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How the GCC has led the way in smart city developments

The GCC region has been renowned as one of the most prominent tech adopters. The region is comprised of the Middle East’s most fruitful economies with unique yet unified visions to better the lives of their residents by developing smarter cities.

According to KPMG, MEA’s smart cities market is expected to double in value between 2018 and 2022, from $1.3 billion to $2.7 billion.

Due to challenges induced by rapid urbanization, smart cities have become a very popular and feasible narrative to consider when it comes to urban planning in the digital era. Achieving smart cities that can function in a sustainable way to ensure more comfortable living conditions for residents, public-private collaboration is key. In addition to this, the ICT sector is an instrumental component that goes into smart city planning as it provides the fundamental elements or building blocks for a smart city.

United Arab Emirates

The UAE has been at the forefront of integrating innovative smart city technologies into the country’s infrastructure. They have been working towards this for some time now and there are currently several government initiatives underway in pursuance of this. The UAE has adopted a great deal of smart city initiatives such as 5G, hyperloop and smart government services like the UAE pass.

Some of the government’s strategies include: the UAE Energy Strategy 2050, Surface Transport Master Plan, Abu Dhabi’s Economic Vision 2030, Dubai Smart City Project and Dubai Plan 2021.

Dubai has taken significant measures and have greatly prioritized their digital transformation strategy to ensure they are constantly on par with the latest smart city technologies.

A major area within the city of Dubai would be the Expo 2020, with the aim of being the most connected place on Earth. UAE-based operator, Etisalat has been working towards covering the entire area with 5G. 

In terms of infrastructure and connectivity, Dubai has introduced public WiFi, smart parking, electric car charging stations, smart power grids, traffic monitoring and the use of blockchain in business ledgers and consumption and billing services.

“Smart cities that combine state-of-the-art 5G technologies with artificial intelligence and the internet of things will see the biggest benefit in digitally transforming the society and economy, in addition to supporting the country’s leadership to progress its sustainability agenda,” said Etisalat’s head of Energy and Utilities.

Indeed, Dubai has implemented countless initiatives to digitally transform public services, urban planning, healthcare, education, electricity, transportation, communications and infrastructure with the aim of improving the lives of its residents in every way possible.

Abu Dhabi began its smart city journey back in 2006 when the planning for developing Masdar City, the region’s first attempt at a sustainable city, began. This city focused on utilizing solar energy in an effort to maximize efficiency, integrating all aspects of city life, minimizing the need for transportation options which would have been harmful to the environment, limiting the height of buildings and creating an overall sustainable and environmentally friendly ecosystem.

The International Data Corporation (IDC) has forecasted that Abu Dhabi and Dubai’s IT spending will increase from $174.25 million in 2018 to $292.65 million in 2020.

His Excellency Falah Mohammad Al Ahbabi, chairman of the Department of Municipalities and Transport in Abu Dhabi, commented on the city’s progress in digital transformation and said, “The innovation and optimal use of modern technologies and data is the cornerstone of establishing future cities which Abu Dhabi seeks to achieve in order to establish its position as a global centre for sustainable information infrastructure.”

He added, “Keeping pace with urbanization, technological development, and the creation of smart cities, will enhance the well-being of citizens, residents and visitors. This will contribute towards an ideal and healthy environment for living and working, in a manner that provides successive generations with a healthy, satisfying and safe life.”

Also, in 2018, Abu Dhabi’s Department of Urban Planning and Municipalities launched the pilot phase of the Zayed Smart City Project, a five year project (2018-2022) which involves managing infrastructure through the use of emerging technologies.

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterized by a considerable surge in new digital technologies and artificial intelligence. This trend has created a significant impact upon urbanization and has played an essential part in the establishment of smart cities. With innovation harnessing enhancements across numerous areas of modern life, it is natural that technological advancements are applied to the places closest to us, in our homes and communities,” said H.E. Falah Mohammad Al Ahbabi.

Saudi Arabia

The global population has reached an all-time high which has in turn, led to rapid urbanization. Many cities have been integrating smart city technologies in order to cope with this demand that is only projected to increase. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom has seen a 689% increase in population over the past half-century.

With a larger population, comes greater responsibility and so the Kingdom has embarked on a mission to properly utilize and increase a number of resources such as food, water, energy and clean air.

