A Glistening skyline crowned by the towering jewel of Burj Khalifa. Pristine beaches, luxury shopping, bespoke experiences – luxury and commerce are what come to mind when we think about Dubai but in the past few years, the city’s branding has increasingly aligned itself with another city brand: sustainability.
With COP28 underway, Dubai has irrevocably cemented its sustainability city brand as thousands of delegates descend to the glitzy Dubai Expo City.
Dubai is not alone in this endeavor as most cities within the neoliberal framework are competing for creative and technical skills, tourism and investment; and now – establishing itself as the leader in the clean energy transition. However, as countries jostle for space as early adopters of clean energy and sustainability, there is a counter and rather insidious latent stubbornness about letting go of fossil fuel legacies.
Dubai’s transition: from business haven to sustainability leadership
Dubai transformed itself from a humble “sleepy fishing village” where residents' livelihood came mainly from the pearl trade to the bustling metropolis we know today. However, as the city didn’t strike its oil reserves till about 50 years ago – there is something more intricate at work that has landed Dubai into the world’s richest city.
Under the rulership of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who first undertook mega-infrastructure projects, launching Dubai’s first airport in 1960, Dubai started the process of diversifying its portfolio while reclaiming land along the Al Ras Waterfront in 1965. This injection of tourism added a blinding sheen of glamour to the reflective cityscape that is emblematic of Dubai today.
The city established its first free zone in 1985: the Jebel Ali Free Zone, still the largest in the world attracting thousands of businesses towards a tax-break haven.
Today, the promise of booming commerce and industry is not enough. Global creative capital demands an exigency towards its sustainability in the clean energy transition. As ESG metrics become industry standards for score-carding every industry, Dubai must establish itself as the hub of spatial and ideological “sustainability” to retain its world-class status in the transition.
In comes the Dubai Expo Center – a city within a city – a promise within a promise.
Dubai Expo Center’s reputation as this leader in global environmental discourse has seemingly been cemented as the 28th hosting city of the COP.
However, in doing so, there is an inadvertent criticism that has fallen on the efficacy of the forum altogether, putting a spotlight on the placelessness of Dubai and in turn, shining a light on the placelessness of the COP.
The concept of placelessness in Human Geography gained (place) and momentum in the 1970s when Edward Relph argued that accelerating capitalism was leading to the “casual eradication of distinctive places and the making of standardized landscapes that result from an insensitivity to the significance of place”, that is, placelessness (Relph 1976, Preface).
Identifying placelessness by (in)authenticity
When a city synonymous with excess and wealth touts itself as “sustainable” it is only natural for skepticism to move in. However, as with the fossil fuel industry, there is a fallacy that the industries and countries polluting the most, can somehow be the leaders in the clean energy transition —in not doing business-as-usual when their whole profitability has come from exploitation and setting the standard for business-as-usual.
While the onus is certainly on the biggest emitters and players, the credibility cannot be as capitalism has a funny way of recapitulating dissident frameworks and systems within its ambit – case in point: the ‘green economy’ positions more sustainable production and consumption as the silver bullet for saving the Earth. While green growth certainly has an important role to play in the clean energy transition, it is a mere piece in a mind-bogglingly complex jigsaw, industry leaders’ pivot towards the greening industry helping greenwash the real work that needs to be done multi-institutionally in the developed world.
However, more and more studies are showing that an increase in GDP does not help decrease poverty; rather, it widens wealth gaps. Leading economic anthropologist and seminal degrowth proponent, Jason Hickel’s research has time and again stated that the taken-for-granted notion since the 50 years of international development that ending poverty and economic growth are intrinsically connected and needed to balance the world is simply not true.
Oxfam’s report on global inequality has dropped multiple bombshells in the past few years. Most notably: the richest 1% own almost half the world’s wealth and the richest 1% account for more carbon emissions than the poorest 66%.
Of course not.
