Is there any ‘green in the Gulf’? : the case of Abu Dhabi

Energy, and the global demand and reliance on fossil fuels, is at the heart of many environmental debates. Scientists are continuously trying to find new, cleaner methods of producing the energy needed to sustain our current lifestyles. However, in discussing the importance of this need, the environmental concerns of the oil-producing states are often overlooked. In the case of the Gulf States, this is generally due to the belief that environmentalism is taking a backseat to rapid industrialisation and a desire to build bigger, better and faster than anywhere else. Simply put, why would a state sustaining itself on the production of fossil fuels look to hasten its demise? Saudi Arabia’s self-interested obstructionist stance on the topic of global warming would appear to back this up. However, dig a little deeper and it is possible to find interest in cleaner energy sources growing within the region, in particular in the emirate of Abu Dhabi.

It would seem a contradiction that Abu Dhabi, with its substantial oil reserves, should be attempting to establish itself at the forefront of cleaner energy production. In fact, in 2008 a WWF ranked it as having the largest ecological footprint per capita in the worldi. However, with a couple of important policy decisions, Abu Dhabi has placed itself years ahead of its small Gulf State neighbours in the environmental fight, even hosting the 2012 World Future Energy Summit. Mari Luomi highlights three key initiatives through which Abu Dhabi are pushing cleaner-energy policy: Masdar; the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA); and its nuclear energy policyii.

The first, and arguably best known, of these initiatives is its ambitious Masdar project. Masdar has been touted as an attempt to build the first sustainable zero-carbon, zero-waste city in the world by relying on a mixture of solar and other renewable energy sources. Work was started on the city in 2008 and initial plans expected it to be completed within 8 years. However, due to a series of setbacks it is now estimated that an additional decade will be required. Key to Masdar is its double function as a sustainable city and an institute for learning. The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST) aims to attract academics focussing on the cutting-edge of sustainable technology. Being built in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), it opened its first degree programme in 2009 and expects to expand each year. Abu Dhabi hopes that this will attract the expertise to broaden their knowledge-base and diversify their energy mix.

The second strand of cleaner energy policy is Abu Dhabi’s hosting of the IRENA headquarters, making it the first Middle Eastern country to host the organisation and facing off strong competition from Germany, Austria and Denmark. At this point, it is important to note that the bid for the headquarters was part of a wider UAE policy rather than that of Abu Dhabi alone. In 2009, IRENA moved to Masdar city with the hope that its new placement could bridge the gap between the developed and developing worlds. This prestigious placement has been supported by Abu Dhabi’s financial aid to the organisation, as well as its investments in renewable energy sources further afield. According to Dr Thani al-Zeyoudi, department head of Energy and Climate Change at the UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs the UAE government is ‘a leading investor in renewable energy around the world’ sponsoring the world’s largest wind farm, the London Array, and a breakthrough solar plant in Spain that can provide power even at night.iii

The third strand of cleaner energy is Abu Dhabi’s nuclear project. This highly contentious policy has attracted much debate both in the region and further afield. Given the UAE’s proximity to Iran and the discourse surrounding Iran’s nuclear capabilities, there has been much speculation behind the reasons for both the UAE’s adoption of this energy source, and its international support. However, it has attempted to mitigate these with a ‘commitment to operational transparency’iv and a reliance on foreign uranium waste disposal. What is clear though, is that the UAE is putting a lot of effort into making this a key part of their future energy mix, alongside their newly-defined goal of 7% national output generated by renewable sources by 2030.v

So what does this all mean in the long term and does this represent a new environmental fervour at the heart of Gulf policy-makers? Ultimately, this move towards backing a cleaner energy source is more based on vested interests and future stability than any desire to safeguard the planet. However, it is a positive step towards factoring environmental concerns into international policies, one that was echoed in Saudi Arabia’s solar panel initiatives and Qatar’s World Cup and Olympic bids where solar panelled stadia were a key feature. In many of these cases, it is a case of self-branding for more economic and security based goals. More importantly though, what are the domestic effects of this approach? Whilst Abu Dhabi is still not as developed environmentally as western states such as Germany or Denmark, there has been a trickle of smaller environmental concerns into day to day life. Water and conservation schemes have been adopted, not just in Abu Dhabi, but in Dubai as well. Alongside this, various organisations such as ‘Heroes of the UAE’ and the Environmental Group have gained support throughout the emirates. By taking on the role of clean energy provider, Abu Dhabi (as part of the UAE) has made a great step towards branding itself as the ‘Green Gulf State’; a title that is likely to be lucrative as time goes on.

i Living Planet Report 2008′ (accessed on 28th September 2012) return to main text
ii M. Luomi, ‘Abu Dhabi’s Alternative-Energy Initiatives: Seizing Climate-Change Opportunities’ Middle East Policy, XVI:4 (Winter 2009), pp. 102 – 117 return to main text
iii Thani al Zeyoudi cited in P. Gardett, ‘Defined by Oil and Gas, UAE Invests in a Global Diversified Energy Future’, 6th August 2012, (accessed on 28th September 2012) return to main text
iv Policy of the United Arab Emirates on the Evaluation and Potential Development of Peaceful Nuclear Energy, (accessed on 26th September 2012) return to main text
v ‘Abu Dhabi Pushes Back Green Energy Goal to 2030’, 7th January 2012 (accessed on 28th September 2012) return to main text

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Published by AsfarEurope in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)