Gulf Oil States Seeking a Lead in
|Recycled rebar is being used
for a concrete foundation at Masdar, a model city
being built in Abu Dhabi that is designed to generate
no carbon emissions.
Jan 12, 2009 - Elizabethe Rosenthal
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — With
one of the highest per capita carbon footprints in
the world, these oil-rich emirates would seem an unlikely
place for a green revolution.
Different types of solar panels
are being tested at Masdar. The city, designed
by Norman Foster, will include a research park.
Photo: Daryl Visscher
for The New York Times
Gasoline sells for 45 cents a gallon.
There is little public transportation and no recycling.
Residents drive between air-conditioned apartments
and air-conditioned malls, which are lighted 24/7.
Still, the region’s leaders know energy
and money, having built their wealth on oil. They
understand that oil is a finite resource, vulnerable
to competition from new energy sources.
So even as President-elect Barack Obama
talks about promoting green jobs as America’s route
out of recession, gulf states, including the emirates,
Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are making a concerted push
to become the Silicon Valley of alternative energy.
They are aggressively pouring billions
of dollars made in the oil fields into new green technologies.
They are establishing billion-dollar clean-technology
investment funds. And they are putting millions of
dollars behind research projects at universities from
California to Boston to London, and setting up green
research parks at home.
“Abu Dhabi is an oil-exporting country,
and we want to become an energy-exporting country,
and to do that we need to excel at the newer forms
of energy,” said Khaled Awad, a director of Masdar,
a futuristic zero-carbon city and a research park
that has an affiliation with the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, that is rising from the desert on the
outskirts of Abu Dhabi.
These are long-term investments in an
alternative energy future that neither falling oil
prices nor the global downturn seems likely to reverse.
Even as the local real estate market is foundering,
leaders in politics, business and research from across
the globe will flock to this distant kingdom for three
days starting Monday for the second World Future Energy
Summit, which just one year after its inception here
has become something of a Davos gathering on renewable
This year’s guest list includes a former
British prime minister, Tony Blair, and the European
Union energy commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, as well
as the oil and gas ministers of Oman, Bahrain and
the United Arab Emirates. In attendance will also
be executives representing hundreds of companies,
large and small, from BP and Credit Suisse to dozens
of start-up companies from Europe and the United States.
“Truth is that locally money is tight
as everywhere, and the property market is certainly
taking a correction downwards,” said Richard Hease,
whose Dubai-based company, Turret Middle East, organized
the conference. “But on the renewable energy front,
it is business as usual.”
This new investment aims to maintain
the gulf’s dominant position as a global energy supplier,
gaining patents from the new technologies and promoting
green manufacturing. But if the United States and
the European Union have set energy independence from
the gulf states as a goal of new renewable energy
efforts, they may find they are arriving late at the
“The leadership in these breakthrough
technologies is a title the U.S. can lose easily,”
said Peter Barker-Homek, chief executive of Taqa,
Abu Dhabi’s national energy company. “Here we have
low taxes, a young population, accessibility to the
world, abundant natural resources and willingness
to invest in the seed capital.”
The vision of a renewable future in
the gulf is rooted not so much in a fuzzy green sentiment
— though that is starting to take hold — as in analysis
of the region’s economic future and the high-end lifestyles
of its citizens.
“You see what the gulf states have
achieved in terms of modern infrastructure and beautiful
architecture, but this has come at a very high environmental
price,” said Mr. Awad of Masdar, standing in a field
of 40 types of solar panels that the project’s engineers
are testing, and using to power offices. “We know
we can’t continue with this carbon footprint,” he
“We have to change. This is why Abu
Dhabi must develop new models — for the planet, of
course, but also so as not to jeopardize Abu Dhabi.”
The world is now consuming 80 million
barrels of oil a day, and that could continue to rise
steeply over the coming decades if population and
consumption trends continue. That could mean having
to add six Saudi Arabias worth of oil output just
to keep up, according to Mr. Barker-Homek, at a time
when scientists are warning that carbon levels need
to be cut significantly to avoid potentially disastrous
To hedge their positions, then, an increasingly
sophisticated generation of largely Western-educated
leaders in the Middle East are seizing on green business
opportunities, by seeding research in faraway nations.
The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, the wealthiest
of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab
Emirates, announced last January that he would invest
$15 billion in renewable energy. That is the same
amount that President-elect Obama has proposed investing
— in the entire United States — “to catalyze private
sector efforts to build a clean energy future.”
Masdar, the model city that will generate
no carbon emissions, is tied to the crown prince’s
ambitions. Designed by Norman Foster, the British
architect, it will include a satellite campus of the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as
a research park with laboratories affiliated with
Imperial College London and other institutions.
In Saudi Arabia, the new state-owned
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology,
or Kaust, gave a Stanford scientist $25 million last
year to start a research center on how to make the
cost of solar power competitive with that of coal.
Kaust, now in its first grant cycle, also gave $8
million to a Berkeley researcher developing green
And it has other agreements as well,
with Caltech, Cambridge, Cornell, Imperial, La Sapienza,
Oxford and Utrecht, to name just a few.
In November, the Qatari government signed
an agreement with Britain’s visiting prime minister,
Gordon Brown, to invest £150 million, or more than
$220 million, in a British low-carbon technology fund,
dwarfing the fund’s investments from home.
For the rest of the world, the enormous
cash infusion may provide the important boost experts
say is needed to get dozens of emerging technologies
— like carbon capture, microsolar and low-carbon aluminum
— over the development hump to make them cost-effective.
|Abu Dhabi is the site of a renewable-energy
“The impact has been enormous,” said
Michael McGehee, the associate professor at Stanford
who received the $25 million Saudi grant. “It has
greatly accelerated the development process.”
Director of the largest solar cell research
group in the world, Professor McGehee had tried and
failed to get money from the United States government
or American industries to commercialize cheaper solar
cells. Research money is tight, he noted.
With the Saudi money he has hired 16
new researchers and expects the new energy cells to
dominate the market by 2015. “People are astonished
to see how big this grant is and where it came from,”
he said, noting that his past grants from the United
States government were one-fiftieth that amount.
Experts say the vast investments from
the gulf states have already restarted stalled environmental
Nancy Tuor, vice chairwoman of CH2M
Hill, the Canadian construction firm that is building
Masdar city, said that the sheer size of the investment
had had a “forcing effect,” pushing polluting industries
to experiment with cleaner solutions.
For example, initial plans for Masdar
excluded both aluminum and conventional concrete because
the production of those materials generates high levels
of carbon emissions, which warm the planet. Aluminum
manufacturers protested and came back with a product
that reduced emissions by 90 percent compared with
regular aluminum; it is now included in the project.
Proponents say Masdar goes beyond creating
new materials and is in fact exploring a new model
for urban life. Masdar will use one quarter of the
energy of a conventional city its size (about 50,000
people) — an amount that it will produce itself.
“When people think about sustainability,
they think about devices,” said Gerard Evenden, a
partner at Foster and Partners, the British architectural
firm that is designing the site. “But here you’re
taking it to a city scale, which has much more of
an impact — connecting the devices to the structure
to the transportation to the people.”
The city will have no cars; people will
move around using driverless electric vehicles that
move on a subterranean level. The air-conditioning
will be solar powered.
With no industrial history, the gulf
states say they have the advantage of starting from
scratch in developing green manufacturing; countries
like the United States are forced to retool ailing
industries, like car manufacturing.
Also, although the gulf states have
previously showed little interest in green energy
like wind or solar, they have another advantage, Mr.
Awad noted as he stood in the shimmering desert. “The
sun shines 365 days a year,” he said.