Just deserts

Over the course of the next decade, the United Arab Emirates alone will invest some $46bn in projects related to the environment. The Abu Dhabi Declaration - a framework for sustainable use of resources in the Arab region in the 21st century - was last month endorsed by the Conference of Arab Environment Ministers, a declaration underlined by Environment 2001, the first major environmental exhibition and conference ever to be held in the region. Matt MacAllan was there.

Of course, the environmental concerns of the Middle East are not always ours. Desertification, for example, which claims 20 million hectares every year, is yet to make an impact in Kent – global warming notwithstanding. County-wide hosepipe bans, however – particulary those immediately following record rainfall (wait for it) – do allow us to tick the ‘Water Resources Management’ box. And of course there’s oil. Abu Dhabi alone, one of seven Emirates in the UAE, produces two million barrels a day.

Like driving a car

All the names are here. In fact, oil companies are held exempt from certain regulations regarding environment. Mohammed Ahmed Saif Al Muflehi, manager of the Environment, Health and Safey Division at ADNOC (Abu Dhabi National Oil Company), pointed out that this of course “did not amount to carte blanche for these companies to violate regulations”.

For the multinational oil company, internal environmental management system standards often relegate regulatory compliance to a formality in any case. It is in continuous improvent, rather than compliance with a rigid regulatory standards, where environmental gains are made. (Dr Fritz Balkau, of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Division of Technology, Industry and Economics (DTIE), put a novel slant on this: “It’s like driving a motor car,” he says. “A driver’s licence is a competency test – you have to learn to drive the car. The licence says, ‘This person is capable of driving a car. He’s competent to manage the car.’ The driver’s licence doesn’t, however, tell you how fast you should drive. That job is done by the performance standards – the speed limits – in the countries in which you drive. ISO 14001 is your environmental driver’s licence. It demonstrates that you are capable of running an environmental programme according to whatever the standards are in that country.” Even so, EMS uptake in the Arab region as a whole is very low.)

ADNOC is, in fact, represented on the Board of Directors of the UAE Federal Environmental Agency, and aids in the drafting of laws pertinent to environmental protection.

On 17 October 1999, His Highness Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, issued Federal Law No. 24, concerning the Protection and Development of the Environment – the first comprehensive environmental law in the UAE at federal level. ‘Market driver!’, I hear you cry, and yes, in alphabetical order, these companies were attendant at Environment 2001, and probably deserve a mention: AB Dust Control, Ardara International, BSi, Casella CEL, Dynamotive, EMC, Environ, Enviro Technology Services, Fast Engineering, FLI International, Metito, Process Systems, Puriti, Shanks, Stan Brouard Group, and Torit DCE. Exploration remains the watchword as yet, however, with most citing “Flying the flag”, “Assessing the potential” or “Firming the relationship with agents” as the reason for being here. Gary Poole, of the government’s Joint Environmental Markets Unit, JEMU, also claimed expeditionary status: “We’re here to get a feel for the way that business is being conducted, and to raise awareness in the market. We feel that Abu Dhabi, as a focal point for the region, offers sufficient promise and opportunity to support the initiative.” A sentiment echoed by Pam Jose, director of the Newcastle-based Environmental Industries Federation (EIF), a small business organisation “looking at export opportunities”.

Export opportunities

Which, given the recent legislative impetus, are considerable in the fields of petrol, petrochemical, phosphate and metal processing. The structure of the UAE economy, too, means that the Emirates has long been a net importer. “A framework for sustainable use of resources”, however, signals a shift – academic, at present – away from the oil-for-everything Arab mentality. New markets are emerging, driven by new technologies, some of which could be transferred to the Arab world, such as advanced materials, information, communication, biotechnology, water desalination, renewable energy…

In 1997, Gross National Product for the Arab world, some 300 million people, stood at $324bn. For the Netherlands, with a population of around 50 million, the figure was $403bn. The difference, the added value, is technology. Mohamad Mrayati, regional advisor on science and technology for the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UN-ESCWA), has made a particular study of technology transfer, or rather development, issues. “We shouldn’t just be consumers of these technologies,” he says. “Not just customers of these emerging markets. We should take part in order to add value and reduce the exploitation of natural resources.”

The transfer of such new technologies in the form of foreign direct investment is seen as less valuable than ‘home grown’, simply because ownership remains with the holding company, and hence country. The vast majority of Arab industry already operates under licence. Mrayati: “If technology transfer is to be effective for sustainable development, it should be understood to mean local acquisition, absorption and generation of technology. This cannot be achieved in the Arab world without the promotion of the local science and technology absorptive capacity, which requires the establishment of the National Innovation System.”

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