Last Updated on
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is devising a grand strategy to ensure its global security during the 21st century.
In 2010, the UAE’s government published the “UAE Vision 2021”, establishing the will “to ensure a sustainable development”. In 2011, the UAE’s political authorities created a national marine environment research centre. In 2014, they created the UAE space agency, which goals and mission are explicitly integrated to the goals of the Vision 2021 (UAE Space Agency).
During the same period, Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE, carried out the building of Masdar City, an urban development elaborated to be an “in vivo” experiment in urban sustainability and renewable energy (Patrick Kingsley, “Masdar: the shifting goalposts of Abu Dhabi’s ambitious eco-city”, Wired, 17 December 2013, and Jean-Michel Valantin, « The United Arab Emirates : The Rise of a Sustainable Industrial Empire?“, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, June 13 2016…).
In 2015, the International Renewable Energy Agency installed its headquarters in Masdar City, in a complex dubbed “the greenest office building in the UAE”, while, in the same time, launching the building of a first nuclear plant.
Those different initiatives by the UAE are revealing a common preoccupation about the future. Their implementation is integrated into a united vision, which is thus turned into a coherent strategy. This happens thanks to the development of capabilities necessary to overcome the currently deploying energy, climate and natural resources planetary crisis.
We have seen in former articles how climate change and the planetary environmental changes are going to be major threats for the UAE during this century, and how the country is devising an industrial grand strategy to attain sustainability and to become a global provider and financer of renewable energy (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Antarctic versus Dubai” and “Alberta mega Wild Fires and the United Arab Emirates Security”, “The Planetary Crisis Rules, Part 1”, The Red Team Analysis Society, 4 January, May 2 and 23 May 2016).
This grand strategy is based on a profound reflexion on the meaning of “sustainability” between now and the middle of this century and on the way to attain it, while, considering the severe threats currently emerging.
We shall see how the UAE political authorities have not only developed the ability to perceive the emergence of threats but also the capability to turn them into opportunities.
Understanding threat and preparing for the future
The sense of strategic threat and of the necessity to prepare for the future can be identified as being at the very origin the UAE.
In effect, the UAE has its origins in the negotiations launched in 1968 by Sheikh Zayed, ruler of Abu Dhabi and by Dubai’s Sheikh Rashid for the creation of a Federation with their neighbours. This initiative was based on the deep worries created by the decision of the British Government to withdraw its troops from the Persian Gulf, thus ending the British military protection of the Emirates (Jonathan Gornall, “Sun sets on the British empire as the UAE raises its flag”, The National, 2 December 2011).
The context was a period of great tensions because of the massive and violent geopolitical shift taking place in the region, combined with the discovery of massive oil reserves and the development of oil production throughout the whole area, including the Abu Dhabi Emirate, during the 1960s (Georges Corm, Le Proche Orient éclaté, 2012).
Several massive political and military tensions had shaken the region between 1956 and 1968, from Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Iran to Bahrain, Iraq and Kuwait (Henry Laurens, Paix et Guerre au Moyen Orient, 2005). In order to maintain the sovereignty of the Emirates, Sheikh Zayed looked for the strategic security that a Federation could bring. Being of the same mind, the Sheiks of seven Emirates decided to end centuries of distrust by creating the UAE in 1971 (Gornall, ibid).
By doing so, the political authorities of the UAE gave themselves the political, economic and strategic means necessary to prevent the combined effects of the geopolitical destabilization of the Persian Gulf and the potential “resource curse” generated by oil, which could be both fatal to their very existence as legitimate rulers of sovereign Emirates.
So, instead of going through a regressive process of denial of the crisis and of withdrawal on their political habits, as often happens in times of crisis (Michel Dobry, Sociologie des crises politiques, 1986), they reacted to the perceived threat by a move of political and strategic innovation and created the United Arab Emirates. That surprise move lessened considerably the potential of threat (Clausewitz, On War, 1832).
So, it appears that the combination of threat happenstance and of its analysis with the willingness to shape the future instead of being its victim lies at the very political origin of the UAE.
