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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.