City Branding, Sustainable Urban Development and the Rentier State. How Do Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai Present Themselves in the Age of Post Oil and Global Warming?

WM (Martin) de Jong, Thomas Hoppe, Negar Noori*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

39 Citations (Scopus)


In the past three decades Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai have realised a meteoric economic rise. Whereas the former two can be considered 'rentier states' heavily depending on oil (and gas) revenues, the latter only leans on oil for a mere 6% of its gross domestic product (GDP). Although the economic rise has brought considerable welfare, it has also led these emirates to attain the world's highest per capita carbon footprint. To address this problem Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai seem to have formulated policies with regard to sustainable urbanisation and adopted strong branding strategies to promote them internally and externally. In this paper we examine which steps have been taken to substantiate their claims to sustainable urbanisation, in branding as well as in actions taken towards implementation. We find that all three have been very active in branding their sustainable urbanisation policies, through visions and policy frameworks as well as prestigious development projects, but that the former is substantially more impressive than the latter. Results also show there is a difference between Abu Dhabi and Qatar on the one hand, and Dubai on the other. Dubai has large number of small 'free economic zones', academic institutions for developing a knowledge economy, and smart and/or sustainable urban neighbourhoods, while Qatar and Abu Dhabi have a small number of very large ones. From the three, it is currently Dubai which has taken the lead in this development, largely completing its industrial transition with vast economic diversification and urban expansion. However, across the board this has had little effect on its ecological footprint.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1657
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 30 Apr 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding: This research was funded by The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), with project number 467-14-153.

Funding Information:
The Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai governments all consider high-level research a key asset to their long-term technological development and find a highly educated population with the skills required for a thriving economy in the 21st century vital to mobilise the rising numbers of local youth. Among the three emirates, Qatar is the most outspoken on this matter and even made human development one of its four key priority areas. Both Qatar and Abu Dhabi explicitly mention the relevance of social, moral and religious values in the education system, while tolerance and cosmopolitan attitudes come more to the fore in the case of Dubai’s policy documents. In a similar vein as for economic diversification, special designated areas are sought that can function as receptacles for efforts to strengthen the national higher education system. The most famous one is ‘Education City’ in Qatar, in which elite international academic institutes were invited and on which $ US 2 billion was spent through the ‘Qatar Foundation’ (United Nations Global Compact, 2015). Established within this internationally oriented ‘Education City’ are campuses of Virginia Commonwealth University, Weill Cornell Medical College, Texas A&M University, Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Northwestern University and HEC Paris. Another large research and education programme, and one with a more national orientation, is ‘Qatar Science and Technology Park’, which received monetary resources from the Qatar National Research Fund. Qatar University, the main domestic university, is located there and still boasts higher student numbers than its international counterparts. In sum, Qatar is reported to spend around 9.3% of its total expenditure on education, which is clearly the highest in the Middle East/North Africa region [47]. Abu Dhabi has also found a sizeable number of international universities willing to set up subsidiaries within its borders, i.e., University of Strathclyde Business School, New York University, European International College, New York Institute of Technology, Paris Sorbonne University and Université Mohammed V-Agdal Abu Dhabi. The Abu Dhabi government targets its research funding mainly at the sectors microelectronics, health, culture and heritage and various forms of energy. The lion’s share of its funds for research and educational development is earmarked to the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST), funded by Abu Dhabi’s financial powerhouse, the Mubadala Investment Corporation. MIST is located within Masdar City, which historically was branded the first zero carbon town in the world. MIST, in which Massachusetts Institute of Technology plays an active role, targets the education and training of the future energy leaders in new specialized fields, it pushes R&D for technological innovation in sustainability, and supports the development of a knowledge-based economy [51]. Recent evidence ( and insights gained from our own fieldwork (site visit and interviews) suggest that its expansion has stalled in recent years, and that it no longer exists as an independent institute and has been integrated with Khalifa University and become a part of the regular Abu Dhabi higher education system. In addition to MIST, Abu Dhabi also has a number of domestic universities (Abu Dhabi University, Khalifa University, Al Ain University of Science and Technology) and the federal Zayed University, which has campuses in both Abu Dhabi and in Dubai. Dubai’s main higher education project is Dubai International Academic City, which has collected the highest number of international higher education institutes. However, as Table 4 shows, these academic institutes can all be found together in an area more or less the same size as Qatar’s Education City while the funds in Dubai are mostly derived from private sector investments. Dubai’s International Academic City lists academic institutes with lower positions on international rankings and is therefore far less significant as an attempt to grow a world-class high-tech innovation system than Qatar and Abu Dhabi.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 by the authors.

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