Dubai’s very origin story is based on its tax-haven status for the wealthy. According to Andrew Amoils, Head of Research at New World Wealth, Dubai's wealthy population is rapidly expanding. It is home to 13 billionaires, 202 centi-millionaires, and around 68,000 millionaires.
At COP27 in Egypt last year, around 315 private jet journeys took place. This year is projected to be worse as there are a higher number of “high-profile” delegates and in greater numbers. Rishi Sunak, David Cameron and King Charles are just three of the more than 70,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries.
The kicker: the UK prime minister, foreign secretary and king traveled in three separate private jets.
Such blatant crimes against the environment cannot be squarely put upon the hosting city for COP28 though. The UNFCCC has many powers and privileges of mandating rules and regulations for both the hosting country and delegates but has not yet put a policy in place for more sustainable travel to the conference, twenty-eight years later. One has to wonder – why don’t these forums and its delegates lead by example?
Thus, the sustainability brand of COP28 is a shallow edifice rather than an ingrained ethic or value, leading to a strong sense of placelessness due to perceived and lived inauthenticity. While this is the biggest COP in recent years, some regular delegates have chosen to sit this one out due to the inauthenticity of the hosting city.
Ethical considerations: opting out of COP
Rina Saeed, Pakistan’s foremost climate change journalist, who has been a fixture at COP since 2015 decided to sit this one out due to the conflict of interest of the organizers of COP28 and the war in Gaza. “It feels wrong to be talking about a crisis when there is another crisis happening literally next door and the UAE has had no change in ties with Israel,” vehemently shared Saeed.
The conflict of interest has been a first of its kind and a major point of discussion and contrition to the lead-up to COP28: Sultan Al Jaber is the chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) and president of the COP28 summit.
Right at the onset of COP28, Climate advocate and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore slammed the UAE and COP28 President al-Jaber in particular. He did not mince words:
"They are abusing the public's trust by naming the CEO of one of the largest and least responsible oil companies in the world as head of the COP," Gore said.
Al-Jaber’s appointment furthers the identity politics of Dubai as placeless and inauthentic, as the meanings given to the place by the city-marketers and organizers do not align with the meaning-making of delegates.
According to Relph, an authentic sense of place is “a direct and genuine experience of the entire complex of the identity of places—not mediated and distorted through a series of quite arbitrary social and intellectual fashions about how that experience should be, nor following stereotyped conventions” (Relph 1976, p. 64). While the conference can indeed manufacture sustainability by measures such as organic and vegan fare, being powered by solar energy, and being mindful of waste which delegates are rightfully celebrating, these are facilities for an event and not the modus operandi of the hosting city thus pervading an authentic sense of place and identity.
This is not the first time the place-identity of COP has been in question and the fear is, it may not be the last.
From brandscape of control to brandscape of sustainability
Last year Naomi Klein penned a piece in The Guardian sounding alarm bells regarding COP27 around the world. Aptly titled, “Greenwashing a police state: the truth behind Egypt’s Cop27 masquerade” the article called attention to the clear violations of human rights and imprisonment of activists in Egypt.
Klein interviewed Mohammed Rafi Arefin, assistant professor of geography at the University of British Columbia, who has researched urban environmental politics in Egypt, who pointed out that “every United Nations climate summit presents a complex calculus of costs and benefits”.
- Carbon emissions due to delegate travel (see above) and infrastructure arrangements
- Cost of two weeks in hotels (steep for grassroots organisations)
- Public Relations and marketing costs
- Global attention and reputation gained as a climate leader country
- International networking and solidarity building
- Global deals and negotiations, such as the Loss and Damages Fund
Arefin told Klein that with COP27, “The usual calculus has changed. The balance has tipped… In addition to the carbon and the cost, the host government – who will get the chance to preen green before the world – is not your standard double-talking liberal democracy…It is the most repressive regime in the history of the modern Egyptian state.”
