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The shamal are northwesterly winds that start in Turkey, Iraq and Saudi Arabia’s high plains. As they soar across the Arabian Gulf, the winds kick up dust and sand. The results are reduced or zero visibility on the ground and in the skies, miserable conditions outdoors and respiratory illnesses. And they are increasing in frequency and strength.
Twice, these sandstorms hit Dubai during my stay there and currently they are smacking Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other Gulf states. The results are devastating for anyone who suffers from respiratory problems including asthma. Meanwhile the country’s ubiquitous construction projects do not help air quality, either.
Fortunately anyone living in Dubai can access an efficient public health care system and private health care plans are widely available and affordable for many residents. With that high standard of living comes impressive global macroeconomic rankings. The UAE’s gross domestic product per capita is one of the highest in the world; its foreign reserves per capita rank third among the world’s countries. The country’s wealth provides the government the means to fix the prices of many foods and medicines, so shopping is cost effective at hypermarkets or a petrol station’s convenience store. Dubai is a place that offers a more comfortable and lucrative way of life for many expatriate workers when compared to the opportunities available in their home countries. For Emiratis, life today is sublime.
But like those winds, trouble could roar at any moment. Other global rankings are not so flattering. The UAE’s per capita carbon footprint is within the world’s top ten nations. Data from the past decade suggest that the rate of asthma in the UAE is among the highest in the world.
Sustainability and corporate social responsibility are gaining traction in Dubai, but obstacles lie in the way of a greener city. Rapid development leads to growing pains. In one generation, Dubai and the UAE have transformed to a point that took many developed countries decades or even centuries. Cheap energy and water lend citizens and expatriates little incentive to moderate their consumption of these precious resources. As Dubai expands, the city’s overall design has focused on automobiles, not pedestrians. Driving conditions on highways with all of the frantic speeding and tailgating inspire commuters to drive large petrol-guzzling SUVs, not puny cars like the Toyota Yaris I rented when I commuted to Abu Dhabi from Dubai for two days.
Finally, Emiratis comprise less than 17 percent of their country’s population; hence the majority of the emissions and resulting health problems are caused by people who will not stay in the UAE forever and do not behave as if they have stake in the country. The perception is that many visitors and expatriates are quick to criticize the country from which they simultaneously profit. This flippant attitude is a barrier to any constructive dialogue that can heal and change Dubai into an even better place to live and work.
So how can the increasing number of sustainability advocates and professionals in Dubai find the right chord and ensure their messages resonate? An emphasis on public health is the start. Communicating the correlation and causation of Dubai’s ravenous consumption and nagging health problems are a means by which to combat the UAE’s role in climate change. Constructive discourse, not attacks, is necessary to start changing hearts and minds in this country of 7.5 million that is already sensitive to criticism from the outside world.
And the UAE has an opportunity to lead at this year’s Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, so the country’s Rio +20 delegation would be wise to tackle the problem of health security this summer. Emiratis’ health depends on tackling the underlying causes now.