For centuries, the Gulf region has played a global role in economy, politics, and culture. In the last few decades, the dynamic development of the Gulf countries has further emphasized the importance of the Gulf region to the world.


Today: Unsustainable Urbanization in the Gulf Region

The recent prosperity that most Gulf countries have experienced is most apparent in the Gulf cities, which face overwhelming challenges to address sustainable development while being agents of economic growth. The current state of cities in the Gulf highlights the critical issues that affect the quality of life within urban and sociocultural environments. The majority of these cities have experienced a high degree of urbanization as a result of a growing economy and rapid population growth. The intensive rate of urbanization has often led to deficiencies in planning and performance. Inefficient urban planning and suboptimal building construction that are not contextually adapted are phenomena that bring complex negative consequences such as high energy and water use, excessive waste and air pollution, as well as problems related to population distribution, mobility, and social equity. The dependence on resources is high, while the adaptability to the environment is low.

Generally, cities in the Gulf today ignore local context at both the planning and architectural design levels, and overcome their physical constraints by excessive use of natural resources, dependence on mechanic and artificial environments, and overconsumption made possible by the economic prosperity. However, this mode of life is not sustainable; cities need to reinvest in the environment and resources that provide the economic prosperity and not continue to overconsume and deplete them.


Change Actions: Aim towards Sustainability

Today, thriving Gulf cities address local challenges by employing strategies that involve advanced planning and technological innovations. However, many of these adopted solutions and technologies were initially developed to address similar problems that were experienced in an entirely different setting, and, as such, are not responsive to the region’s environment. The increased dependency on energy, material and capital inflows are worrisome. It is imperative to explore new strategies of development adjusted to the local needs of the Gulf region.

The Gulf cities face a critical need to be sustainable: environmentally, socioculturally, and, after the depletion of the hydrocarbon reserves, economically. The sustainable development of the cities will assure a healthy and productive future life in harmony with nature. The Gulf cities of the future must restructure their design and planning patterns to respect the limited natural resources and to continue the long-lasting tradition of strong social bonds that existed in the historic Gulf societies, facilitating a fit with the environment and encouraging meaningful social and cultural interaction. A shift towards this goal is possible, considering the worldwide acknowledgement of the need for sustainability and the constant development of new technologies.


Sustainability through Urbanization

A holistic study of the sustainability of the selected cities requires a multidisciplinary approach that examines urbanization and architectural patterns, socioeconomic and cultural aspects, and environmental/public health issues. Furthermore, mobility, resources and trade need to be studied on a regional basis to understand the networks of integration and interaction between various cities throughout the region.

In the modern era, the Gulf cities developed during the economic prosperity of the 20th century and followed parallel paths of urbanization and architecture. Although fundamentally similar, unique local conditions shaped their diversity. The identification of the common and diverse characteristics of sustainability is a driver of the GSU research project. The establishment of a holistic and profound research methodology allows the examination of urban development across time, in order to fully appreciate the gradual forces that have shaped and will shape the countries in question  So, centered on sustainability, GSU research aims to understand the principles of the past (pre-hydrocarbon economy), to study and analyze the drivers of the present, and then to propose meaningful solutions for the Gulf region of the future.


Sustainable Urbanism: Start from the Past

It is fundamental to start planning for the future by learning from the past. Through the years, societies have shown a remarkable adaptability to the harsh climatic conditions of the region and the limited available resources. They managed to survive and flourish through a complex, sophisticated framework of social and religious norms that strengthened kinship, enhanced social identity, and shaped their urban context, often leading to unique local solutions, technologies, and design typologies. The importance of the sea was the common factor among the societies of the region. Cities grew closely dependent on the sea, which provided access to other communities and to an exchange of nutrition and commodities, and also to other cities. Through fishing and pearling, cities gradually developed into commercial hubs, and increased their wealth by building trade connections with the rest of the world. However, life was never easy in the Gulf region, since survival was an everyday battle against environmental hazards, limited resources, and diseases.


The Shifting Concept of Sustainability

Before the era of industrialization and technological advances, the global environmental impact of the cities was negligible. Civilizations survived by managing the limited available resources and by inventing ingenious passive techniques to adapt to the climatic conditions. This is contrary to the concept of sustainability of today that aims at providing a high quality of life and achieving continuing economic prosperity while paying an equal attention to protecting the Earth’s natural systems to ensure their availability in the future. In the past, ecological balance was naturally achieved, and there was no concern for global environmental impact. For these reasons, in this phase of the study, the definition of “sustainability” in a historic context refers to physical and cultural adaptations and the management of material resources.



Due to the broad scope and complexity of the GSU project, the first step was to develop a systematic procedure for conducting the research and presenting the findings. This consistent methodology extends to the presentation of research outcomes and is scalable, allowing a systematic study of further cities to eventually produce an “Encyclopedia of Sustainable Urbanism” in the Gulf.

The goals of the first phase of the research project are the documentation, analysis, and understanding of the sustainability of the selected urban settings in the past. As such, the analysis focuses on understanding three main elements: Environmental/Public Health, Social/Cultural/Economic, and Urban Form/Architecture. These elements are intimately linked, each one influencing and being influenced by the others. Thus, the presentation of findings for each city within this manuscript starts with its climate and landscape, then continues with the social-cultural-economic aspects, to eventually present the main analysis of the urban environment, which in turn influences the micro-environment of the building unit and the social-cultural-economic conditions within public and private spaces, in a continuous loop. The main emphasis of this phase of research centers mostly on the built environment, with the other factors providing contextual, supporting material.


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Presentation of Research Findings

The presentation of the research findings begins with an overview and analysis of the Gulf region. Historical information on the selected urban centers is then presented and analyzed at three scales: city, neighborhood and architectural unit. Research findings for each city follow, under the same methodology. A comparative analysis is performed at the three levels/scales: city, neighborhood and architectural unit. These comparisons lead to groupings based on similarity and the development of indexes. The study of the past deciphers the drivers and forces that formed built environments and identifies historic building typologies and construction practices that provide planning and design principles of sustainability.


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Traces of Sustainability

The results of the comparative analysis are used to trace practices of “sustainability in the past.” Sustainability is defined by addressing selected elements and concepts that describe the cities in the past at three scales: unit, neighborhood, city. It points out differences and similarities that can be justified with the help of comparative analyses along environmental/public health and social/cultural/economic dimensions. Identified architectural and urban typologies as well as individual case studies provide a systematic look at sustainability. Then the main issues of sustainability in the past are addressed, regardless of scale. Thus, the “Dimensions of Sustainability in the Past” form a basis for envisioning a sustainable development of the Gulf cities of today.