Around two-thirds of the population in the Middle East and North Africa lives in urban settlements, exceeding the global average of 55%, and these areas account for about 78% of energy use and more than 60% of greenhouse gas emissions. By 2050, the region’s population is projected to double, exposing an increasing number of people to intensifying natural and climate hazards and putting countless lives at risk. As a result, cities will need to take additional steps to boost climate resilience and advance decarbonization efforts, including through climate-informed urban planning measures like compact, transit-oriented development, urban greening initiatives, and a focus on green buildings. With this in mind, regional governments have recently adopted the concept of “smart cities,” aiming to utilize technology and green practices to offer solutions to the challenges of urbanization, enable sustainable living in climate-resilient and digitally interconnected cities, and improve the quality of life for their residents.

Smart cities rely on a diverse tech ecosystem that includes technologies like cloud computing, dashboards, machine learning, and machine-to-machine communication, among others, to deliver connectivity, efficiency, and improved services for their residents. In addition to being high-tech, these cities also emphasize sustainability, relying on technological solutions like smart grids, energy-efficient buildings, sustainable mobility systems, and environmental monitoring via smart sensors and crowd sourcing to strengthen their capacity to address climate change. Specifically, smart cities offer environmental benefits like reduced energy consumption, stabilization of water use, and better control of carbon emissions. In this regard, the integrative and technologically driven urban planning of energy supply, waste management, renewable energy use, energy efficiency, and transport infrastructure could help to reduce overall energy consumption and alleviate global warming.

Climate-smart cities and the promise of tech- and data-driven solutions to urban challenges

The above-mentioned objectives are reflected in a number of smart city initiatives launched across the MENA region in recent years. For example, in the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City, first announced in 2006, is marketed as a frontrunner for smart city development, built from scratch under the greenfield model. Masdar City was envisioned as the world’s first carbon-neutral city, producing minimal waste and zero carbon emissions. Backed by $20 billion in funding from the government of Abu Dhabi, the city was planned to be home to 50,000 residents and 1,500 businesses upon its completion at the end of 2025. In line with Masdar’s sustainability vision, 90% of its buildings are constructed using low-carbon cement and designed to consume 40% less water and energy. The energy supply is provided by on-site renewable energy plants and managed using smart technologies that collect and analyze real-time consumption data, enabling a more effective response to changes in demand. In addition, the city is connected by a smart transportation network, including the world’s first driverless personal rapid transport system, MENA's first autonomous shuttle, and the first electric eco-bus.

Even more ambitious is Saudi Arabia’s Neom, a futuristic mega-city planned for construction in the kingdom’s northwest at the staggering cost of $500 billion. Launched in 2017, the project consists of four regions, including the Line, a smart city that extends for 170 km, is encased in mirrored walls, and will feature an automated transportation system that includes air taxis and a high-speed rail network. The whole city is meant to be run entirely on renewable energy with artificial intelligence (AI) matching energy production from solar photovoltaics, solar thermal energy, wind energy, and battery energy storage against needs. According to the project plans, all businesses and communities in the Line will be hyperconnected thanks to a digital architecture that integrates AI and robotics into all aspects of citizens’ daily lives.

On the other side of the region in Morocco, the Mohammed VI Green City in Benguerir, located 50 km from Marrakech, was established in 2010 with the aim of transforming a phosphate mining town into a sustainable urban center that connects the north and the south of the kingdom. The city is marketed as an innovation hub that relies on digitally driven services and climate friendly infrastructure. Its smart and climate-resilient urban planning is designed to reduce energy use and the environmental footprint, support a low-carbon economy, and improve service delivery and quality of life for residents.

Techno-optimism does not guarantee sustainable urban living

All of these smart cities promise a lot when it comes to addressing complex urban challenges, tackling climate change, and developing resilient, sustainable communities. From waste management to traffic monitoring, automated transportation systems to energy-saving buildings, every aspect of urban life is expected to improve through innovative technological solutions that use data gathered from citizens, devices, and assets to improve decision-making. However, the transformative capacity of data-driven solutions does not necessarily result in sustainable and climate-resilient urban living, and there are significant challenges to realizing these objectives.

