[This NEWTON is part of the new Environment Page launch. All accompanying launch posts can be found here.]

Gökçe Günel, Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change, and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi (Duke University Press, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Gökçe Günel (GG): The book grew out of a wish to examine the social lives of large-scale urban design projects. In the year 2008, I visited the United Arab Emirates for the first time, where many such projects were under construction. Masdar City was fascinating, because its planners not only offered insights about urban design, but also proposed innovative ways of imagining energy and climate futures. Designed by London-based architecture office Foster + Partners, the eco-city cost twenty-two billion dollars and would house fifty thousand residents and forty thousand commuters on a six hundred-hectare site. The site neighbored the Abu Dhabi International Airport, the Yas Marina Formula One Circuit, and the Al Ghazal Golf Course. I was drawn to thinking more deeply about how energy and climate-related issues would shape our understandings of cities. I gained access to the project thanks to faculty members and administrators at Masdar Institute—the energy-focused research center that was set up inside Masdar City by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Technology and Development Program, which has now been shut down. Although my initial interest in the project centered on architectural and urban problems, Spaceship in the Desert answers a wider range of questions regarding how oil-rich economies prepare for a future with less oil, while also studying emergent business models and technological developments.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

GG: Spaceship in the Desert mainly analyzes an aspiration to build what I label a “status quo utopia.” The planners of Masdar City aspired to keep existing social, political, and economic relations intact in a bounded environment, offering stability against the disruptive consequences of climate change and possible energy scarcity. For them, the status quo was a best-case scenario. Yet decision-makers in the Abu Dhabi government knew that their oil wealth was not reliable in the long run. Oil prices fluctuated, reservoirs were finite, and global demand for oil could fall drastically in the future. Under these conditions, what would be the right means for securing the status quo? Urban design solutions, new business models and technological innovations, or what I call “technical adjustments” emerged as significant tools for ensuring that contemporary social, political, and economic relations could be extended far into the future.

Broadly speaking, I understand these technical adjustments as imaginative and wide-ranging responses to global climate change and energy scarcity, which open up certain interventions (such as extending technological complexity) while foreclosing others (such as asking larger-scale moral, ethical, and political questions regarding how to live). While producing innovative and at times fun artifacts, technical adjustments obfuscate the simple realization that humans cannot continue to live and consume as they do. The adjustments I observed at Masdar City involved market-oriented technical fixes—such as green buildings, research into renewable energy and clean technology, novel ways of imagining exchange, innovative designs for vehicles, and new global governance mechanisms. The book has five chapters, and each chapter looks at one of these technical adjustments in detail. In thinking through these artifacts, Spaceship in the Desert draws on a broad range of scholarship in anthropology, history of science, geography, and science and technology studies.

J: Could you talk about the title of the book, Spaceship in the Desert

GG: Laura, an American graduate student at Masdar Institute described Masdar City as a “spaceship in the desert” on a blog post in September 2010, and her description quickly became very popular. In the book, I analyze this metaphor, and show how space technologies have inspired ecologically sensitive architecture since the 1960s. By occupying buildings inspired by space technologies, humanity would behave like astronauts with clear outer space missions. The spaceship itself is a finite, technically sophisticated, and insular habitat for an exclusive group of astronauts facing an outside world of crises. It signifies enclosure, archiving, selection, hierarchy, movement, and—most importantly—the maintenance of strict boundaries between interior and exterior spaces. As an ark that will help save a select few, it promotes a technocratic and exclusive universalism, and produces the outside as a vacuum that should not be inhabited. In this context, the desert becomes an otherworldly, devastated space, suitable for settler-colonial interventions. A common setting for science fiction films, the desert is also a frontier that awaits exploration.

Although technocratic sensibilities of a spaceship in the desert appear to erase politics, ethnographic research is helpful in showing that this is not the case. For instance, during my fieldwork I witnessed how six students who were about to enter into their second year as master’s students at Masdar Institute were expelled from the institution and told that they had one month before they would be deported from the country. No one explained to the students why exactly they were being asked to leave, but soon they figured it out. These six students were the only Shi‘a in the Institute. Sectarian politics of the United Arab Emirates made themselves known in this seemingly futuristic, expertise-driven context. Educational institutions, such as MIT, participated in solidifying the boundaries of the spaceship. The book features many other examples regarding technocratic practices on the spaceship that verged on what some of my interlocutors called a “technocratic dictatorship,” and it analyzes the various forms of boundary making.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

GG: My goal was to write a legible book that sheds some light on urban design, energy, and climate change issues. Like all authors, I hope it will be read widely. Not only among students and academics, but also among environmental activists, technology professionals, architects and urban planners, user experience researchers, climate change policy makers, and energy experts. The book charts the dreams, cosmologies, and technical skills of people who produce knowledge regarding energy and climate change, while situating them within larger social and economic global transformations. In many ways it seeks to hold a mirror to these experts, and I hope it will slightly shift how they see and do their work.

