We may have already forgotten about COP18 in Doha; the event was successful as far as Qatar’s hosting of the event was concerned, but declining attendance and low expectations made yet another UN event roll more eyes than roll out any meaningful outcomes. What was important, however, was the attempt to engage the Middle East and include this region in the debate over climate change.
To that end, another success of COP18 was highlighting two countries that are starting to invest in solar energy. Saudi Arabia claims it will invest $109 billion in order to generate 30 percent of its domestic energy needs by 2032. Saudi’s tiny neighbor, Qatar, is also developing a solar power sector, starting with a $1 billion polysilicon plant in the outskirts of Doha.
So could these hydrocarbon-based economies really become the base of a future carbon-free global economy? What may sound ridiculous may actually become reality. Here’s why:
It is in the Gulf States’ best long term interest to invest in solar: There is nothing altruistic about Saudi Arabia and Qatar investing in solar technologies. As Adnan Amin of the International Renewable Energy Agency explained to Al Jazeera’s Robert Kennedy:
“I don’t think Saudi Arabia is doing this for generosity to the planet in terms of climate change mitigation. It makes absolute business sense for them to do it.”
Amin is absolutely right. There is a pragmatic reason for Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to become serious about clean energy, and it has nothing to do with climate volatility or environmental stewardship: the less fossil fuels their citizens use at home, the more these nations can export abroad--which will only lead to increased revenues as these finite resources continue to creep, or spike, upward in price.
As for the argument that developing solar in these countries as of now will do little to fight climate change, let’s just remember that no one is really doing anything of significance to fight climate change or deal with climate adaptation or mitigation. Such an argument is analogous to the sniping directed at China over its carbon emissions: of course the country's factories emit plenty of carbon making goods for the rest of the world. The Gulf is only providing a source of energy that is easy to extract and what the rest of the world clearly wants. But that will not last forever.
And petroleum is a finite resource: Few will argue this point. As these countries’ oil reserves decline, and at some point they will, these nations will have to find new ways to maintain economic growth. And just because solar’s expansion in the Gulf region merely exports fossil fuels’ carbon footprint elsewhere does not make it wrong--eventually an energy infrastructure will be in place that can supplant the one for fossil fuels once those have passed.
Such change will not occur uniformly across the region. The UAE’s Dubai, which is bereft of natural resources and has its roots in trading (not oil), is pursuing an economy based on real estate (with hiccups), corporate regional headquarters and even technology. But Saudi Arabia and Qatar (and the UAE’s Abu Dhabi) are in a unique position to become solar energy hubs. First of all, there is obviously plenty of sun to go around. These countries are also poised to attract talent around the world and develop new innovations in solar and other renewables. One reason is because the Arab Spring has caused so much volatility that entrepreneurs and business leaders in the region seek a new base for their operations in the Middle East. A guarantee that new forms of energy can thrive in the Middle East will be necessary if these same countries will remain economically viable.
Plus these countries have the money: While much of the developed world is mired in austerity (European Union), political infighting (the U.S), or debt (Japan), these Gulf nations are amassing massive sums of cash--a point I had made when Kennedy interviewed me for that same Al Jazeera English article. And while the stereotype of the Middle East is that these societies are wasteful, full of reckless indulgent spenders and devoid of common sense, the reality is that long term planning is taking root in the Gulf--particularly in the UAE and Qatar. One reason why these tiny Gulf nations attract some of the best and brightest around the world is because of the expat lifestyle and economic opportunities they offer--and they can continue to do so if they can find a way to transform their economies from ones that thrive off new energy technologies, not just oil.
Not that this change will be easy. The Gulf states are still dominated by companies, publicly- and privately-owned, that will resist any changes that will affect their bottom lines. Skeptical citizens must be convinced that they will become part of this new economy. And technology has to progress--Qatar’s ambitious solar plans, for example, have been stumped by a simple hurdle: dust. And so despite what appears to be impossible, it is important that these countries become leading hubs of solar power. After all, if new technologies can improve and scale in a region along the Gulf, then they can succeed anywhere. We will all be better off in the long run if we encourage this region to develop its solar energy sector instead of dismissing this exciting new development in renewable energy.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).
Image credit (Education City in Doha): Leon Kaye