United Arab Emirates

In the year 1971, the Beatles were still recording hit songs, UCLA men’s basketball began its 88 consecutive-game winning streak, Apollo 14 landed on the moon, and the Vietnam War was still going on. Yet 1971 was also the year when the United Arab Emirates was born. This federation of the six Emirates is only 43 years young, and yet it has established itself as one of the most influential and well-known countries in the world.

The UAE Heritage Village is a reconstruction of a "traditional oasis village," located in Abu Dhabi
The UAE Heritage Village is a reconstruction of a “traditional oasis village,” located in Abu Dhabi

Your parents have probably been alive longer than the UAE has been established, and yet think of how much this country has accomplished in those few decades. Originally deserts that housed nomadic Bedouin tribes and served as trading centers for the Middle East, Abu Dhabi and Dubai were towns prominent in the pearling industry. Over time, these Emirates along the Arabian Gulf transformed into gold mines for oil and business, respectively; now, Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the capital and most populous city of one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

In 2015, the United Arab Emirates is the 6th richest country in the world, according to Forbes. With a GDP per capita of $47,439, the UAE has an exorbitant amount of wealth for its 9.34 million citizens. Yet this wealth comes at a price — despite its youth as a country, the UAE has already made its mark with an exponentially growing carbon footprint. When looking at graphs and scatter plots of countries’ CO2 emissions, the UAE is often noticeably high or off the charts. The World Bank reports that the U.S. is 10th in the world for its CO2 emissions (metric tons) per capita, but the UAE is ranked 8th in the world.

 The U.S. is 10th in the world for its CO2 emissions per capita, but the UAE — 195 years younger than America — is ranked 8th.

The country is mindful of their trajectory regarding climate change, which is why the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC, features a page dedicated to climate change under the energy section of their website. Below is an excerpt:

“The UAE’s CO2 emissions increased from 60,809,000 tons in 1990 to 94,163,000 tons in 2002. Due to better technology and transition to more natural gas in power plants, emissions of CO2 per capita have decreased. In 1990 the UAE emitted 32,6 tons CO2 per person per year. In 2002 the figure had dropped to 25,1 tons per person per year, leaving the UAE as number four on the top emitter per capita global ranking list.”

The large number of emissions the UAE faces with reducing today began almost a century ago, when oil company teams first conducted geological surveys in the region in the 1930s. In 1962, the first cargo of crude oil was exported in Abu Dhabi. With oil revenues exponentially increasing annually, Sheikh Zayed became Ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966, and implemented the infrastructure to form the country that now Emiratis (only 16.6 percent of the UAE population) call their homeland.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The author took this photo upon her visit to Abu Dhabi in fall of 2013. (Yes that is all pure gold!)
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The author took this photo upon her visit to Abu Dhabi in fall of 2013. (Yes that is all pure gold!)

During my visit to Abu Dhabi and Dubai in fall of 2013, I was stunned by the contradiction that is the UAE. Many Emiratis and expats spend their Saturdays shopping at the Mall of the Emirates or strolling along the beach, but the mall food court seemed to sell more falafel than McDonald’s. Anyone in the UAE can import chocolate from Switzerland, but local dates are the preferred sweet. One can hear the muezzin call from the mosque by the 7-star Burj Al Arab hotel, and women in full burkas walk by a sky-high billboard of Beyoncé drinking Coca-Cola ©.

The Burj Al Arab, located on Jumeirah Beach in Dubai, is the world's only 7-star hotel.
The Burj Al Arab, located on Jumeirah Beach in Dubai, is the world’s only 7-star hotel.

The country seems like a paradox, and its conflict with climate change is no exception. The Mercedes G-Class SUV is one of the more ubiquitous cars on the roadways of Dubai; with 12 miles per gallon in the city, the Mercedes “G wagon” sure puts a lot of “g’s” in “mpg”. Requiring a lot more resources than just oil, the Palm Islands in Dubai are artificial islands, shaped like a palm tree, that add 520 kilometers of private beaches to the city of Dubai. The construction of the Palm Islands immediately generated environmental concerns: disrupting wildlife, exacerbating coastal erosion, and depleting aquatic vegetation are just a few of the effects the Palm Islands have incurred on the surrounding Arabian Gulf.

From potted orchids in underground mall garages, to gold leaves accenting the street lamps of Sharjah, to the Palm’s underwater Atlantis Hotel and Abu Dhabi’s Ferrari World, the UAE is superfluous. It is paradoxical and almost anachronistic because it is a very technologically advanced and modern country observing a very traditional religion and customs. If Emiratis can live in one of the richest and most advancing countries in the world, while still observing timeless values like family, food, and faith, can the UAE be a rapidly developing country while also being eco-friendly?

“The UAE’s human pressure on global ecosystems is the highest in the world.”

The author and classmates swimming in a man-made gulf along Yas Island in Abu Dhabi.
The author and classmates swimming in a man-made gulf along Yas Island in Abu Dhabi.

The World Wildlife Fund in 2007 said, “the UAE’s human pressure on global ecosystems (its ecological footprint) [is] the highest in the world. The country is supposedly at present five times more unsustainable than any other country.” If the UAE was on this dismal trajectory in 2007 (three years before the Burj Khalifa tower opened and seven years before the Palm Jumeirah island was finished), then what does the future have in store for this country’s emissions? Earlier this year, the Dubai International Airport overtook London’s Heathrow to become the world’s busiest airport. Dubai, and the greater UAE, are always looking forward to the next big step. But how many steps will they take before their environmental damage is irreparable?

© Rissponsible Living, 2015

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