Modern societies, economies and businesses become increasingly unsustainable because of the convergence of their complex and in-built vulnerabilities with climate change. However, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) has initiated a very interesting strategy: the experimentation with and promotion of sustainability on a national and international scale, in order to support an adapted way of life as well as a proficient strategic, economic and business model.
This strategy aims at addressing two issues of primary concern to the Emirates. First, the Emirates must find a way to remain viable knowing that climate change is going to turn the Gulf region into a very challenging place (Damian Carrington, “Extreme Heatwaves could push Gulf climate beyond human endurance, study shows”, Le Gardien, 26 October 2015). Relatedly, and second, the U.A.E. must find a way to maintain its geopolitical influence, which emerged with oil, when oil and gas reserves risk being depleted by 2050.
In this framework, it seems that the U.A.E. seeks to become a new kind of geopolitical power through the promotion of renewable energy and sustainability.
In the first part, we shall thus focus on the link being made by the U.A.E.’s political authorities between security and renewable energy. Then, we shall see how the U.A.E., and especially Abu Dhabi, becomes a leader of what we call the sustainability revolution. Finally we shall emphasise how this leadership becomes a new and powerful comparative advantage.
“Renewing” the UAE’s energy security
On 10 February 2015, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, one of the most senior officials of the U.A.E.’s security apparatus, declared:
“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”, Le National, February 10, 2015).
Sheikh al-Nahyan is, in the same time, the principal adviser to the President of the U.A.E. on energy issues, Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and a member of the board of Abu Dhabi’s powerful sovereign fund (“The Mind of Mohamed bin Zayed”, Al Bawaba News, 17-03-2015).
What Sheikh al-Nahyan emphasises is that the coming depletion of oil and gas resources is going to deeply affect the U.A.E., because the country is one the current major energy powers with 6% of the world oil reserves while it “holds the seventh-largest proved reserves of natural gas in the world” (U.S. E.I.A., “U.A.E.”, May 18, 2015), notably through the Emirate of Abu Dhabi (one of the seven emirates of the Federation called the U.A.E.), which holds 94% of these oil reserves and 92 % of the gas reserves (Oil & Gas Journal, Worldwide Look at Reserves and Production, January 1, 2015).
In other words, the Emirati political authorities, at the highest level, are committed to a national energy transition strategy. Notably, the official in charge of national defence and energy issues is fully integrating into his political thought the peak oil problematic, i.e. the process that drives an oil or gas deposit to depletion, after the maximum of extraction has been reached; as a result, this peak production is followed by an inexorable decline (Gaurav Agnihotri, “Peak oil: Myth or Coming Reality?”, Prix du pétrole.com, June 5, 2015).
The future oil depletion is combined with the dangers stemming from climate change and related rise of temperatures the entire Persian Gulf and its population will face over the coming decades, as seen in “Alberta’s wild mega wild fire and the United Arab Emirates security” (Jean-Michel Valantin, May 23, 2016).
Thus, the U.A.E.’s authorities are grounding their political and strategic thinking in the acceptance of the reality of peak oil and climate change, as opposed to denial and “climate skepticism” (Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything, 2014). This very robust understanding goes with the capability to accept that massive environmental changes are on their way (“Scientific consensus on global warming”, Union of Concerned Scientists).
Acknowledging this difficult reality is what allows the U.A.E.’s authorities to elaborate their thinking to find a way through the challenging times ahead and to construct a new definition of security.
Hence, we witness here an instance of strategic thinking, because their thoughts are based on the acceptance of very inconvenient facts, while the vision this thinking generate allows transforming a potential major security issue for the economic and development model of the Emirates into an opportunity (Edward Luttwak, Strategy, The Logic of War and Peace, 2002).
In effect, facing these extremely dangerous odds, the U.A.E.’s political authorities are devising a particularly original grand strategy, grounded in the development of its leadership in the field of sustainability, and this on a worldwide scale.
Leading the sustainability revolution?
This strategy has been elaborated and experimented since 2006, when Abu Dhabi launched several major projects based on the development of sustainability and renewable energy, exemplified by the new urban project in the city of Abu Dhabi called Masdar city and covering 5,95 km2 – the overall area for Abu Dhabi city reaches 972 km2 (Patrick Kingsley, “Masdar: the shifting goalposts of Abu Dhabi’s ambitious eco-city”, Câblé, 17 December 2013).
Masdar city is an experiment in urban development aiming at zero carbon emission, and powered by renewable energies, especially by solar power. Despite important financial difficulties triggered first by the 2008 global financial crisis then by the violent fall of oil prices starting in August 2014 (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Oil Flood 1- The Kingdom is Back”, The Red Team Analysis Society, December 15, 2014), Masdar now exists (Kingsley, Ibid.).
Masdar has been built by combining traditional desert building with the state of the art “green and smart tech” and with the rediscovery of urban development principles aiming at maximizing the role of shade and wind to naturally temper heat (Kingsley, ibid).
