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Leon Kaye headshot

Six Ways the Middle East Can Help Build a More Sustainable Global Economy

By Leon Kaye
Middle East

Like many global events and conferences, the marquee sustainability gathering in the Middle East, Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW), had to scale back its plans as it went virtual last week. Nevertheless, the week-long event promised new developments on renewables, sustainable development, youth engagement and food security.

Naming the Gulf region and sustainability in the same sentence may seem counterintuitive. After all, this is region beset with a harsh climate, lacks few resources other than oil and gas and is home to countless temples of consumerism and excess – monstrous shopping malls, one of which in Dubai is home to a ski slope. But as last week's virtual event in Abu Dhabi shows, countless opportunities leading to a more responsible, low-carbon economy could be on the horizon.

A new Middle East?

There is growing awareness across the Gulf and that planning for a future economy not based on oil revenues is the reality; and to their credit, some of the region's leaders have harnessed their oil largess for positive change – as in education, philanthropy and foreign aid – rather than simply squandering it.

On that point, there are several challenges on which this region can play a key role or even lead. Some of the following six issues lend themselves to the Middle East’s geopolitical realities – others, such as technology investment, show long-term strategic thinking of a future not based on fossil fuels.

Desalination that’s far less energy intensive

Here’s one thing the UAE and Israel have in common, other than the normalization of diplomatic relations: both countries are also both desalination superpowers. While both nations’ prowess on this technology is impressive, there is a downside: the massive amount of energy that’s needed to turn seawater into freshwater.

One desalination pilot project based between the cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, however, shows promise. Five test desalinations plants operated in the small town of Ghantoot to see whether low-cost, energy-efficient desalination technology could ever scale up. The result, a process that uses solar-powered reverse osmosis, may have the potential to combat water scarcity in the near future.

Photo: a view of one section of a pilot desalination plant along the UAE coast
Photo: a view of one section of a pilot desalination plant along the UAE coast (Image credit: Leon Kaye)

Food security

Over a decade ago, wealthier Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states were locked in a race to invest in lands across regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America in order to secure their long-term food security. Critics accused those nations of accelerating a worldwide “land grab” that would bolster rich Middle East nations at the expense of far poorer citizens. Governments within the Gulf region responded that such strategies were necessary to reduce dependence on pricey imports and food subsidies. The pandemic has revived those fears, as agriculture generates little economic activity in any of these countries – no more than 2.5 percent, in fact.

These same GCC governments have been coy about how these land investments will factor into their long-term food security strategies; and in a large part, they’ve been able to stay silent because of how global agriculture at a macro level is currently performing. Despite water scarcity, climate change and shocks related to the global pandemic, the world has been able to produce far more food than in did during the last global economic crisis. Impressive yields for now shouldn’t nudge the Middle East toward complacency, however.

The punishing Middle Eastern climate actually is an opportunity for the region to lead the world on innovations in agriculture. Finding ways to harness seawater for agriculture purposes, such as past projects in Jordan, Qatar and the UAE, have a chance to become another tool in the Middle East’s foreign aid strategy – one that’s been severely tested due to the global COVID outbreak.

Green hydrogen

In the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi is exploring green hydrogen opportunities through the renewable energy company, Masdar, and its eponymous urban innovation center on the outskirts of the country’s capital. This strategy builds upon Masdar’s track record of funding wind and solar projects within and outside the UAE to meet the demand for clean power across the globe. Plans call for a demonstration-scale green hydrogen plant at Masdar City to produce fuel for ground transportation, shipping and aircraft.

Investing in renewables worldwide

Over the past decade, Masdar has been investing in wind and solar power developments to meet skyrocketing demand for clean power across the Middle East region, including projects in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Oman. But the company’s portfolio stretches far beyond North Africa and the Middle East, with similar projects in Pacific island states, the Indian Ocean and Sub-Saharan Africa. The company has long been able to hire both local and expat expertise, with smaller nations benefitting as a result.

Last year, Abu Dhabi announced what it said could become the world’s largest solar power installation, a 2-gigawatt plant slated for completion next year 20 miles outside the city center.

An hour’s flight away, similar efforts are going on in Qatar, with the country’s sovereign wealth fund announcing a recent joint venture partnership with Enel Green Power to explore opportunities to invest in renewables projects across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Smart cities and sustainable design

One argument about the importance of Masdar City is that if sustainable building designs can work in a region where summer temperatures on average hover around 110°F (43°C) in the summer, well, they can thrive anywhere. Though Masdar had to roll back many of its ambitious plans a decade ago (largely because Abu Dhabi had little choice but to throw Dubai a financial lifeline during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis), new projects keep emerging outside the development’s original core.

Leaders in the global real estate sector who see the value in more responsibly built developments may want to take notes from the recent launch of Masdar Green REIT, which the company says is the UAE’s first sustainable real estate investment trust.

There’s another project real estate professionals should keep their eyes on: an $82 million mixed-use development that heralds itself as the “world’s most sustainable mall” that opened last year.

Technology that’s equitable and accessible for all

New technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) have been among the hottest sectors to emerge worldwide, but with such advancements come concerns about bias and ethics. A new AI university and research center in Abu Dhabi's Masdar City could help level the playing field, allowing for AI to work for all citizens instead of discriminating against them. That effort builds on a $300 million fund an Abu Dhabi holding company launched in its drive to attract more startups to Masdar City, where several hundred are already based – offering entrepreneurs an opportunity to launch their business ideas with minimal red tape.

Image credit of Abu Dhabi, UAE: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye