The World the Gulf Has Built | Public Books
One of the most notable instances of the GCC’s innovative urban policy is the establishment of Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City. Masdar is a planned city, launched in 2006, with a slated cost of $22 billion. It was intended to be a “zero-carbon” district, where cars were prohibited in favor of an automated personal rapid transport network. It also included a graduate research center, the Masdar Institute, established in collaboration with #MIT and focused on renewable energy.
But Masdar City was short-lived. Soon after the financial crisis of 2008, the master plan was reformulated. Since then, it has been slowly transformed from an “eco-city” to a special economic zone for renewable energy and clean technology companies. (…)
In Spaceship in the Desert, Gökçe Günel zeroes in on Masdar City. Günel is determined to take Masdar and its inhabitants seriously: she wants to understand how cosmopolitan actors such as “Jack,” who has a PhD in engineering science and is an American faculty member at the Masdar Institute, “set about the task of building a renewable energy and clean technology sector.” People like Jack and institutions like MIT will be central to any resolution of our current state of climate emergency, and it’s necessary to study their process. Jack’s training in the GCC model of green development is especially consequential, because renewable energy and clean technology—the Masdar way—also relied on cheap labor and the speed, capital, and efficiency that authoritarian rule lent to the project. These political dynamics, Günel shows, were not only left unaddressed at Masdar; they were actively buried.
Avoiding pressing social and political injustices is not something that is specific to the founders of Masdar or the UAE, as Günel is also keen to stress. Western companies like Siemens and General Electric were equally adept at sidestepping difficult social and ethical issues. These companies created fantastical images of the future at Masdar where, as Günel writes, “renewable energy and clean technology companies embodied a messianic promise, seeking to liberate humanity from its guilt-ridden consciousness of the twentieth century.” The global climate crisis is serious, but Günel shows that our attempts to tackle it are less so.