One such challenge is the overreliance on digital technologies in smart cities, whose development requires large quantities of scarce materials like rare earth and critical minerals, and therefore comes at a great environmental cost, perpetuating the ongoing dynamics of ecological decline and green extractivism. For example, the Masdar Initiative encourages its customers to consume high-tech products whose commercialization requires intense processes of extraction, production, and distribution. In this regard, growing demand for the critical minerals needed to manufacture smart grids and other technological devices means new mines, processing facilities, and refineries, all of which generate intensive carbon emissions, resulting in potential harm to the environment, workers, and communities. Furthermore, the rising demand for critical minerals like platinum, lithium, nickel, and zinc, among others, contrasts with their highly inelastic and fragile supply. The reserves of such materials are often found in developing and highly underdeveloped countries, where mining has historically been associated with negative community impacts and served as a trigger for civil conflicts. The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that over of 90% of platinum reserves, 80% of lithium projects, and more than half of nickel, copper, and zinc projects needed for the energy transition are located in or near the territory of indigenous peoples or on rural farmland facing issues with environmental degradation, water scarcity, and conflict. In the case of Neom, experts believe that critical minerals like lithium, cobalt, and nickel will be key for manufacturing and powering electric vehicles, wind turbines, solar panels, and other technologies central to the clean energy transition.

Critics have also voiced considerable environmental concerns about Neom’s long-term sustainability. Given the city’s architectural design, it is questionable how a perfectly straight city will cut through a mountainous desert without dramatically affecting the surrounding flora, fauna, and other ecosystems. In addition, critics have questioned the feasibility of Neom’s lofty goal of using 100% renewable energy. Saudi Arabia produced about 9 million barrels of oil per day last year, enough to meet almost 10% of the world’s demand, and fell 25.8 gigawatts short of its 2023 renewables target, adding an average of 0.1 gigawatts of renewable capacity per annum over the last decade. Therefore, it is hard to imagine how a country that is still a large oil producer will manage to achieve its ambitious net-zero and sustainability goals.

Moreover, Neom’s attempt to achieve water sufficiency, which has historically been problematic as half of the country’s water is produced through energy-intensive desalination, is also questionable. Neom announced its plan to focus on perfecting renewable energy desalination, with the goal of achieving 100% wastewater capture through treatment, recycling, and reuse. However, this technology first needs to be researched and properly understood, and should not be implemented at scale while so much uncertainty remains over its feasibility and potential consequences. In light of the financial and technical challenges that have cropped up with development of Neom, the Saudi government recently announced that it is scaling back its medium-term ambitions for the futuristic city, aiming for a target of housing about 300,000 residents by 2030 instead of the previously stated 1.5 million.

The critiques surrounding Neom exemplify the debate about “techno-optimistic” assumptions informing policymakers to endorse technological fixes like clean energy, carbon capture and storage, AI, and automation as silver bullets that can solve all of our ecological problems and save us from the climate crisis. This unwavering faith in the transformative capacity of technology to halt the climate crisis has overlooked the behavioral, cultural, and social factors that affect our economies, lifestyles, and climate action pathways. Furthermore, the dominance of these techno-optimistic narratives reinforces business-as-usual approaches to development, maintains the neoclassical economic model that governs the world’s largest economies (that emit the greatest share of carbon emissions), and strengthens the view that humans dominate nature and will always be able to address environmental problems using techno-scientific solutions.

 “Smart” is neither socially just nor inclusive

Another key challenge facing smart cities is their focus on developing technological innovation to address economic and environmental issues, with little or no attention paid to the social fabric and cultural setting. The outcome is a soulless city or, in the words of Augé, a non-place: a space bereft of identity and meaningful social connections, plagued by an extremely weak or inexistent society. For example, while every aspect of life in Masdar City is controlled by networked computers, from energy supply to communication, it has failed to attract the intended residential population. Originally designed for 50,000 people, only 6,000 citizens are living in Masdar City today, forming an urbanism that prioritizes digital technologies over real human connectivity, which is the essence of any community.

