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Is the Gulf’s real estate ready for a net-zero challenge?

Article-Is the Gulf’s real estate ready for a net-zero challenge?

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The construction industry is booming across the Gulf region and has become the leading economic driver for the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other local economies. Such rapid expansion has come with a price—a high carbon footprint. This status quo, though, is likely to change soon. Cityscape Intelligence investigates

With a new set of policies announced across the region, traditional carbon-intensive construction and property management methods will soon become a thing of the past. Carbon-cutting ambitions could become a real game changer for the industry.


The UAE pledged to achieve a net zero status nationwide by 2050 with a $163 billion investment in renewable technology. Saudi Arabia committed to slashing its emissions to zero by 2060 with a $180 billion investment. Bahrain is set to cut 30% of its emission by 2035 and go carbon neutral by 2060.

Real estate has a great role to play in the region’s carbon neutrality plans as going net zero will not be possible without ‘greening’ buildings. The new ambitious targets create opportunities for forward-thinking developers, but there are still barriers to overcome before sustainable construction becomes mainstream across the Gulf region.


Although the Middle East is the home of the most spectacular sustainable projects, like Sheikh Khalifa Medical City, Lattice-Domed Parliament, or The Irena Building in Masdar, to name a few, the real estate sector in the region still has a long way to go to embrace sustainability in full and achieve the net zero status.

And even though governments are trying to drive the concept of sustainable development, such attempts are often met with a lack of interest or even pushback from real estate developers.

What are the major roadblocks to the sustainability movement in the region? To find out, researchers from the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka and Ted Jacob Engineering Group (Dubai Branch) conducted a survey of experienced construction professionals—such as project engineers, architects, quantity surveyors, and clients—involved in the UAE-based building projects.

Not surprisingly, the cost of building ‘green’ is the major barrier. At present, both local and international construction companies in the Gulf region are predominantly prioritizing profits over environmental benefits. In most construction practices, it is believed that incorporating sustainable design principles and solutions is likely to increase the cost of final products, thus

affecting the end-user clients and the overall market. In fact, nearly 80% of the respondents said that the cost of constructing and maintaining sustainable buildings is too high compared to conventional projects.

And this is often the case. Building ‘green’ frequently requires replacing traditional and widely available building materials with environmentally-friendly alternatives, featuring lower embodied carbon. Such materials are not only more expensive but often have to be transported to the site from far places, increasing costs. Hiring highly qualified staff to design and execute such projects can also make projects more expensive. “The economic situation of my company is not good enough to consider sustainability,” industry professionals claimed. 

The lack of market for sustainable homes in the region is another problem developers face.  The benefits, such as lower energy and water usage, less noise, and minimized air pollution, are yet to be fully understood and appreciated by potential homeowners. However, it seems like a shift in attitude has already started. According to a recent survey conducted by Taqeef, 47% of the UAE residents aim to make their homes as environmentally friendly as possible.

The lack of “know-how” is another factor. Several industry professionals and stakeholders are eager to implement sustainable construction practices but feel they lack adequate knowledge

of sustainable building practices and technologies. Moreover, construction professionals were demotivated by a lack of adequate information, problems with managing scarce resources, waste management, and compliance with taxation and regulatory frameworks.


Even before announcing the 2050 net zero commitment, the UAE government has made efforts to ensure a sustainable building environment by introducing specific requirements (building codes) for newly constructed properties. 

Estidama Pearl Rating System in Abu Dhabi mandates all new constructions to achieve a minimum of Pearl 1 certification. The sustainability requirements for government buildings are even higher (Pearl 2), while all projects in Masdar City, a sustainable community outside the capital, must meet Pearl Level 3 requirements.

Dubai Municipality has issued the Green Building Regulations and Specifications for all new buildings, later strengthened with Al Sa’fat building rating system. With ambitious carbon reduction targets, other municipalities are likely to follow suit, while the existing codes are likely to be reinforced even further.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia aims to be the largest investor in sustainable buildings globally. To achieve this goal, the Mostadam rating and certification system was developed to increase energy and water efficiency and promote the use of renewable energy and other sustainability solutions across the existing and newly constructed building stock across the country.


The high carbon footprint of the buildings in the region results from using concrete in construction, with heating and cooling playing an equally important role. According to researchers from the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom, who studied domestic buildings in Saudi Arabia, it is possible to slash carbon impact from construction materials by 23% by replacing a fraction of cement with pulverized fly ash or ground granulated blast furnace slag. Applying reused steel structures for new constructions has proven to slash carbon footprint by 20%.

Due to climate conditions, lots of energy in buildings are consumed by cooling systems. In Saudi Arabia, for example, cooling accounts for around 70% of household electrical demands during the summer months and consumes half of the country’s electricity production. A reduction of 19% in annual cooling and heating energy demand can be achieved by increasing insulation and using triple-glazed windows with PVC frames (instead of aluminum ones).

Applying solar energy solutions could bring the building’s carbon footprint score to net zero.

These methods are certainly not “fit-for-all”. Every project must be evaluated individually, considering factors like building type, materials availability, predicted energy demand, and public acceptance of the proposed sustainable solutions.


If net zero targets are to be met, the construction industry must raise the game and fully integrate sustainable practices into its business model. The time to act is now.

Developers bidding on government-funded projects would be particularly affected by reinforced sustainability requirements. Those lagging behind, relying on traditional, carbon-intensive building methods and materials are soon likely to lose chances to win lucrative government contracts and be outperformed by more progressive developers.


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