Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City was hailed as a city of the future when the Gulf state’s rulers decided to plough $22 billion into a carbon-neutral, waste-free green technology centre in the desert outside the city in 2006.
But three years and billions of petrodollars later, the city’s reputation has failed to live up to the hype Abu Dhabi and its PR companies initially drummed up. The United Arab Emirates is one of the world’s worst carbon emitters per capita, hence the need for image management.
Despite all this, a few years ago, critics still marvelled at Masdar City’s innovation:
Nonetheless the project remains a fascinating, and rare, example of innovation in a region which, according to experts, burns too much energy and where recycling is in its infancy,” wrote James Drummond, a former reporter for the Financial Times in a 2010 article.
With so many of Masdar’s planned business segments loss-making, it’s no surprise the company has had to slash its budget and cut jobs, especially considering the firm hired among the most talented energy thinkers in the Middle East.
But those who survived the job cuts have been dropping like flies, leaving the company for new pastures. Earlier this month the International Renewable Energy Agency appointed as deputy director general Frank Wouters, formerly head of the power unit at Masdar.
The original design barred conventional vehicles from the walled perimeter. Visitors who drove up to Masdar would park their cars and hop into a “personal rapid transit,” or PRT, pod. Those vehicles, driverless and all-electric, would pilot passengers robotically, guided by magnets embedded in the roadway, wrote Jenny Mandell in this International Herald Tribune report.
Now the energy firm is looking to make investments in neighbouring Saudi Arabia for the first time.
“Like we have been doing the past few years in the UAE, they have realized now in Saudi that by including renewable energy in their portfolio, it will save energy and impact exporting capacities,” said Sultan Al Jaber, chief executive of Masdar told the International Herald Tribune’s Sara Hamdan.
But even this relatively safe news could be a sign of how the UAE company has struggled to find companies to invest in on its home turf.
Masdar Capital has struggled to find other UAE companies in which to invest and at one point last year had only one UAE firm on the books, April Yee, energy reporter at The National newspaper reported back in 2011.
For now, Masdar’s biggest boast has been its success in solar arrays, the smattering of alternative energy companies it has lured to Abu Dhabi and its creation of a university in conjunction with MIT that has been known for its high quality research.
Masdar has also has attracted big name multinationals and has gotten itself involved in a number of prestige projects thanks to its big budget, such as the London Array and a 24-hour solar plant in Spain.
What is clear, however, is that Masdar’s innovation only goes as far as the futuristic artist’s rendering. It remains the UAE’s biggest pipe dream.