In terms of housing, the new district is designed to accommodate an elite from the clean-tech companies working with the Masdar Initiative and little attention has been paid to the development of affordable social housing. More specifically, 80% of housing in the city is aimed at investors and more privileged groups of residents, while the remaining 20% is left to low-income workers. The lack of affordable housing is much broader issue in Abu Dhabi, where large groups of low-paid workers share small apartments, while most of the real estate market is geared toward upper-middle-income and wealthy residents. Thus, the land use policies in Masdar overlook the housing needs of low-income people in a way that reproduces the problem of urban housing discrimination found outside the new district and reinforces already pervasive issues of economic and social inequality.

The newly branded “green tech” city is not for everyone

In Morocco, the narratives around the Mohammed VI Green City perpetuate the city’s context, stemming from its dysfunctional planning and development process. In the absence of an overarching regulatory framework and clearly articulated urban planning policy, the availability of a large enough land area was purportedly the main reason for the choice of the new city’s location. In reality, however, the land on which the new city was developed used to be a mining site that belongs to a Moroccan state-owned phosphate mining company. With an eye toward promoting the sustainable development of mining territories and establishing its green “credentials,” the company decided to make use of its large land reserves in mining towns. Inside the city there are number of gated communities, accommodating different social classes, including local people who have moved from urban centers, researchers, and engineers. These residential gated communities have clear boundaries, underscoring not only their physical division but also enforcing social segregation.

Furthermore, the city is criticized for being sealed off from the surrounding areas, resulting in a considerable contrast between the “hyper-sophisticated” urbanization of the new city, driven by technical and technological advances, and the nearby city of Benguerir, which was until recently a small agglomeration of rural communities based around mining sites. The city was promoted as a sustainable transition from the old mining city, equipping it with climate-adaptive green infrastructure. However, such urban green transformation raises the risks of real estate speculation, rising housing costs, and a widening social gap between the area’s old residents (miners and workers) and its new ones, ultimately serving as a driver of green gentrification. Consequently, disregarding social equity when carrying out urban greening initiatives results in physical and cultural displacement of vulnerable groups that are unable to adapt to the increased costs of living and creates new privileged green enclaves that are tailored to the needs of middle-class and wealthy residents.

Conclusion: To be “smart” is to leave no one behind

Although marketed as cities of the future, a closer look at the MENA region’s branded smart cities makes it clear that data-driven and climate-resilient infrastructure and services don’t guarantee sustainable, socially inclusive, and prosperous urban developments. The techno-optimist views that portray these seemingly wondrous technologies as silver bullets for all of our urban problems, including climate change, only stymie the political will needed to rethink our global capitalistic economies, which thrive on the extraction and manufacturing of natural resources, and undermine broader efforts to end business-as-usual approaches to development. Equally important, urban visionaries need to understand that a city can hardly be called “smart” if it is only planned based on market research and ecological assessments without taking into account the intricate social fabric and connections upon which urban life depends. It is true that technology offers tremendous opportunities to tackle urban and environmental problems at scale. However, this technology needs to be harnessed in a way that makes existing urban systems and cities more efficient and environmentally sustainable, enriching the lives of citizens and ensuring equality, transparency, and inclusion. More importantly, political leaders in the MENA region need to ask themselves: Do we truly need to invest such huge amounts of capital and resources in unproven technologies and the creation of new cities, or should we instead rethink our development plans, businesses practices, and way of living to ensure a just green transition — one that contextualizes environmental issues alongside multidimensional racial, social, and economic concerns?


Zeina Moneer holds a PhD in environmental politics from Freiburg University in Germany and her research interests include environmental movements, environmental justice, environmental communication, international polices of climate change negotiations and adaption, and sustainability transition with a particular focus on the MENA region. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of entities, institutions, or organizations with which the author may be associated.

Photo by Christopher Pike/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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