Innovators in the Gulf Envision Traditional Ways to Reduce Reliance on Air Conditioning

Mechanical cooling uses vast amounts of energy, but technical solutions and traditional architecture offer sustainable alternatives that are gaining ground

Innovators in the Gulf Envision Traditional Ways to Reduce Reliance on Air Conditioning
Sunset in Manama, Bahrain. (Helminadia/Getty)

On a warm April day, I hurriedly drove through the congested streets of Manama to attend Bahrain’s first national energy sustainability conference. The temperatures had already started to rise, but it was not yet the scorching, humid heat of summer that would turn every breath into a triumph. As I waited in traffic, the sight of asphalt turning silver under the sun made me feel hotter, but I resisted turning the car’s air conditioning up, in anticipation of the cool temperatures that I knew I was about to step into. Once I arrived, I collected my notebook, voice recorder and jacket and made my way to the conference venue. When I entered the hall, it did not take long for my body to register the thermal shock of the new climate. My skin shriveled up in goosebumps and I grimaced in discomfort. Onstage, a panelist began his presentation by making a request to adjust the temperature of the hall. “I asked them to raise the temperature yesterday, but it’s still cold,” he remarked.

In the Arab Gulf, air conditioning has become a fixture of everyday life, so much so that even in the throes of summer it is not unusual to carry a jacket to many indoor spaces. In some cities, this technology now accounts for up to 70% of peak electricity consumption — at once a necessity and an emblem of environmental cost. As energy-intensive machinery, air conditioning is cooling us indoors while warming the world outside — due to both the high levels of energy it requires and the use of particular refrigerants with a high global warming potential. As anxiety increases about the global spread of air conditioning, there is a pressing need to rethink its use. Given its heavy reliance on mechanical cooling, the Gulf offers one context that can help us think through how this technology first came to be needed, how it took over people’s lives and how it might, in turn, be replaced.

Air conditioning was invented in the United States in 1902, to control the humidity and temperature of a printing plant. An engineer by the name of William Carrier was contracted to devise a solution, which led to the creation of the first modern air conditioner. Once his machine proved successful, Carrier, along with other engineers in his field, began to experiment with various designs to introduce air conditioning as a technology for comfort. The technology was used in commercial buildings from the 1920s, before becoming a household fixture in the 1950s and 1960s.

The adoption of air conditioning in the Gulf occurred along a similar timeline. As I set out to unearth its history in the region, my research took me to Bahrain, the first Gulf state to witness the mechanical control of temperature and humidity. The first air-conditioned buildings were set up in Awali, a town that American engineers and specialists built in 1934 in pursuit of oil. At the time, air conditioning was a novelty even for the American workers whose comfort it catered to. It shielded them from a climate that they deemed hostile and gave them a sense of luxury that set them apart. Not too long after the Americans, British colonial administrators (who formally governed Bahrain between 1861 and 1971) also began to adopt this technology. In 1938, unit air conditioners were installed for the first time in the residences and workplaces of select colonial officials and some local merchant families. Over the following decades, the British introduced a scheme to air-condition other public and private buildings, turning this machine into the ultimate technological solution for cooling in Bahrain and, eventually, the rest of the Gulf.

But it was not that people in Bahrain needed air conditioning. For centuries, they managed the heat and humidity through ingenious architectural solutions. They built their houses with materials selected for their insulating properties, including coral stones, mud and gypsum. They adopted building designs that maximized shade and ventilation. Most houses, for instance, were arranged around an open, central courtyard that provided shaded areas during the day and promoted air circulation. Houses were oriented according to sun and wind paths and were arranged along narrow alleyways to minimize the space exposed to the sun. This was all within living memory. One native of Muharraq City recalled, “It’s not that it wasn’t hot, or we never felt the heat, but we learned how to live with it. We built our houses well.” And it wasn’t just the architecture but also the patterns of life. “We slept on rooftops because they were cooler spaces, and our houses had wind-catchers built into them. Some people would migrate near the coast during the summer as well and live in palm-frond huts. We knew how to cope with the climate.”

These centuries-old solutions, however, would soon be displaced. Beginning in the early 20th century, British administrators replaced local architectural forms in favor of building materials that they regarded as more “modern” but that were, ultimately, not suited to the Gulf’s climate. Slowly but surely, buildings made of heat-absorbing concrete and steel started to emerge. Asphalt started to take over roads, storing heat in the ground and contributing to what the meteorologist Leonard O. Myrup would term “urban heat islands” in 1969. Houses that were once oriented inward — around an open, cooling courtyard — turned outward, relying on air conditioning as a primary mode of ventilation. As Bahrain’s built environment was transformed, people thus became locked into a reliance on mechanical cooling, resulting in a society where most live primarily indoors.