A paper on the emergence of the ‘brandscape’ as a new apparatus, and a mode of order in
neo-liberal capitalism by David Murakami Wood and Kristan Ball in Marketing Theory takes Foucauldian aspects of the panopticon and inverts surveillance into a sort of self-surveillance that residents and tourists partake in under the aegis of our modern times, agreeing to be surveilled for convenience.
As the saying goes: “If the product is free, you are the product”.
“Based on the notion of the brand, which seeks to give reassurance and familiarity to
customers by semiotic visual codings of product ranges, brandscapes in consumer spaces have an
inherent experiential quality and form the basis of the new affective economy. The brandscape recodes the consumer-subject as a spatialised, desiring, networked body produced through a complex of marketing techniques designed to analyse buying behaviour, target consumers, and seduce them with strongly affective experiences.” (Murakami, 3)
While COP is very serious business, it cannot be denied that for a majority of delegates it is largely an “affective experience” as well and each hosting city imbibes a certain place-meaning to each conference.
Privacy, data protection and surveillance worries curb inclusion and alternative voices
COP27 being hosted by Egypt, coloured place-making with the affectation of a ‘securityscape’: “the constant provision of consumer data upon which the brandscape rests, consumers become exploited as well as exhilarated. Brandscapes also become securityscapes, as their boundaries and interiors are heavily policed to protect the dreams of safety and riskless living they proffer.” (Murakami, 4)
Rina Saeed shared that during COP27, while an affordable and convenient taxi (EVs of course) mobile application was available to delegates, many delegates did not download or utilize the app for fears of being surveilled and privacy data risks. If the hosting country was not a police state, delegates who are fast consumers of technology and are usually willing to give up privacy and their data, would have done so again.
Saeed also shared that, “Sharm El-Sheikh had a very oppressive vibe, no colour, no alternative voices. In places like Glasgow and Madrid, there were always alternative spaces and conversations. As a journalist, you found so many interesting things to write about outside as you did outside.”
Much like the curation of outside/alternative spaces at COP27, COP28’s democratic spectrum can be assessed by what is going on outside as much as what happens inside. While only a select few are privy to negotiations, the whole city and its citizens feel the vibrations of the mega-event. However, as Dubai is infamous for its active marginalization of poorer segments of society, especially immigrants from developing nations that have lost lives building the world’s tallest buildings – COP28 might also be a securityscape but that will only be clear once the conference comes to a close.
Cracks in the facade
From COP27’s securityscape to COP28’s brandscape of sustainability, we must question and hold accountable the choice of hosting countries for such land-mark forums as place-making does not only have ideological implications on geopolitics and reforms needed for averting warming over no-point-of-return but also gives more power and cache to those countries that have already profited from capitalism and its rampant carbon emissions.
Most notably, the UAE and COP28 are drawing this ire because of double promises tethering on hypocrisy.
Fifty of the world’s top fossil fuel companies have promised to eliminate emissions from their own operations by 2050 at the UN climate summit in Dubai. ExxonMobil, TotalEnergies, BP and Shell along with state energy companies Saudi Aramco and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (led by Al-Jaber). Mr Jaber called this pledge "a great first step" and he is right.
However, President Dr. Sultan Al Jaber also said that there is “no science” indicating that phasing out fossil fuels is necessary to restrict global heating to 1.5°C. The International Energy Agency (IEA) and the IPCC all conclude that we cannot have any new oil or gas fields opened in the world and fossil fuel use must drop by 3% every year from 2020.
Setting lofty goals for 2050 will unequivocally be too late.
A report by the UN Environment Programme analyzing the climate commitments of governments from all over the world stated that we are on our way to a mere reduction of CO2 emissions by 2030 of 2%. According to scientists, we should be reducing our CO2 emissions by 43% by 2030 to have any hope of staying within the 1.5 degrees Celsius target.
On 19th November, CNN reported that “The Earth’s temperature briefly rose above a crucial threshold that scientists have been warning for decades could have catastrophic and irreversible impacts on the planet and its ecosystems, data shared by a prominent climate scientist shows.”
Earth is on track for 2.9 degrees Celsius of global warming with the current commitments.
