Visualization by IQAir.

Where is Abu Dhabi’s Air Pollution Coming From?

Should we be concerned about Abu Dhabi’s air pollution? By understanding where it comes from and how to monitor it, we can take more effective measures to stay healthy.

May 2, 2021

Looking out from the library couches, I often wonder if the thick cloud of haze obscuring the Abu Dhabi skyline is naturally occurring — whether it is a result of sand or pollution. The image is a mirage of modernity, where even the presidential palace known as Qasr al Watan, only a few kilometers away, is hidden from the naked eye. Though this image conjures up nostalgia for campus life, should we be concerned about the reality of Abu Dhabi’s air pollution?
Air pollution broadly encompasses many different airborne particles, but air quality indices often only measure five pollutants: particulate matter (PM), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and ozone (O3). The following chart sums up the principal sources of these pollutants in the UAE:
Table compiled from data provided by Environmental Agency – Abu Dhabi
Particulate matter is smaller than 10 micrometers in size. It is common in the UAE, as it comes from a variety of nearby sources. Among these include sand from nearby desert, dust from construction sites, traffic congestion, nearby industrial centers and intense sunlight creating greater chemical reactions with other pollutants like sulfur dioxide. The U.S. Air Quality Index (AQI), a system developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and an international standard of air quality, uses these five pollutants to calculate air quality — denoted by a number between zero and 500. The chart below summarizes the levels of AQI. For reference, Abu Dhabi usually averages between 20 and 80 AQI.
Table by Cameron Wehr.
Is the haze over Abu Dhabi natural?
The short answer is yes — partially. Abu Dhabi is situated downstream in the Gulf from particulate hotspots such as Kuwait, which means that wind channels from the Persian Gulf can either heighten or diminish particulate matter depending on their currents. Additionally, intense sunlight and heat, especially during the summer months, contribute to tropospheric ozone (O3) deposits along the island, otherwise known as smog — a secondary pollutant that forms from hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides (both commonly due to traffic, oil refineries and heavy industry processes). However, studies have shown that the air pollution in Abu Dhabi, especially along the interior of the emirate, is most likely due to the movement of sand deposits. Hence, the haze that we see over Abu Dhabi is probably naturally occurring sand exacerbated due to human caused smog.
Air Quality and Urban Planning
Perhaps more concerning, however, is the fact that areas immediately inland of Abu Dhabi island are more susceptible to increased air pollution because of coastal winds, abundance of sand and more industrial activities. As a result, suburbs like Khalifa City and Maffraq consistently rank in the top five areas in Abu Dhabi with the highest air pollution. Similarly, Mussaffah, another inland suburb, consistently ranks at the top, with AQI levels rarely dropping below the 100 mark for the majority of the year. Unsurprisingly, Mussaffah is an industrial city, with heavy construction and oil processing operations that exacerbate air pollution.
In spite of regular unhealthy air pollution in these areas, the Urban Structure Framework Plan from the Abu Dhabi Planning Council projects that around 815,000 residents will live inland by 2030 — mostly in areas that consistently rank with unhealthy AQIs, especially in hotter summer months.
Figure courtesy of Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council.
Promising Trends and Increasing Awareness
Despite these concerning migratory trends to areas with unhealthy air quality, there are signs of improvement in UAE AQI. In 2018, yearly levels averaged at 49.9, but this declined to 38.9 in 2019 and declined even more to 29.2 in 2020. Though 2020 was an anomaly given the sudden decrease in industrial activities due to the pandemic, the trend signals that air pollution can be minimized for the better health of UAE residents, in the future.
Perhaps most admirable is the increased number of air quality monitoring stations throughout the UAE — a priority that the Environmental Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) has focalized within recent years. These stations update the UAE National Standard for particulate matter every hour and are publicly accessible through the EAD’s Air Quality Monitoring System.
Additionally, widespread recognition of Abu Dhabi’s air pollution haze has piqued the interest of multiple students and faculty at NYUAD. For example, Vince Nguyen, Class of 2021, was particularly intrigued that not many people at NYUAD had questioned the state of Abu Dhabi’s air pollution. In a poll that he conducted for his Interactive Media capstone project, he found that: “75% of the respondents said they think air pollution was an issue in AD and the UAE, but only 5% regularly tracked air quality data.” Seeing this as a problem, he created a dashboard tracking air quality in different areas of campus, as well as an interactive installation that visualized air pollutants projected around participants. The result fostered a greater awareness and dialogue about air quality among NYUAD Facebook groups, where students expressed their concern about unhealthy AQI levels.
How can you ensure that you stay healthy with Abu Dhabi’s air pollution?
Despite Abu Dhabi’s air pollution being a somewhat unavoidable natural phenomenon — we still should exercise caution to prevent adverse health consequences while living, studying and working in the city. The EAD recommends that individuals reduce home energy and air conditioning use, insulate houses effectively, reduce private transport and switch to cleaner automobile alternatives like electric cars or natural gas vehicles.
Moreover, IQAir — a comprehensive air quality database and data visualization site — recommends that individuals purchase air purifiers for their houses and cars, as well as air quality monitors in order to check if one should stay indoors, whenever possible and advisable. To avoid inhaling particulate matter and other volatile organic compounds, it is always safer to wear a mask.
What are future resources for discussing air pollution?
Two websites provide documentation about the current state of Abu Dhabi’s air pollution:
If you would like to get more personalized information about indoor air quality, consider buying an indoor air quality monitor to see when air pollution is particularly bad. Perhaps by being more cognizant of air quality on campus and in Abu Dhabi, we can create a greater awareness around air pollution and human exacerbated climate issues.
Cameron Wehr is a staff writer and Data Editor. Email him at
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