In fact, Masdar is an experiment that aims at adapting the Persian Gulf to the difficult emerging planetary conditions, by integrating the necessity of adaptation to climate change and the philosophy of energy transition to urban and social development, thanks to the meeting between the wisdom of ancestral principles and modern science and technology (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Planetary Crisis Rules, Part 1”, The Red Team Analysis Society, 25 January 2016).
It must be noted that, despite the technical and financial difficulties and the social challenge of creating a functional and liveable urban development of 5,95 km2 “ex nihilo”, sustainable Masdar has finally been built. Some European and U.S. analysts qualify the project as being a “green ghost town”, as if the delays known were the equivalent of a definitive failure, resulting from the currently very low population (Suzanne Goldenberg, “Masdar’s zero-carbon dream could become world’s first green ghost town”, Le Gardien, 16 February 2016).
In fact, by creating Masdar, the U.A.E. is proposing a very different model and approach to the one that has been applied so far in the construction of the world hubs that Dubai or Abu Dhabi have become.
The problem with this European approach that identifies Masdar with a failure, is that it misses the sense of timing and foresight that infuses the project and thus the way Masdar’s development expresses and supports the grand strategy currently being devised by Abu Dhabi. It is also based on a very Eurocentric approach, nowadays based on a systematic short-term view and a tendency to distrust the relative display of central planning and authority necessary to create a place like Masdar.
The rise of a new strategic comparative advantage?
The Emirati grand strategy shines through the political, industrial and business coherence of Abu Dhabi’s investments. While Masdar City was being built, the U.A.E. has invested more than 600 million dollars to build Shams 1, at 120 km from Abu Dhabi city, the world largest concentrated solar power plant, capable to generate more than 100 megawatts, with the capability to power 20.000 homes in the U.A.E. (Wissam Keyrouz, “UAE channels oil money into alternative energy”, Phys.org, 23 November 2015).
The Emirate is also a major partner in the Gemasolar 20 megawatts plant in Spain, and has a 20% share in the London Array wind power project, which aims to generate 630 megawatt power, an energy level sufficient to power 500.000 British homes (Keyrouz, ibid). By doing this, the U.A.E. is recreating its capacity to export energy in a very innovative way.
According to Thani al-Zeyoudi, head of the energy and climate change division of the U.A.E. Foreign Ministry, “over the past five years, the U.A.E. channelled more than 840 million dollars into renewable energy projects in 25 countries” (Charis Chang, “Baoding and Masdar City: two of the most unlikely clean technology hubs”, News.com.au, December 2, 2015).
Meanwhile, the U.A.E.’s authorities study a 35 billion dollars investment in various non-oil and gas projects, and 20 billion dollars for a nuclear plant. Added to this, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) settled in Masdar City, from where it promotes the development of renewable energy all around the world (Adrian Pitts, “How to build a city fit for 50°C heatwaves”, The Fifth Estate, 29 October 2015).
What all these initiatives reveal is the U.A.E.’s grand strategy, which aims to transform the Emirates into an industrial and financial great power of what Jeremy Rifkin calls “the third industrial revolution”, in a world changed by the nexus of the converging climate, the water, and the energy crisis (Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution, how lateral power is transforming energy, the economy and the world, 2011).
In other words, the U.A.E. is getting ready to become what we could call “an empire of the Anthropocene”. The word “Anthropocene”, to qualify to qualify the current geological era, underlines the fact that humanity, through the way it has developed itself by using and transforming its own environment, has become the dominant geophysical force on Earth (Jan Zalasiewicz,Anthropocène : une nouvelle époque du temps géologique ?, 2011).
There is a fundamental paradox of the Anthropocene: human beings have induced the emergence of a geological epoch that is transforming the Earth into the equivalent of an autonomous global devouring monster, created by industrial societies. However, these dynamics are so powerful and autonomous that our societies find themselves into a planetary situation that could overwhelm them.
Through the adoption of this new model with its worldwide investment strategy, the U.A.E. installs itself at the centre of the rise of the industry of renewable energy. This industry is becoming more and more significant because of the international and national politics of climate change mitigation, some of them led on a massive scale. This change of scale sustains the international trend toward energy transition, as is the case in China (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Arctic, Russia and China’s energy transition”, The Red Team Analysis Society, updated July 27 2015).
The U.A.E. is devising a grand strategy based on the political, industrial, financial, scientific and technological promotion of renewable energy, in order to keep its affluence and influence in an age of oil decline and climate change. The U.A.E. is getting ready to become a strategic, industrial, and financial hegemon of the rising sustainability industry.
This is why the Société d'analyse rouge (Team) is devoting time and energy to attract attention about this important evolution, and to support public and private leaders to further develop a prospective vision of what it means and will increasingly imply in terms of strategic and business opportunities.
À propos de l'auteur: Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) est le directeur de l'analyse de l'environnement et de la sécurité à la Red (Team) Analysis Society. Il est spécialisé dans les études stratégiques et la sociologie de la défense, avec un accent sur la géostratégie environnementale.