Furthermore, 2,456 oil lobbyists were accredited at COP28 which is 3 times more than the number of oil lobbyists at COP27 in Egypt. In comparison, delegations from the ten countries most vulnerable to climate change embarked only 1,609 people (Source: Global Witness, RFI and International Trade Administration). As the UAE produces 3.2 million barrels a day this is a blatant conflict of interest and as Al Gore put it, a “breach of trust”.
These numbers are depressing and can make one wonder if the ethos of the Conference of Parties that came out with authentic commitment and rigor is now devolving into placelessness and helping polluting police states greenwash, curbing dissenting voices and spaces.
The society of the spectacle
A seminal commentary on modern society was borne out of the Situationist Movement in the late 1960s when Guy Debord wrote “The Society of the Spectacle: (La société du spectacle)”, rooted in Marxist critical theory. Debord shone a light on the “spectacle”. That is when the representation of life becomes more central to social life than actual life itself.
“All that once was directly lived has become mere representation... the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing," writes Debord in 1967. The intersection of rampant consumer culture and social media has brought a caricature of capitalism into the mundanity of life, taken as the accepted world order by the majority.
Can you even imagine what he would write about our current lives where the internet and social media consume every facet of social life?
Today representation of the self in a mediated and curated manner outweighs lived experiences. This is true for not just individuals but for organizations, countries, cities and mega-events such as COP28. Countries like the UAE and Egypt can posture themselves as a ‘green ally’ by manipulating the plethora of tools, resources and devices readily available to them. Cities can be “smart” or “inclusive” while being woefully marginalizing to segments.
The spectacle is everywhere and we are all here for the show.
A glimmer of hope: looking forward
Does the future look different? Will the criticism hurled at the UAE as a hosting country make the UNFCCC consider organizers and environment/place-making impact more carefully?
The United Nations has chosen Brazil to host COP30, in the Amazonian city of Belém do Pará in 2025, the country’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced. This is in many ways a very fitting hosting partner as home to the Amazon, one of the planet’s most fragile ecosystems that has been under threat.
As Brazil has transitioned from the Amazon-deforestation regime of Former- President Jair Bolsonaro who once famously declared without any ramifications about the Amazon’s transboundary utility: “You have to understand that the Amazon is Brazil’s, not yours”. Current President Lula’s government has already unveiled its plans to eliminate deforestation in the Amazon by 2030, using strengthened law enforcement against environmental crimes and other measures in the world's largest tropical rainforest.
As such, Brazil is a worthy and pivotal hosting country for an upcoming COP but as a pristine and incredibly delicate ecosystem, the UNFCCC and the government of Brazil must do everything in their power to not harm the country’s ecology, while uplifting Brazil’s economy as well.
- A limited number of delegates
- A quota on delegates from the fossil fuel industry
- Setting up alternative spaces than the Amazon in Brazil to include diverse voices but have a minimum carbon footprint
- Have strong stipulations on billionaires on air travel on private jets
- Including urbanists, sociologists, environmental policy experts, activists and civil society in its planning and employing co-created methodologies such as Human-Centered Design
In other words, with strong leadership and commitment, COP30 has a real chance to go from placelessness to placemaking for a country that really needs the world’s support and attention in ensuring the safety, security and longevity of the Amazon.
Here’s to hoping that COP30 treats the Amazon like a lifeline and not a lifestyle brand and spectacle.
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Relph, Edward, 1976. Place and Placelessness. London: Pion.
“Brandscapes of Control? Surveillance, Marketing and the Co-construction of Subjectivity and Space in Neo-liberal Capitalism” David Murakami Wood and Kirstie Ball. 2014.
Debord, G. (1992). Society of the spectacle. Rebel Press, London.
Reconstructing the authenticity of place. Sharon Zukin. Theory and Society 40 (2):161-165 (2011)
Polity of Place. Policy Sciences 36: 175^195, 2003. 2003 Kluwer Academic Publishers.
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