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Security by Design in Abu Dhabi

In what is today the center of Abu Dhabi, in the mid 1700s a local tribe leader discovered fresh water—a precious resource—and built a watchtower to protect it from intruders. Over time, a small community developed around this building, which was converted into a fort. That fort, Qasr al-Hosn, became the spiritual center of the present-day emirate.

It is fitting that the now-powerful emirate arose through what began as an exercise in security planning. Two hundred and fifty years later, that process is repeating itself on a much grander scale.

Abu Dhabi, the largest of seven emirates making up the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is the site of an ancient civilization that sprang out of the arid landscape in the 1970s to become one of the world’s fastest developing places. The city of Abu Dhabi, the country’s capital, was originally planned for an estimated maximum population of 600,000. That number topped 2.5 million in 2013, according to the Abu Dhabi Statistics Centre.

Planners have developed the city using modern design principles, often enlisting experts in urban planning and architectural design from around the world. 

Another important characteristic of the capital is community safety. Since the very first stone was set to create Qasr al-Hosn, Abu Dhabi City has had a long history of low crime rates. It was recognized as the Middle East’s safest city by the Mercer Quality of Living Index in 2011. This can be attributed, in part, to the design of safe and secure communities.

The most recent display of this commitment comes in the form of a new planning policy document, The Abu Dhabi Safety and Security Planning Manual (SSPM). Initiated by the Abu Dhabi Executive Council in April 2011, the SSPM is the first of its kind in the Middle East, and establishes a system for approaching crime prevention and counterterrorism in the earliest stages of a project’s life: during planning and design.

PLAN 2030

Despite its low crime rates, Abu Dhabi is not hermetically sealed from troublemakers and has experienced a rise in criminal activity over the past decade. In response, the city has implemented different types of community safety initiatives to prevent crime from progressing into a more significant problem. This includes the SSPM, which originated from Abu Dhabi’s Urban Structure Framework Plan, otherwise known as Abu Dhabi Vision 2030, or Plan 2030. 

Published in 2007 to establish a 25-year program for evolving the urban environment, Plan 2030 acknowledges the importance of creating safe and secure communities and calls for the development of “a set of guidelines for crime prevention through building and landscaping design.” Sitting at the forefront of this responsibility is the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council (UPC), the government body accountable for regulating property development across the county of Abu Dhabi, as well as for commissioning both Plan 2030 and the SSPM.

The UPC recognized that there was a need to consult specialists in safety and security planning to undertake this work and established a Safety and Security Team (SST) in 2009. From this point forward, the SST added value to UPC projects by providing input during the development of planning documents. 

It quickly became apparent to the UPC that the SST faced multiple challenges that could jeopardize its overall effectiveness. Chief among these challenges was the lack of crime prevention planning guidelines applicable to the context of Abu Dhabi.

Planners and designers found themselves developing safety and security strategies without the benefit of guidelines. Consideration of security needs were often postponed until late in the design process and, often, without specialist input provided by a qualified security professional. This proved to be a fundamental error leading to missed opportunities and costly constraints. 

The crime prevention and security solutions presented to the UPC for planning approval often failed to satisfy government stakeholders for a number of different reasons. Most prevalent was the proposal of solutions that were not proportionate to risk, jeopardized a project’s vision for function and aesthetics, or did not provide the resources necessary for the security function to be successful. Examples of such missteps included insufficient security facilities or infrastructure to support large-scale master plans.

Most projects were granted UPC planning approval without having to complete additional work; however, more significant projects were held up and were required to develop and integrate an appropriate security strategy prior to gaining approval. Although better than nothing, the strategy available for these projects was often costly and labor intensive.

For example, parking was often located directly under buildings that would host dense crowds and, as a result, required a combination of vehicle screening measures and blast hardening to defend against a vehicle bomb. A more effective and cost-efficient solution only available during early planning is to simply situate parking anywhere besides under the building.


These instances of poor planning prompted the creation of the SSPM. In April 2011, the UPC commissioned a team of planning, design, safety, and security professionals to work with private and public-sector stakeholders to develop and review the technical content for the SSPM. The project stakeholders included representatives from local developers and higher education institutions, in addition to officers from various federal and local security entities who could add insight into the current safety and security challenges faced by Abu Dhabi.

Benchmarking. The development of the SSPM involved a series of workshops to identify the factors specific to Abu Dhabi that would provide context for the safety and security principles. The workshops identified a need for a benchmarking study to examine international best practices and determine whether they were applicable to Abu Dhabi.

To establish international best practices, the study examined more than 50 documents from around the world on crime prevention and counterterrorism planning, as well as best practices in Australia, the Netherlands, Pakistan, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Each country differed in approach, and those differences provided a valuable basis for comparison.

Focusing on crime-prevention planning first, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands displayed the most comprehensive approaches. Both countries have programs undertaken by a central government that are supported by law or decree. Both countries also have incentive programs to increase the adoption of best practices, such as the Secured by Design program in the United Kingdom and the Secured Housing program in the Netherlands. They also have well-defined processes, standards, and guidelines that are publicly available and can be referred to in the planning process. In addition, an official stakeholder body is established to oversee proper implementation of the program and to assist local developers and property owners.

Similar programs are instituted in the United States and Australia; however, these operate at the local government level and only for particular areas of the country.

