development—or it will, in 2045.