Insight: Middle East Leads the Way in Creating Sustainable Built Environments

Insight: Middle East Leads the Way in Creating Sustainable Built Environments

Worries over climate change and increased knowledge of the benefits of sustainable design, are fueling sustainability in built environments

Sustainability in the built environment is gaining importance as the Middle East tries to manage rapid urbanisation and economic development with the need to lessen adverse environmental effects and enhance long-term sustainability.

Numerous causes, including as rising energy costs, growing worries over climate change, and increased knowledge of the benefits of sustainable design, are fueling this movement.

In this article, we will look at how sustainability has affected the built environment in the Middle East and what these trends mean for the built environment of the future.

Green Building Standards

The Middle East's growing adoption of green building standards and certifications is one of the most evident consequences of sustainability on the region’s built environment.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are just a few Middle Eastern nations that have put in place green building regulations and certification programmes.

For example, in December 2022, the UAE Cabinet approved National Building Regulations and Standards to help decarbonize construction. The initiative aims to cut energy consumption in buildings by as much as 25% and water usage by 16%.

The most renowned example is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) accreditation, which supports sustainable building design, construction, and operation. Green-building regulations also created a clear path to decarbonize real estate.

The Estidama Pearl Rating System, for instance, is frequently used to evaluate the sustainability of buildings in the United Arab Emirates. Buildings are rated on a scale of one to five pearls with five pearls denoting the highest ranking.

To receive a high grade, a building must satisfy a number of requirements, such as energy efficiency, water conservation, indoor environment quality, and material usage, among others.

In September, 2022, the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) was awarded the LEED Certificate by the US Green Building Council (USGBC).

The Agency was awarded in recognition of its outstanding efforts in managing sustainable, healthy and environmentally friendly buildings and its application of sustainability standards in three of its facilities.

In November the same year, Agility, a supply chain services and logistics infrastructure company, announced that its warehouse at the Agility Logistics Park complex in Riyadh became the first building in Saudi Arabia to receive EDGE Advanced certification as a green building.

EDGE (Excellence in Design for Greater Efficiencies) is the global standard for energy-efficient buildings, a certification system overseen by the International Finance Corp. (IFC), an arm of the World Bank.

Basic certification requires a minimum projected reduction of 20% energy use, water use and “embodied energy” in materials as benchmarked against a standard local building.

Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency is one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to combat climate change, and reduce energy costs for consumers. With a significant portion of energy consumption attributed to buildings, there is an increasing emphasis on energy efficiency in the Middle East.

This includes the adoption of energy-efficient technologies, such as LED lighting, smart controls, and efficient HVAC systems, to reduce energy consumption and associated greenhouse gas emissions.

Energy efficiency is also a vital component in achieving net-zero emissions of carbon dioxide through decarbonization.

Speaking at the Future of Sustainability Conference, organised by SME, Regional Director, Sustainability - MEA, Johnson Controls, Mr Rohan Chopra said: "Globally, buildings contribute for than 40% of the global carbon emissions and one of the taken for granted area is the indoor space.

"Indoor space is a big component which is seldom considered. There is enough technology available in the market which needs to be implemented to make built environment more sustainable."

Renewable Energy Integration

Renewable energy is energy produced from sources like the sun and wind that are naturally replenished and do not run out.

Renewable energy can be used for electricity generation, space and water heating and cooling, and transportation. Non-renewable energy, in contrast, comes from finite sources that could get used up, such as fossil fuels like coal and oil.

The Middle East has substantial renewable energy resources, particularly solar power.

Governments and developers in the region are increasingly incorporating renewable energy solutions, such as solar panels and concentrated solar power systems, into building designs to generate clean and sustainable energy.

The UAE, for example, has set a goal of generating 40% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 and has launched a number of projects to promote the use of renewable energy in the built environment.

Net metering rules, which allow building owners to sell excess renewable energy back to the grid, and the Abu Dhabi Sustainable Finance Framework, which provides financial incentives for the development of renewable energy projects, are two such examples.