Saudi’s Vision 2030 aims to improve the overall living conditions of its residents in an effort to create three key smart cities which would be positioned to rank among the top 100 cities in the world. Albeit, the country has decided to proceed with setting up 10 smart cities in the region.

Saudi recently unveiled Neom, a smart city mega-project worth $500 billion. The 26,500 sq km plot extends from Saudi Arabia, to Jordan and Egypt and has been said to be 33 times larger in size than New York. This project has been created to leverage the key trade routes between the three countries: the Suez Canal, Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba.

Neom is expected to become a place where robots will replace manual labor, where drones will be used on a much wider scale to help serve the city’s needs better and where sensors will be able to accumulate data to help the city monitor the consumption of its residents and continuously evolve to create a smarter environment for its people.

Temperature control via renewable resources is expected to gain ground in the mega-city and the transport system is expected to be 100% sustainable and automated.

Another key smart city project within the country is Al Widyan, the seven-phase megaproject in its capital city, Riyadh. The project is committed to ensure an increase investment, become less dependent on oil and is dedicated to enabling a socially and environmentally conscious space for its residents. The project, which was unveiled in August 2018, plans to enable a new mixed-use district including retail, health care, retail, leisure, education, residential and office spaces.

One of the country’s most recent efforts in smart city developments would be the Saudi-based Smart City Solutions Company’s (SC2) recent partnership with tech giant Huawei. The first project under the agreement involves implementing smart lighting, smart parking and video analytics solutions which will be powered by artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms as well as robust, state-of-the-art ICT infrastructure to be deployed in Al Khobar, Dhahran and Dammam.

This agreement aims to essentially enable both companies to jointly plan and execute their smart city initiatives and to operate a smart city platform along with its services for their customers. The initial part of the project will focus on mobility services (including parking) as well as sustainability in terms of energy-saving and light management. In addition to this, they will also focus on smart waste management and safety services.

The service portfolio also comprises of an operation certain within which all city activities are covered and monitored in real-time. This will ensure that decisions are made with the utmost efficiency.

CEO of SC2, Adnan Al Marshad, said, “SC2 and Huawei are joining their efforts to provide the market with agile smart city service portfolio and operating models that can be tailored to different types of cities whether governmental, private or special-purpose economic zones.

Ahmed Al Sanaa, chairman of the board of Batic Group (parent company of SC2), stated, “SC2 was established with a vision to be the first smart city operator in Saudi Arabia, a proposition which is missing in the market today.”

“It engages with city managers and developers in public-private partnership models providing a unique central citizen experience and enable city officials to take informed decisions to provide efficiency to its operators,” he added.

David Shi, president of Middle East at Huawei Enterprise, has stated that the new partnership would enable them to approach the smart city market with “innovative models” to share both the risks and rewards with all city developers and operators.


Oman’s Madinat Al Irfan smart city project was unveiled in November 2018 which was essentially a joint venture between Dubai’s Majid AL Futtaim and Omani government-backed Oman Tourism Development Company (Omran). The long-term project aims to develop a mixed-use community which will include areas for commercial, residential, healthcare, entertainment, education and hospitality usage.

According to His Excellency Talal Al Rahbi, deputy secretary general of Oman’s Supreme Council for Planning at the time, Madinat Al Irfan “will transform Oman’s economy with significant socio-economic benefits.”

The smart city is Oman’s largest urban development project and has come a long way since its inauguration, reaching several milestones. One of the most recent milestones was the Madinat Al Irfan Theatre, the country’s largest lyric theatre and one of the largest in the region as well.

“In 2020, Omran opened the JW Marriott, Madinat Al Irfan, and is gearing up to start development of the third hotel, Ibis Styles, in line with its strategy of developing three-, four- and five-star hotels,” said a spokesman for Omran.

Upon completion, it is expected to comprise of over 11,000 residential units, 100,000 sq meters of retail space, 70,000 sq meters of office space and a wide range of cultural and lifestyle offerings.

The smart city project is set to contribute to Oman’s Vision 2040 which aims to foster a technologically integrated environment and startup ecosystem. They also plan to reduce energy usage and waste by 50 percent through efficient design and technology.