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Sustainability through the sands of time: ancient Arab wisdom in environmental stewardship

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By Khalid Mohammed Al Blooshi

· 5 min read

In today's world, the concept of sustainability has become a buzzword, synonymous with eco-conscious living and responsible resource management. However, it's essential to acknowledge that the roots of sustainability run deep in human history, with some of the earliest practices emerging from the Arab world. Long before the term "sustainability" gained global prominence, ancient Arab civilizations were pioneers in employing innovative, sustainable methods to thrive in some of the harshest environments on Earth. From sustainable architecture to water management and agriculture, the Arab societies of antiquity offer a rich tapestry of sustainable living that continues to inspire and educate us today.

Sustainable architecture

The Arabs have a rich tradition of sustainable architecture that showcases their deep connection to the environment and their ingenious adaptation to local conditions. Some of the world's most iconic architectural wonders, like the Alhambra in Spain and the Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali, stand as testaments to their mastery of sustainable building practices.

Natural materials

One hallmark of ancient Arab architecture is the use of natural and locally sourced materials. From the adobe structures of North Africa to the palm wood and stone buildings of the Arabian Peninsula, these materials helped regulate indoor temperatures, ensuring comfort in extreme climates.

Ventilation systems

Arab architects incorporated ingenious ventilation systems into their designs. Wind towers (known as "barjeel" in Arabic) and central courtyards facilitated natural airflow, reducing the need for energy-intensive air conditioning. This design philosophy, balancing aesthetics with functionality, continues to inspire sustainable architects worldwide.

Water management

Water, the elixir of life, has always been a precious resource in arid regions. The Arabs developed an intricate system of water management that efficiently transported and stored water, ensuring its availability for agriculture and daily life.


Qanats, underground tunnels, were employed to tap into distant water sources and distribute water to communities. This ingenious technique not only minimized water loss through evaporation but also maintained water quality by shielding it from contamination.

Falaj systems

In Oman, the Falaj system was used to channel water from mountain springs to farms and settlements, a testament to the Arab commitment to optimizing water resources. These systems showcased a deep understanding of sustainable water use principles.

Sustainable agriculture

Ancient Arab societies were pioneers in sustainable agriculture, utilizing innovative techniques that harmonized with their arid environments. Here are some key agricultural practices unique to ancient Arab farming:

Qanat farming

Building upon their expertise in qanat construction for water management, Arab farmers ingeniously adapted these underground tunnels for agriculture. Qanat farming involved digging small channels from qanats to irrigate fields, efficiently delivering water to crops while minimizing evaporation and soil erosion.

Biointensive farming

Ancient Arab farmers practiced biointensive farming, a method that concentrated on cultivating high-yield, high-nutrient crops in small spaces. This approach minimized the use of land and resources while maximizing productivity, making it an early form of sustainable, high-density farming.

Drip irrigation

The Arabs are credited with pioneering drip irrigation, a technique that delivers water directly to the base of plants through a network of tubes and pipes. This method not only conserved water but also ensured that crops received precisely the amount of moisture they needed, reducing wastage.

Dryland farming

Given the arid conditions of much of the Arab world, dryland farming was crucial. Arab farmers mastered techniques like ridge planting and contour farming to trap rainfall and reduce runoff. These practices conserved precious moisture and allowed crops to thrive in challenging environments.

Date palm cultivation

Date palms were a staple of Arab agriculture, and their cultivation was a model of sustainable farming. These hardy trees provided not only a reliable source of nutrition but also valuable materials like wood, leaves, and fibers for various purposes.

Sustainable trade and resource management

Arab traders were instrumental in facilitating the exchange of goods, ideas, and knowledge across the ancient world. Their role extended to promoting sustainable resource management and trade practices.

Knowledge exchange

Through their extensive trade networks, Arabs introduced new crops, technologies, and techniques to different regions. This knowledge exchange fostered sustainable practices beyond the Arab world, contributing to the diversification of food sources and the development of sustainable agricultural practices.

Resource stewardship

Arab traders emphasized the importance of responsible resource management. They promoted ethical trade practices and sustainable harvesting of resources, ensuring the longevity of ecosystems.


The Arab legacy of sustainability is a testament to human ingenuity, adaptability, and reverence for the environment. The ancient Arabs thrived in some of the world's harshest environments through sustainable architecture, water management, agriculture, and responsible trade practices. Their wisdom continues to inspire and inform modern sustainability efforts.

In today's era of pressing environmental challenges, we can draw valuable lessons from our ancestors' wisdom and innovative practices. The ancient Arabs' commitment to sustainability stands as a beacon of hope, guiding us toward a more sustainable and harmonious coexistence with our planet. As we face the daunting task of addressing climate change and resource depletion, the enduring legacy of the Arabs reminds us that sustainability is not just a contemporary trend but a timeless principle rooted in our shared history.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Khalid Mohammed Al Blooshi is a student in Zayed University's dual credit program for computer science. He is a sustainability ambassador for Youth 4 Sustainability.

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