Beyond its thematic foci, I think the book provides a vivid portrait of the United Arab Emirates, and touches upon dynamics that are pertinent across the Arabian Peninsula. There is great work on the Arabian Peninsula these days, and I hope Spaceship in the Desert contributes to the scholarship on this region in a novel way, looking at science, technology, and design. Overall, I am very happy that the first full-length ethnography of Abu Dhabi pushes back on common orientalist tropes and analyzes how decision-makers in the United Arab Emirates shape the global conversation on urbanism, energy, and climate change.

Finally, I care about the craft of writing, and I hope the book reflects this interest in some ways. I would like people who do not usually read ethnographies to pick up the book, and enjoy its wry humor.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

GG: A second book project is underway. In the past ten years, I have studied the emergence of new energy infrastructures in the Arab Gulf, examining how oil-rich economies prepare for a future with less oil. This is the work that culminated in Spaceship in the Desert. In this second book project, I want to flip this question, ask how energy-poor countries that experience the impacts of climate change satisfy urgent power demands, and investigate the quick and provisional energy infrastructures they employ.

In particular, I am looking at a floating power plant in Ghana, which supplies a quarter of the country’s electricity. Floating power plants anchor at a harbor, plug into a national grid, and generate electricity with heavy fuel oil or natural gas. The Turkish company Karadeniz Holding or, as is known across sub-Saharan Africa, Karpower, has become an increasingly popular producer of such plants in the past decade. Karpower buys old ships, retrofits them in shipyards in Tuzla, Istanbul, and leases them to countries around the world for periods of two to twenty years.

In the book project, I am broadly asking how a floating power plant comes to emerge. What are the conditions that facilitate the materialization of such provisional infrastructure? The four chapters of the book will answer this question. They will study the construction of floating power plants in shipyards in Tuzla, Istanbul, investigate business relations between Turkey and sub-Saharan Africa by drawing on a diplomatic trip I attended with the Turkish President Erdoğan, look at the desire for skipping fossil fuels and leapfrogging to renewables in sub-Saharan Africa, and finally investigate the kinds of funding that are made available to African countries for construction of energy infrastructure. The fieldwork for the project took place mainly in Istanbul and Accra, and I am writing about a context that is very different from the United Arab Emirates. I am excited that this project allows me to continue thinking about ships and energy in this new context.

Beyond this book project, I am working on a review piece on energy humanities, and I have articles in the pipeline about a variety of topics including Gulf Futurism, ethnographic research methods, and paper airplane tickets.


Excerpt from the book (pp. 54-61)

Official Opening

The official opening of the Masdar Institute campus, perhaps a metonymical representation of Masdar City, was scheduled for November 23, 2010. The campus—which contained laboratories, residential units, classrooms, a cafeteria, a coffee shop, a small gym, and a “Knowledge Center,” as well as open landscaped areas between these facilities—was argued to be the first structure of its kind to be powered entirely by solar energy. The residential units boasted terra-cotta walls of reinforced concrete and relied on contemporary interpretations of mashrabiyas, vernacular wooden-latticed screens, to block sunlight and allow for privacy. The laboratory buildings incorporated horizontal and vertical fins and brise soleil to ensure shade inside the buildings. The Masdar Institute’s students and faculty, who were already living on campus or commuting there daily, reflected on these material conditions in daily conversations and blog posts, and they observed and sometimes guided the various architects, consultants, and visitors who regularly inspected the site.

When the day of the inauguration ceremony came, the students had important roles to play in it. A day before the event, they all received an email attachment with instructions on where they would be stationed throughout the ceremony, and how they would approach the high-profile visitors to the building, such as Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi. The document specified: “You need to identify yourselves and greet the guests by saying: Thank you for coming to Masdar Institute Inauguration, we are delighted to have you here, we will show you to the prt cars.” While six students were to welcome visitors at the prt station, fourteen others were asked to be present at the Knowledge Center, “reading, working on laptops, checking books at 1st floor of the library,” so as to allow the visitors to experience the building in operation. The remaining hundred or so students would be stationed at different locations on campus at different times.

The students were provided with a fact sheet with answers to questions such as “What makes Masdar City special?” as well as reference points for their potential conversations with guests. They would redeploy Masdar’s marketing and promotional campaigns, this time through informal conversations, while making use of the half-working material artifacts on site as props. What they staged would serve as a natural representation of the future of Masdar Institute, with busy students absorbed in their work, “reading, working on laptops, checking books at the 1st floor of the library.” When presenting the Institute, it somehow made more sense to introduce that abstract future, rather than showcasing the current state of indeterminacy the fledgling institution was trying to overcome. In this performance, the students not only pretended to exist in the future, they also demonstrated the perpetual potential of the project.