Nation-building and answering the depletion threat
Nowadays, this political capability to perceive the potential of threat lying in the future and to turn it into a support for a power project is more developed than ever.
It has allowed the UAE’s political authorities to perceive the formidable emerging threat composed of the different depletion dynamics of the economic and vital resources, which have begun at the planetary scale as well as at the regional level (Dennis and Donnella Meadow, The Limits to growth – the 30 years update, 2004, Michael Klare, Rising powers, shrinking planet, 2008, and The Race for What’s left, the global scramble for the World’s last resources, 2012).
These dynamics of depletion go with the rapid and dangerous contradiction emerging between the economic and demographic growth of the UAE, on the one hand, and, on the other, its water and energy nexus. Indeed, if the population of the UAE counted almost 558 000 people in 1975, it reaches almost 8 million inhabitants today, and the population keeps growing (“UAE Demographics”, Wikipedia). In the same time, the living standard of the Emirates has grown to modern levels. This twin development goes with a high consumption of water (Nick Carter, “ Even as we generate more in the UAE, we must protect our water and power supplies”, The National, August 3, 2014). Only in Abu Dhabi, the water consumption of the city’s population has reached 1.1 billion cubic meters in 2013 and could reach 1.5 bcm in 2030 (Vesela Todorova, “Warning on high water and energy use”, The National, August 2, 2014).
This level of water consumption is made possible thanks to the growing electricity consumption: the city drinking water is produced by co-generation plants, which are producing electricity with natural gas and using the produced heat to desalinate sea water (Carter, ibid). This process is absolutely necessary to maintain such levels of drinking water in such an arid region.
In the meantime, electricity consumption rises with the use of air conditioning by the growing population (Todorova, ibid), which raises harsh questions about the industrial, financial and social affordability of electricity in the decades to come, considering the coming intensification of climate change in Middle East (Damian Carrington, “Extreme Heatwaves could push Gulf climate beyond human endurance, study shows”, The Guardian, 26 October 2015).
Moreover, the co-generation plants are propelled by natural gas, and their consumption is growing with the rate of their electricity and drinking water production. The problem is that this over-consumption is now overtaking the national gas production. (United Arab Emirates Oil, Gas sector business and investment opportunities Yearbook, Volume 1, strategic information and basic regulations, 2016).
These contradictory water and energy dynamics are a risk for the very status of the UAE as an oil exporter. In effect, the peak oil production of the Federation risks happening around 2050. This means a major multi-layered risk is building up in the very development of the UAE: to develop, the country depends on a growing use of oil, gas and water reserves in an intensive way, which also means depleting and over-consuming the very resources and energy needed to keep on developing.
The perception of this threat is expressed, for example, in the speech of Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed:
“In 50 years, when we might have the last barrel of oil, the question is: when it is shipped abroad, will we be sad? … If we are investing today in the right sectors, I can tell you we will celebrate at that moment.” (“Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed inspirational view of a post-oil UAE”, The National, February 10, 2015).”
As we have seen in “The United Arab Emirates, The Rise of an industrial sustainable industrial empire?” (Jean-Michel Valantin, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, June 13 2016), the industrial response to the coming UAE’s peak oil is the development of an industrial and financial renewable energy sector and an urban efficiency energy branch, at the national and international level.
To further their energy security, the UAE political authorities have gone much further to guarantee the continuity of their energy production, for example when deciding in 2012 to build the Barakah nuclear four reactors nuclear plant. The plant is built by the UAE Energy Corporation, through a contract with the Korea Electric Power Corporation. This operation is financed by a 32 billion dollars budget, and from 2017 onwards, the nuclear plant should be able to produce 25% of the electricity production of the country (Naser El Wasmi, “UAE Barakah nuclear plant reaches construction milestone” The National, September 2, 2015 and “Nuclear power in the United Arab Emirates”, World Nuclear Association, Updated April 2016).