Sustainable Urban Planning

Many cities in the Middle East are adopting sustainable urban planning principles to enhance livability, reduce congestion, and minimize environmental impacts.

New buildings in the region are being planned to be more compact and walkable, with an emphasis on mixed-use and mixed-income housing.

These kinds of developments can help reduce dependency on automobiles and promote other environmentally friendly modes of transportation, such as walking and biking.

The Line, Saudi Arabia’s US$500-billion mega-city project NEOM, will make use of artificial intelligence technology to the fullest. According to NEOM CEO, Nadhmi Al Nasr, THE LINE aims to accommodate over 10 million people and will be monitored and enabled by AI technologies.

NEOM, a futuristic marvel will run on 100% renewable energy and prioritize people's health and well-being over transportation and infrastructure as in traditional cities. It puts nature ahead of development and will contribute to preserving 95% of NEOM’s land.

Water Conservation

Water scarcity is a significant concern in the Middle East. Sustainable building practices focus on reducing water consumption through measures like efficient plumbing fixtures, greywater recycling systems, and the use of native and drought-tolerant landscaping.

Addressing the UN 2023 Water Conference in earlier this year, H.E Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri, UAE’s Minister of Climate Change and Environment, emphasised the importance of collaboration, data sharing and investment in achieving global solutions for promoting water sustainability.

Her Excellency said: “The challenges (pertaining to water) that were once seen as relevant only for desert countries or small island development states are now being experienced by a growing number of countries to the tune of nearly 2 billion people.

“There is, thankfully, a flip side to these challenges – investment and action, on water supply ecosystem health and food systems have never had higher returns."

Waste Management

Managing construction and operational waste is an essential aspect of sustainable building practices.

The UAE is on track to reduce total water consumption by its food sector by more than 15% despite doubling production by 2030.

On July 4, H.H Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai inaugurated the world’s largest and most efficient waste-to-energy facility in Warsan area of the emirate.

The project will be built with an investment of US$1.10 billion and can process around 2 million tonnes of waste per year.

Sustainable Retrofitting

With an ambitious Building Retrofit Programme in place, Dubai aims to retrofit 30,000 buildings by the end of 2030. Since launching the programme in 2015, 8,000 buildings have been retrofitted, including 7,791 government buildings.

At the 77th meeting of the Dubai Supreme Council of Energy (DSCE), Chairman H.H. Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum reviewed the performance of the Building Retrofit Programme.

Elements related to air conditioning, lighting, building structure and rooftop solar power systems were discussed in detail at the meeting.

Collaborative Initiatives

Various collaborations and partnerships between governments, organizations, and international entities are working towards advancing sustainability in the built environment.

Speaking at SME's Future of Sustainability Conference, Maria Flouda, Founder and Managing Consultant, Sustainability Switch Consultancy said: "In the built environment, the key to sustainability lies in the concept and designing stage.

"The problem is that each stage of setting up a built environment is isolated.

“A good solution for this is bringing along the end user with the operation and facility management, and designer from the initial stage of the project.”

Sustainability in the built environment is gaining momentum in the Middle East as stakeholders recognize the importance of creating environmentally friendly, energy-efficient, and livable spaces to support long-term sustainable development in the region.


We live in and spend the majority of our time in the built environment. It is an essential sector for the economy, contributing around 10% of the world's GDP, but it is also a major contributor to emissions, resource usage, and land use change in a variety of industries.

According to a study by Dubai-based ZāZEN Properties, 80% of investors in the UAE’s real estate sector are now prioritising sustainability, while the sentiment among foreign investors is similar; 70% are willing to pay a premium for sustainable properties.

Due to rapidly expanding cities in emerging economies and altered family forms and ageing populations in industrialised economies, the globe will require a significant expansion of urban infrastructure in the ensuing decades.

Most governments in the Middle East have realized this and have passed several laws and regulations to move quickly towards a built environment that is net-zero , circular, healthy, inclusive, and resilient.

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