Today, air conditioning is not only a ubiquitous Bahraini reality, but the use of this technology has recently scaled new heights. In the face of intensifying heat, outdoor cooling is becoming a feature of everyday life, in Bahrain and elsewhere in the region — perhaps most (in)famously the outdoor cooling of Qatar’s football stadiums. But while a summer hero for many, this technology and its environmental burden can no longer be taken for granted. As climate change threatens to drive global temperatures even higher, the need for sustainable cooling has become more pressing. In the Gulf, this has meant turning toward other forms of air conditioning.

The most popular form has been district cooling. Increasingly found in expanding and new cities, it relies on the distribution of chilled water to multiple buildings through underground pipes. District cooling promises to be more energy efficient than conventional air conditioning, saving up to 40% of energy consumption. An official from Bahrain’s Urban Planning Authority praised this method as the way forward for Gulf countries. “It’s a very efficient method, and we have to introduce regulations that coordinate between urban planners and developers to ensure that district cooling plants are properly built in our cities before it is too late,” he said. Demand for district cooling has significantly expanded over the past decade and is expected to rise even higher in the decade to come.

In a region blessed with abundant sunshine, solar air conditioning has also emerged as an obvious alternative to conventional air conditioning. Experts predict that the growing integration of solar energy could take the pressure off air conditioning during the hot season. While in Bahrain, I had an opportunity to visit a local factory that produced the country’s first hybrid air conditioner, running on both solar and fossil fuel energy. One of the factory’s engineers proudly showed me their prototype, an air conditioner connected to a large solar panel and monitored over one year. As he explained the success of their product, he noted, “If we start to use this on a large scale, we will save the state about 50% of annual energy consumption, if not more.”

In the meantime, Gulf states have been enforcing stringent energy efficiency regulations for air conditioning. For the first time since their introduction, air conditioners are being given labels detailing their energy performances, making air conditioning, at least in Bahrain, the second technical device to be regulated by the state, after lightbulbs. With the introduction of efficiency requirements, many air conditioners have been banned, and in some cases (in Saudi Arabia) even destroyed for not meeting energy standards.

While promising energy efficiency, these technical interventions are not without their limitations. District cooling, for example, relies on water as well as electricity. In a region that is already facing water scarcity, this raises questions regarding the long-term sustainability of this technology in the Gulf. Indeed, a manager at one district cooling facility in Bahrain explained that obtaining portable water for district cooling is expected to become more challenging. Already, the region depends on desalination — a process that removes salt from seawater, which also requires significant amounts of energy — to compensate for its lack of fresh water. At the same time, extensive sea dredging and land reclamation have affected the quality of the Gulf’s water, making it challenging to use and treat for district cooling. “I’m not even sure if there will be enough water to use for our plants in the future,” the manager remarked.

Similarly, solar air conditioning raises its own set of issues. The size and number of solar panels required to power one air conditioner can be quite large. This poses the problem of how to integrate these panels with existing buildings. Additionally, regular dust accumulation on solar panels can dramatically affect their performance. In a region that is witnessing an increase in the intensity and frequency of dust storms, this could be a particular challenge for solar panel operators.

Whether ultimately successful or not, all of these technical interventions — district, solar and more energy-efficient conventional air conditioning — share one thing: a belief in air conditioning as the ultimate and only solution to keep humans cool. To Hassan, a Kuwaiti state engineer whom I met during a regional sustainability conference in Kuwait, it is this underlying assumption that stands between the Gulf and more sustainable ways of achieving comfort. “We can only invest so much in enhancing the energy efficiency of air conditioning,” he said, “but we need to go beyond the machine to break our addiction to it. Look at us now, we’re literally inside a fridge!”

If beating the Gulf’s “addiction,” as Hassan put it, requires moving beyond air conditioning, then the question that confronts Bahrain and the rest of the Gulf today is not which form of air conditioning to use but, rather, how to loosen air conditioning’s hold on people’s imaginations, where life without mechanical cooling has become inconceivable.