Shifting from crime prevention to counterterrorism planning, good practice was observed in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Each country had implemented a national counterterrorism strategy, including the establishment of programs to protect critical national assets and crowded places against credible security threats. At the time of the study, however, only the United Kingdom and the United States had outlined processes, guidelines, and testing and evaluation criteria for counterterrorism.

Most noticeable during the international benchmark study was a lack of integration between crime prevention and counterterrorism planning to include different processes and independent review bodies. The two disciplines often offered separate guidance that was contradictory.

Best practices. Armed with this information, the SSPM project team was able to identify global best practices, as well as applicable guidance for both crime prevention and counterterrorism planning. It became evident that existing practices in Abu Dhabi did not always reach this standard and that specific changes were necessary to create safe and secure communities.

However, not all of the differences warranted attention. Some of the crime prevention practices could not be transferred from western societies due to marked differences in culture, religion, and climate. For example, the use of ornamental fencing to define a change in ownership and enhance natural surveillance, a common practice in the United States, is less applicable in Abu Dhabi because an emphasis is placed on privacy and the use of high masonry walls. Achieving natural surveillance over an exterior public space from the upper floors of surrounding buildings is also more difficult, as landscaping is specifically designed to offer people shade during the city’s extremely hot summers.

Following the benchmark study, the UPC, on the advice of the SSPM Project Team, elected to implement a centralized system similar to the United Kingdom model. The approach requires that safety and security be considered in the review of all development planning applications submitted for UPC approval, and that a team of specialist advisors be tasked with enforcing the new policy, principles, and guidance outlined in the SSPM.

It was essential that the SSPM cover both crime prevention and counterterrorism planning to avoid the conflicting issues observed in the benchmarking study. In addition, the SSPM needed to target planners, architects, and landscape and urban designers, as opposed to strictly safety and security practitioners. Because the SSPM needed to explain security issues to nonpractitioners, the project team included an abundance of detail. This necessitated a graphic-heavy document, offering many examples and case studies of good and bad practices, with the majority of these examples taken from local events.

For example, the orientation and wedge shape of the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi is highlighted in a case study as an innovative planning solution due to design elements that help the building mitigate blast effects. Additionally, the use of a breakwater and water pilings as a boundary treatment to deny maritime craft access to an island museum is another case used to emphasize the value of creative material selection during design.


The SSPM vision is to ensure the creation of safe and secure communities that enhance quality of life and reflect the UAE’s unique identity. The SSPM project team and stakeholders identified eight planning and design principles that would be instrumental in delivering this vision. These principles are access, structure, ownership, surveillance, activity, physical security, public image, and availability.

The process of applying these principles is outlined in the SSPM. It ensures that the safety and security solution for a project is a fit for purpose, is proportionate to the risk, and is balanced with other development objectives.

So how do users of the SSPM determine how much safety and security are required on a project? This is ultimately dependent on a combination of different factors such as development size, use, function, type of occupant, capacity of the venue, stakeholder requirements, and the surrounding context.

An online decision support tool (DST) was developed to analyze a project’s general context and provide users with an initial awareness as to whether safety and security should play a more significant part in planning and design. The DST categorizes projects as either high or low priority. Projects found to be high priority are assigned a safety and security advisor from the UPC and provided guidance throughout the life of the project. These projects include those warranting national interest, such as government buildings or crowded places, such as stadiums. These high-priority projects are more likely to warrant security strategies that will impact planning decisions, like site selection, spatial layouts, vehicle and pedestrian movement framework plans, and the placement of critical infrastructure and facilities, like parking and service bays.

Safety and security are less of a planning consideration for low-priority projects and are primarily achieved through design features. Residential and commercial properties are more likely to be viewed as low priority.

To help owners, planners, and designers understand how much security they need, the SSPM contains a planning toolkit and a design toolkit. Each toolkit captures particular aspects of planning and design that can be leveraged to manage conflict and risk, as well as to facilitate the application of layered security. For example, a scenario offered in the site-selection section is the placement of a high-rise apartment building directly next to a government site. This spatial relationship may be inappropriate if it will enable public users occupying higher floors of the residential building to view sensitive activity taking place on the government site. This sort of issue must be addressed during the initial planning process.

A series of checklists and case studies was used to demonstrate the benefit, practical use, and breadth of applications associated with the SSPM. This includes a chapter dedicated to local case studies with unique dispositions, such as an existing luxury conference hotel, a new large-scale residential development, and the revitalization of an existing downtown community.


Because the SSPM was recently implemented, it is too early to evaluate its impact on crime rates. Nonetheless, the SSPM represents a significant triumph for the security industry and the Abu Dhabi government. For the first time in the emirate’s history, safety and security are permanent fixtures of an integrated planning and design process.  

Successfully communicating this message to the development community and receiving its endorsement will be the ultimate indicator of the SSPM’s success. The initial response has been positive, but the UPC is actively seeking feedback, working with the development community, and looking for ways to enhance and simplify the system and planning approval process.

Gone are the days where engineers and designers relied solely on off-the-shelf safety and security solutions. Developers now have the guidance and resources necessary to be successful in creating safe and secure communities. They just need to look at Qasr al-Hosn for inspiration.

Hunter R. Burkall, PSP, is associate director of security consulting for WSP in the Middle East. He was formerly a safety and security specialist for the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council. He is a member of ASIS International and serves on the ASIS Security Architecture and Engineering Council and the ASIS Supply Chain and Transportation Security Council.