Adequate and affordable housing is a basic human need. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), housing is treated as a right of every Emirati national. This right to housing is derived from the state’s constitution, which guarantees improved living standards and quality of life for every Emirati.
The UAE offers two national housing programs — the Sheikh Zayed Housing Program (SZHP) and the President’s Initiative (PI) — that provide subsidies for affordable homeownership. In addition to these two programs, individual emirates, particularly Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, and Ras Al Khaimah, offer their own housing programs in varying degrees. Collectively, these cost federal and local governments several billion dirhams. Among the seven emirates, those who live in Ras Al Khaimah have benefitted the most from the national housing schemes, followed by Sharjah and Fujairah residents.
All of this begs answers to the following few questions: 1. How effective have the national housing programs—the SZHP and the PI—been in making housing affordable to Emiratis in Ras Al Khaimah? 2. How satisfied are the beneficiaries of the programs with the approval process, housing design, and locations? 3. What impact has each housing scheme had on overall urban form and alignment with local policies?
The UAE currently follows a housing approach that is situated between the provider and support approaches, but is increasingly shifting to the provider approach. This means the government is shouldering more and more responsibility for producing housing to meet deficits in the housing supply and to improve housing quality for those unable to house themselves.
Despite several limitations of the provider approach in general, it is working in the UAE. This is primarily because of three reasons: the state’s aim to improve living conditions for its citizens, the relatively small Emirati population, and the ongoing availability of funds to finance the housing construction. Still, the question of long-term sustainability of the two programs looms large as these projects are vulnerable to potential financial risks, such as economic slumps like the real estate crash in 2008 and a heavy reliance on revenues from nonrenewable resources such as oil and gas.
Beneficiaries of the two national programs in Ras Al Khaimah seem largely satisfied, but suggest improvement to the approval process, eligibility criteria, housing design and standards, and location decisions. The growth spurred by the two programs, especially SZHP, has significantly added to the sprawling urban form of the Ras Al Khaimah municipality. This is evident in the non-contiguous development, with sporadic low-density residential development that includes leap-frogged higher density regions.
To make housing programs financially and environmentally sustainable, every stakeholder must play a role. Possible ways this could be achieved include; the federal government and the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah allowing other sectors of the economy to participate more actively in housing provision; the Ras Al Khaimah Municipality strengthening and enforcing its development standards; and, individual beneficiaries following local plans, embracing sustainable building practices, and using the programs thoughtfully.
To learn more about the state of national housing programs in the UAE, as well as their impact on urban planning and the environment, check out Exploring the Provision of Affordable Housing in Ras Al Khaimah an AQF publication by Dr. Sandeep Agrawal.