The science fiction or utopia that Masdar Institute represented was further enacted and confirmed through high-profile visits to the campus. By relying on a predetermined statement about the campus, the marketing department employees introduced the various research projects on site to their guests, which ranged from Hollywood celebrities such as Adrian Brody and James Cameron, to politicians such as U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and South Korean Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik, to investors interested in building eco-hotel chains or organic grocery stores. These high-profile visits not only helped showcase the multiple advancements on renewable energy and clean technology, but also supported publicity campaigns in national and international media outlets. When the movie star Clive Owen toured the Masdar Institute, for instance, his comments ran under the headline “Masdar Looks Like a City from the Future: Owen” in the national English-language newspaper Khaleej Times. Owen, who had starred in acclaimed science fiction films such as Children of Men (2006), suggested that a science fiction film be shot at the Institute.

But some of Masdar’s employees voiced concerns about these guided tours. “You can’t question the marketing statements,” one Masdar executive told me during a conversation in his office. “Then I hear people ridiculing the place on the [private tour] bus, because they’re not stupid. So we have to tell them the truth.” He continued, “Here, when someone says it works, you have to agree, even though you’re wrong.” Around the time of our conversation, an article appeared in a German publication titled “The Ruptured Dream of the Desert City Masdar” (Der geplatzte Traum der Wüstenstadt Masdar). The article described Masdar City as “a mirage that falls apart as you get closer to it,” and argued that the technologies Masdar promoted did not actually work. Finally, it concluded, Masdar is “a lesson for howdelusions of grandeur, technical mistakes, and above all poor planning can rob a fascinating idea of its credibility.” Executives at Masdar City, above all Sultan Al-Jaber, the chief executive officer whom the article directly criticized, were enraged. A Masdar employee who was on her way out of the company told me that she very much agreed with the points the article made. While indicating perpetual potential, the repeated performance of a totalizing future could cause the Masdar City project to slowly lose its credibility, rendering it a disappointing mirage.

Abu Dhabi is perceived to be a perfect location for harnessing solar energy. However, according to Mahmood, a thirty-something Egyptian-born engineer at Masdar, this perception was not completely accurate. Upon finishing his PhD at an American university, and wishing to be closer to home, Mahmood had accepted a position at Masdar as his first job. As we chatted outside a solar power station, he stated that high levels of dust and humidity were blocking direct solar rays and causing thick coatings on the solar panels, diminishing their effective functioning. “Although we can’t fix the first problem that easily, we have found a solution for the second problem,” he continued. “We call it ‘man with a brush.’”

There were ongoing experiments at a small solar power station on the Masdar City site as well as many other testing sites around the world, but during the time of our conversation, none of them had been put into large-scale use. In Mahmood’s understanding, the man with a brush, a worker dedicated to gently wiping away dust and mud from the solar panels, became part of the picture, only to reveal the infrastructural potential embedded within the solar panels. Man with a brush could perform a feat that extensive technological innovations could not so far handle, and therefore was fundamental to the emergent renewable energy and clean technology sector of Abu Dhabi. The man with a brush was South Asian or perhaps from the Philippines, he shared a room with other workers in a labor camp outside Abu Dhabi, and he walked around the Masdar City site cleaning solar panels on a daily basis. Overall, the immigrant labor force served as a most effective and essential resource for the materialization and functioning of renewable energy and clean technology infrastructures in the UAE. Yet these humans, who were making the infrastructure work, were most often perceived as disposable tools. Masdar City attempted to help humanity fight climate change and energy scarcity problems, but its understanding of humanity was particular and selective. It did not include the man with a brush.

When I asked Mohammed, a Bangladeshi man who worked in the kitchen and served the Masdar Institute president’s guests, earning six hundred dirham per month (roughly US$160) in exchange for roughly two hundred hours of work, if he knew why so many individuals and groups find the campus worthy of a visit, he shook his head no, then added that a professor at the Institute had told him that solar panels provide energy to the campus. A few days later, Daniel, the on-site architect with Foster + Partners, criticized the conception of renewable energy and clean technology within the compounds of the UAE. “How could sustainability truly be targeted when there is this little attention paid to human capital?” he asked, pointing to the harsh working conditions for the large populations of migrant workers within the United Arab Emirates. Daniel had spent most of his professional career in the United Kingdom prior to moving to Abu Dhabi for the Masdar project, and he had also lived in Germany. He told me that “sustainability is also about claiming some sort of justice, and making sure that what we build leads this very young country toward a better direction. It is also about some kind of equality.” Daniel emphasized that the manual labor that was enabling the construction and maintenance of the projects was too often glossed over, at times framed as a disposable tool, and finally excluded from the future of the spaceship in the desert.

At Masdar City, oil would cease to be the main currency, driverless electric pods would replace cars, and, eventually, possible environmental problems would be avoided through meticulous research and technological discovery. In this science fiction–style narrative, the social and political injustices did not seem to matter much.