Fortunately, many are already questioning the centrality of air conditioning. While often faced with rigid building regulations that limit the scope of experimentation, many Bahraini and Gulf architects are drawing on the region’s cultural repertoire to prioritize low-carbon designs. Some have turned to history, recreating the traditional inner courtyard in an effort to achieve greater levels of shade and ventilation within houses. Others have experimented with wall thickness to enhance thermal resistance and considered placing air conditioners strategically, mimicking the distribution of windows in the past to facilitate better air flow. These architects also stress positioning buildings according to the path of the sun and minimizing the amount of glass used in sun-facing facades. As one Bahraini architect argued, “We need to first think and experiment of how else we can achieve comfort. Air conditioning should be a last resort for us when we design buildings.”

As valuable as the lessons of the past are to the present, new building practices are also being promoted by architects. At Bahrain’s national energy sustainability conference, the architect Noor Abdulmageed presented a design prototype that used the earth’s natural cooling capacity by building underground. Using local weather data and climate analysis, Abdulmageed demonstrated that building at a depth of 5 to 10 meters would significantly enhance a building’s thermal performance. Adding a sunken open courtyard to her design, she elaborated in an interview with Gulf Construction magazine that “The ground temperature profile at a depth of 7 to 10 m is a constant 22 deg C, with Bahrain’s rich fabric of underground water channels contributing to the cooler environment.”

Abdulmageed supplemented her proposal with a social survey of 150 residents, showing that her design also fulfills a social function by meeting local expectations of privacy. “Privacy was essential for the respondents, who were completely dependent on mechanical cooling and lacked knowledge on environmental techniques,” she remarked. Whether this design will eventually be adopted remains to be seen. Suffice it to say that the architectural endeavors of Abdulmageed and other architects offer one route “going beyond the machine” of air conditioning without necessarily resorting to high-tech solutions.

Perhaps just as pressing as the efforts of architects to reduce reliance on air conditioning is addressing the discomfort of the technology. Asking building management to turn the air conditioner down or describing life as “living in a fridge” — these are not unusual complaints in the region. Such excessive levels of coolness often prompt occupants to carry with them an extra layer of clothing, step outside to warm their bodies or even, on some occasions, bring mini heaters to their workplaces. One woman working in a bank noted, “Sometimes I drive from work back home with the car’s air conditioning off in August only because I’ve been freezing at work for hours!”

Excessive coolness — which has also been observed in other places dependent on air conditioning, such as the U.S. and the Philippines — is not the only issue that encourages occupants to remove themselves from the air-conditioned indoors. Many also dislike the feel of direct, cool air on the skin, the thermal shocks that the body goes through as it moves in and out of air-conditioned spaces or the emotional and physical effects they associate with spending prolonged periods inside mechanically controlled, sealed interiors. These experiences and responses not only reveal that the desire for air conditioning is far from absolute but also indicate a common problem: Engineers often devise solutions without considering the experiences of the people involved.

Today, in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Gulf, engineers rely on professional cooling standards published by the American Society for Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). These standards specify a universal comfort condition that fails to account for the fact that comfort is culturally and socially specific rather than universal and static. Critical of ASHRAE standards, a Bahraini expert in sustainable design explained, “These standards are scientific, but are they accurate? I don’t know. … If I were an engineer, I would sit with the building’s occupants to know what comfort means for them. It just makes no sense to say one size fits all.”

Part of the problem is that ASHRAE’s comfort standards have been derived from studies conducted on select populations that do not necessarily represent the experiences of people in the Gulf. Initially, such experiments were conducted exclusively on young white American males. Today, the history of ASHRAE standards is being thrust into the spotlight as commentators in different parts of the world document a gendered discrepancy in comfort at the workplace, prompting some to describe air conditioning as a “sexist machine” designed to accommodate male comfort. For many women working in Bahrain, the story is no different. This poses the obvious question: If people are not comfortable with the environments engineers deliver, how can engineering decisions be revised in a way that will recognize people’s actual expectations and wants?

At a time when global warming threatens planetary life and the world faces energy shortages due to conflict and shifting geopolitics, it is imperative to examine the assumptions underlying our excessive energy use. The Gulf has some of the highest per capita energy consumption figures in the world, and much of this is the result of artificial cooling. Rather than looking to ever more technical solutions, such as solar energy or district cooling, we could instead look to the solutions of the past, which required zero fossil fuel input. By challenging architectural and engineering assumptions, we can perhaps break this reliance on a technology that many people find, in any case, uncomfortable. If we can do this, it will not only improve the lives of over-cooled locals but will also help reduce carbon emissions. It is a win-win approach, yet air conditioning has cast a spell over our lives that seems almost impossible to break.

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