The work in progress is closely overlooked by the UAE Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation and by the International Agency for Atomic Energy, as well by numerous Arab countries, very interested in nuclear energy. In 2015, a deal has been signed between the UAE and the Russian Rosatom to import the enriched uranium necessary to the nuclear reactors. The deal goes with the treatment of the nuclear wastes by the exporter (Caline Malek, “UAE and Russia sign deal for enriched uranium”, The National, October 15, 2015).
Thus, the UAE is transitioning from the oil and gas energy model and its limits to an energy mix of carbon, renewable and nuclear. In other terms, the UAE redefines its energy model by devising a strategy that guarantees its own energy supply during the next fifty years, despite the emergence of peak oil.
From oil wells to the Moon … and beyond
This long-term vision and policy aims at keeping the UAE sustainable, whatever happens during the 21st century.
This strategic philosophy is underlying the creation of the UAE space agency in 2014. In effect, the agency is focused on giving the UAE the industrial and legal capability to launch space missions (Adam Schreck, “United Arab Emirates launches space agency strategy”, Phys.org, 25 May 2015). Those could be dedicated to Earth observation, space communication as well as Moon, Mars and asteroids missions (Thamer El Subaihi, “Arab world’s first space mission will launch from Japan in 2020”, The National, March 22, 2016).
To make space commercial mining technically and legally possible, the agency studies both the evolution of international space law and the possibility for projecting capabilities, possibly robots, on the Moon and on the asteroids, in order to mine them for commercial use (Rob Davies, “Asteroid mining could be space’s new frontier: the problem is doing it legally”, The Guardian, 6 February 2016).
This kind of endeavour appears as increasingly interesting in order to compensate the depletion of the Earth mineral deposits through worldwide over-exploitation (Dr Hélène Lavoix, “Beyond fear of near Earth objects: mining resources from space?”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, February 18, 2013). This space policy involves the development of partnerships with the U.S. NASA, the Japan Space Agency and the private agency Virgin Galactic.
Aiming at the Moon and the asteroids to find and “import” minerals goes with a profound renewal of the thinking about sustainability, through the understanding of the planetary “limits to growth” and their transfer to the solar system. The space program also helps the UAE to boost its research development, while politically and industrially sharing its success with its partners, especially in the Middle East (Lucy Barnard, “Mission to space can drive Middle east Northern Africa technology, says first Muslim in orbit”, The National, March 8, 2016). In the meantime, space policy gets the UAE access to this strategic “ultimate high ground” that orbital space and lunar space are (William Burrows, This New Ocean, 1998).
The first space mission should take place in 2021, for the fiftieth anniversary of the UAE. It is politically and strategically important to note that it could turn the UAE into a space power, which would be a very powerful symbol for the country, as well as for the Arab world.
Furthermore, it appears that the multi-layered policies and strategies of energy and environment security and strategy of the UAE are in themselves an extremely powerful support for the scientific, technological and industrial development of the Federation and for its Middle East and international partners.
In the same time, this sustainability and security grand strategy, based on the transition from oil and gas, on the development of a renewable and nuclear energy industrial basis and on a space strategy has become the axis of the UAE’s foreign policy.
The grand strategy thus allows the UAE to develop deals with South Korea, Japan, Russia and the United States. In other terms, the environmental and energy security of the UAE is an impressively efficient political tool to turn the Federation into a pivotal state between the Middle East, Asia, Russia and North America as well as between the Earth and the solar system.
This means also that the UAE is becoming a main driver of the transformation of the very notion of the link between sustainability, security and geopolitics.
It now remains to be seen how this policy is going to interact with the Chinese multi continental strategy of the “new silk road” (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Iran, China and the New Silk Road”, The Red (Team) Analysis, January 4, 2016), closely followed by The Red (Team) Analysis.
To be (soon) continued.
Featured image: Dubai Police Agusta A-109K-2 in flight at sunset (bottom of original picture cropped to satisfy size constraints) by Mehdi Nazarinia [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html) or GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)], via Wikimedia Commons. The top of the building shown in the background is considered as subject to de minimis, and thus permitted by UAE copyright law.
About the author: Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) is the Director of Environment and Security Analysis at The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defence sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.