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Austin Bodetti

Renewable energy: How the Gulf is preparing for a future without petroleum

A solar panel at a plant in 'Uyayna, north of Riyadh [Getty]

Date of publication: 4 April, 2019

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Analysis: From Abu Dhabi to Manama, engineers and scientists in the Gulf are pioneering energy development to prepare for a fast-approaching future without the petroleum industry, writes Austin Bodetti.
While the Gulf region today symbolises the world economy's dependence on fossil fuels, the region's Arab monarchies may soon adopt a once-implausible mantle: the next frontier in the renewable energy industry.

From Abu Dhabi to Manama, engineers and scientists in the Gulf are pioneering energy development to prepare for a fast-approaching future without the petroleum industry. The looming spectre of climate change has only accelerated Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates' race to find the most promising avenue for energy security and sustainable development.

The King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, a Saudi government agency and research institute, is studying the potential applications of solar power. Meanwhile, Qatar Solar Technologies is pursuing a similar path while Masdar – part of an Emirati state-owned enterprise doubling as a sovereign wealth fund – is investigating other opportunities in the renewable energy industry. All these initiatives are searching for ways for the Gulf to accommodate recent increases in energy consumption.

"Studies have attributed the growth in demand and consumption to several factors – mainly economic and population growth, improvements in the standard of living, subsidised prices, and the hot and dry climate," said Dr Mohammad al-Shawaf, an assistant professor of environmental science at Kuwait University. "Kuwait's economy depends heavily on the oil sector for its subsistence."

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Like other countries in the region, Kuwait relies on the expensive, energy-intensive process of desalination to obtain much of its water supply. Some scientists have questioned how much longer Kuwait and the rest of the Gulf can sustain large-scale desalination without shifting to renewable energy.

"Because energy production is mainly based on fossil fuels – a finite natural resource with environmental externalities – the development of renewable energy to power desalination is needed," said Dr Waleed Zubari, a professor of water resource management at Arabian Gulf University. "The Gulf countries have targets for the share of their needs to be met by renewable energy. These targets must be implemented with priority given to desalination, which consumes a significant amount of energy."

Given the growing likelihood that global warming will subject Oman to deadly heatwaves and submerge much of Bahrain under rising sea levels, the Gulf's Arab monarchies have also been looking at renewable energy as a way to slow environmental degradation while protecting their futures.

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"Renewable energy can reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in the coming years," said Salem al-Ajmi, general manager of the Kuwaiti consultancy Smart Technology for Alternative Energy.

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Across the Gulf, monarchies are employing their substantial financial resources to ensure their energy security even after they drain their oil reserves. Bahrain has created the Sustainable Energy Unit in coordination with the United Nations Development Programme, and Kuwait is constructing the Shagaya Renewable Energy Park in cooperation with civil society. Oman, a regional leader in the environmental movement, sponsors a UN-administered prize for world-renowned environmental scientists.

"Sources of renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, could offer an alternative to fossil fuels to satisfy local demand and minimize the opportunity cost," al-Shawaf told The New Arab. "In addition to economic benefits, renewable energy generation could offer environmental benefits."

Wind farms are appearing in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, and solar power has obvious applications in the sun-bathed deserts of the Middle East, such as the Rub al-Khali.

"Special attention should be paid to renewable and environmentally safe sources of energy, of which solar power is among the most important," Zubari told The New Arab. "Solar energy has enormous potential in the countries of the Gulf, which are located within the 'sun belt' of the world."

As the renewable energy industry grows in the Gulf, businesses and scientists there are looking into additional technologies. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have focused on the promise of energy storage, which would allow the Gulf's Arab monarchies to save solar energy for later use. Some geochemists have suggested that the natural environment in Oman represents the perfect opportunity for carbon storage, one technological method of limiting the amount of greenhouse gases that escape into the atmosphere.

"The main challenge for the renewable energy industry going forward will be to optimise the capacity of alternative energy within wider electrical networks," said al-Ajmi. "This optimisation will require making sources of renewable energy more dependable through energy storage."

Yemenis are even installing solar panels on ice cream carts and motorised wheelchairs, demonstrating the extent of the demand for alternative energy in every corner of the Middle East

In an ironic twist, the Gulf's petrodollars are fuelling the rise of the renewable energy industry in the Middle East. The technologies devised in Qatar and the UAE can then benefit countries with many fewer resources at their disposal but no less to lose from climate change, from Egypt to Iraq.

Yemenis are even installing solar panels on ice cream carts and motorised wheelchairs, demonstrating the extent of the demand for alternative energy in every corner of the Middle East. The Gulf's Arab monarchies have long defined themselves as the region's leaders. Now, they must lead the renewable energy industry.

"With the anticipated impact of climate change on water scarcity and other environmental issues, the Gulf is moving toward renewable energy, which will serve a variety of purposes," said Zubari. "Air pollution will decrease, and the life of the Gulf's remaining oil reserves will be prolonged."


Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. 

He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda. His research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.

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