Gulf in class: embracing smart cities

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Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are leading the smart city vanguard.

Smart cities are driving change and transforming ways of living and working around the world – and nowhere more so than in the Middle East.

MEA has seen some of the most ambitious and innovative smart city projects initiated in recent times, with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar all leading the vanguard.

What projects are setting the pace for MEA?

In Saudi Arabia, smart city projects are gaining momentum fast, with many being built on greenfield sites. The Kingdom has announced plans for a $500 billion mega-city to be built from scratch on the shores of the Red Sea. The city will be known as NEOM and will be a technology-powered destination that leverages artificial intelligence (AI) and IoT solutions to give residents and workers a connected lifestyle previously unavailable in Saudi Arabia. The project is part of the new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Vision 2030, and seeks to diversify the Kingdom’s economy away from relying too primarily on oil. AI solutions will be at the fore of a business hub focused on advanced manufacturing, bio-tech, media and airlines, and the city will, in time, have more robots than humans.

In the UAE, Silicon Park is the first smart city project in Dubai, which boasts smart solutions ranging from charging docks for mobile devices scattered around the park to smart transport systems, including optimally designed bus shelters offering free Internet and smart kiosks for mobile airtime top-ups and bill payments. The Park’s mission is to play a significant role in the country's overall economic development and take the lead in developing and training local talent in advanced technology manufacturing.

According to Wael Youssef, Regional Director, Digital Solutions for Orange Business Services MEA, “We’re seeing a steady progression of smart cities in the Middle East. Dubai Silicon Park wants to become a globally recognized state-of-the-art technology hub that promotes digital industries, research and development, all within a fully-integrated community.”

Dubai introduced its Smart City strategy in 2014, with a plan to launch more than 545 initiatives aimed at transforming the way both residents and visitors experience the city. The project has many strategic goals, including converting over 1,100 essential government services into smart online services, deploying autonomous vehicles and smart transportation services around the city, introducing free, high-speed Wi-Fi for all and creating a data-driven economy designed to generate an additional $3 billion in GDP by 2021.

The overall goals for Dubai include lowering costs throughout the city, enabling greater employee productivity, generating new revenues and enhancing citizen benefits – all in line with the six Dubai Smart City pillars of life, society, mobility, economy, government and the environment.

According to Navigant Research’s Gulf States Smart Cities Index, Dubai is the Middle East's leading smart city, based on how high-tech infrastructure is being deployed and used in several cities throughout the region. It combines a strong strategic vision and an understanding of the practical requirements and adaptability necessary to deliver on that vision.

Qatar is also investing in smart cities. Msheireb Downtown Doha is undergoing a top-to-bottom digital transformation into a smart city, with everything from infrastructure to applications and portals in the mix.

The project has seen over 500,000 sensors being installed in the city, designed to work on services ranging from smart operation of buildings to security and automated waste collection. Orange has worked on the initiative and has been responsible for driving new smart applications that allow citizens to engage with community services, make online payments and enjoy smart energy management services. Among Doha’s stated aims for its smart city initiative is to attract talent and inward investment.

The Doha project covers 319,200 square meters and comprises 100 commercial and residential buildings, 5-star hotels, 800 housing units and medical facilities. Another key element is smart parking services for around 10,000 cars, which drivers can access via an application on their smartphones.

“Dubai and Doha and other cities in the Middle East benefit from being greenfield sites,” says Robin De Keyser, Head of Consulting for Orange Business Services MEA. “Turning somewhere like London into a fully-connected, smart city is harder since there are many more legacy systems to retrofit new technologies to. Greenfield sites make it easier to do from scratch. To me it is logical. I would consider Dubai to be an example of an advanced smart city: they have a clear vision, they are setting clear guidelines and the government is playing an active role. For example, Dubai is already introducing blockchain into its smart city mix, while many other governments around the world are looking at it from a distance. Dubai is effectively an early adopter.”

What is driving smart city demand in the Middle East?

Drivers for smart cities across the Middle East region include a need to support rapidly growing populations, income diversification and a real desire to showcase the region’s capabilities to the rest of the world. The rapidly growing populations around the Middle East mean increasing urbanization, a perfect breeding ground for smart cities.

According to the UN, the urban population in the Middle East increased from around 20 percent in 1960 to about 45 percent by the end of 2015, perhaps unsurprising in a region where resources remain scarce. This urbanization, allied to an ever more business focused philosophy and a desire to attract tourists, has encouraged governments to implement smart solutions to drive sustainability of city services.

The Middle East will soon be hosting two major global events, with Qatar and Dubai home to the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the 2020 World Expo respectively. Both will leverage smart city technologies, such as air conditioned sports stadiums, driver-less cars and more. Events like these will utilize technology and the smart cities vision to deliver next-generation services to visitors and customers – and also mine and analyze the data they generate to continuously improve those services.

“I see the next level as cities moving from being merely ‘smart’ to the AI technology side, making interactive elements in smart cities where residents can use voice commands or have virtual assistants perform actions for them. This will take ‘smart’ city services to a whole new dimension,” says Wael Youssef.

According to Navigant Research, the global market for smart city solutions and services is expected to reach nearly $98 billion in 2026. MEA looks set to be at the forefront of that charge.

To find out more about smart city projects in the Middle East and beyond, download our whitepaper Smart Cities and Smart Territories.