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Can urban transport reform put brakes on Gulf's car centric culture?

Modern Gulf cities built around car dependency face a net-zero pledges test. Plans to retrofit cities and weave in sustainable mobility are in the pipeline, but the car is still king.
Dubai traffic

The Gulf Arab states’ first oil exports in the mid-20th century triggered migration to cities. Neighborhoods built around individual car-based mobility were built, primarily inspired by the United States’ 1950s suburban dream.

“Cities in the Gulf were designed on low-density planning, and that does not make public transportation financially feasible because ridership is very low, just like in many American cities,” noted Karim Elgendy, an urban sustainability consultant and founder of Carboun, an initiative promoting sustainability in cities of the Middle East and North Africa.

He said population density in major Gulf urban centers is “very low.” In Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, the rate is three times lower than what UN-Habitat recommended for sustainable neighborhood planning — at least 15,000 people per square kilometer. Worse, density is declining. Mecca's halved between 1983 and 2010.

Oil discoveries “undermined, with unparalleled suddenness, the roots of an ecosystem which reflected a perfect adaptation to an environment many generations old,” Mohamed Riad, then professor of geography at Qatar University, wrote in a 1981 research paper on petro-urbanism.

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