Middle Eastern governments, facing the twin challenges of growing urban populations and a need to find non-oil sources of revenue and they are reimagining cities as engines of sustainable growth, driving trade, investment, new sectors, and jobs.
Recent World Bank  forecasts predict that 7 out of 10 people will live in cities by 2050. As the global population surges towards 9 billion people, this places a huge burden on expanding metropolises, forcing urban planners to rethink traditional models.
“Well-planned, compact, and connected cities can increase productivity and boost a city’s competitiveness; improve livability by providing access to land, housing, transport, and services; and protect the natural environment,” according to the World Economic Forum. 
The World Bank notes that 80 percent  of global GDP is already generated in cities, a number likely to increase as digital infrastructure and solutions evolve to serve many more facets of urban life.
Cities from scratch
“The term ‘new cities’ covers all urban development that is built from scratch in a bounded location where a city previously did not exist, with a scale large enough to support a range of housing types, facilities, and opportunities for residents – including social, cultural, and employment opportunities,” according to Professor Greg Clark, Global Head of Future Cites and New Industries, HSBC.
Clark notes that new and master-planned cities are being pursued because of their potential to relieve overcrowding and infrastructure stress in existing metropolises, integrate new technologies from the outset, creating large investable sites while establishing visible centres of economic specialisation, creating jobs and housing for an enlarged population base.
Other key reasons are to “avoid pollution, traffic and inefficiencies of existing cities, avoid mistakes of the past, re-invent and test the way cities are planned and run, and enhance environmental performance and sustainability,” Clark furthers.
An efficient city can reduce daily commute by 15 to 30 minutes, reduce cost of living by up to 3 percent, cut greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 15 percent and create 3 percent more jobs annually, found McKinsey Global Institute.
In the Gulf, the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi are leading the way in mobility, utilities, security, healthcare and economic development. In a recent survey of selected global cities by McKinsey Global Institute, Dubai scored 30.5 points on those criteria, not far behind leaders New York City (34.5), London (34.5) and Seoul (33) points. Abu Dhabi garnered a respectable 28 points.
Urban green spaces
Some new Middle East cities, especially in Saudi Arabia, are on greenfield sites, while others are near established metropolises. Among the earliest efforts to diversify, has been Masdar City  in Abu Dhabi, 20 minutes from downtown. First created in 2006, the city is a low-carbon district comprising a budding clean-tech sector, a free zone for businesses, and a residential neighbourhood with all the amenities.
The city is already home to the global headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and is a popular location for pioneering research and development facilities that drive new knowledge from within the ecosystem, while nurturing and implementing a number of ground-breaking solar energy, energy storage, green building, and urban sustainability projects.
In April, the city  celebrated its 14th anniversary. “The world was a very different place in 2006, when we began our pioneering mission to make viable sustainability solutions a reality. Global capacities for solar and wind power were less than a tenth of what they are today, and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals were still almost a decade away,” said Mohamed Jameel Al Ramahi, Chief Executive Officer of Masdar. “In 2006, few people believed that Abu Dhabi’s target of 7 percent of its energy mix coming from renewables by this year was realistic – Masdar has played its part in helping Abu Dhabi far surpass that goal, and we are committed to supporting the UAE’s even more ambitious 50 percent goal by 2050.” 
A number of pilot projects – including a Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), an autonomous NAVYA shuttle, electric shuttle cars, and electric and public buses – are also under way. The city’s future transportation options include a Metro line, Light Rail Transit (LRT) and Group Rapid Transit (GRT).
Among the most advanced cities in the Middle East in terms of building new urban districts is Dubai, which has over the years created a number of new cluster districts, such as Jebel Ali Free Zone, Dubai Media and Technology cities, and Dubai International Finance Centre, which borrow some of the elements of urban tech development but are still part of the wider fabric of the city.
Constant innovation and new areas such as District 2020, which aims to repurpose the site of Dubai World Expo 2020 into a 21st Century lifestyle and advanced industries cluster, allow the emirate to boost and upgrade its infrastructure.