This section will provide an analysis of four main environmental challenges that MBZ and the UAE have to face and resolve. It is instrumental to look at the environmental challenges in depth to have an insight into a set of factors and motives that drive MBZ’s environmental agenda. The section first addresses the problem of oil depletion and a global oil phase-out, which is considered one of the most pressing environmental challenges for MBZ. It then proceeds with desertification and air pollution, both of which are high on the environmental agenda of the Gulf country. The last part of this section focuses on threats to wildlife in the UAE and analyzes why wildlife protection is one of the priorities for the president and the country.
As a country with the seventh largest oil and natural gas reserves in the world, the UAE generates nearly 4 million barrels of oil per day and derives approximately 30% of its GDP from oil and gas production. The profits and royalties from the oil industry have long been a major source of revenue for the government. This heavy reliance on oil is posing two major threats to the Gulf country: a global effort in oil phase-out in the short term and the inevitable depletion of oil in the long term. “Oil-exporting countries may need to be ready for a post-oil future sooner rather than later,” says the report The Future of Oil and Fiscal Sustainability in the GCC Region. Top ministers of the UAE warned: “The world is running out of energy capacity at all levels and lack of investment could lead to a potential oil shortage in future”.
The consequences of oil depletion for the UAE
The world’s efforts in oil phase-out and the inevitable exhaustion of oil reserves would bring about severe economic and political implications for the UAE. The first and foremost impact of the oil depletion could be seen in the economic growth of the country. The oil industry has been the backbone of the UAE’s economy and played a central role in the economic boom since the first commercial oil was discovered in 1958. In 2020, oil exports accounted for about 30% of the total GDP of the UAE. Considering the fact that about one third of the jobs are related to the energy sector, oil production is central to the UAE’s development, accounting for about 29% of gross domestic product in 2020. This heavy reliance on oil poses a significant long-term challenge for the country’s economy in the context of the inevitable oil depletion.
Secondly, the oil depletion could adversely affect the position of the UAE as a global energy provider and hence reduce the political influence of the country in the international community. The position of a leading oil manufacturer has granted the UAE leverage over other major powers in the world such as the US. In March this year, the Arab Gulf state rejected the Biden Administration’s request to pump up its oil production to drive down the soaring oil prices and inflation rates caused by the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The reticence from the UAE could be explained by the reorientation of the US away from the Middle East to Asia, prompting the Gulf government to look elsewhere for political support. In order to convince the UAE to increase its oil production, the Biden Administration may need to make some concessions to address the security concerns of the UAE such as redesignating the Houthis as a terrorist group and renewing its commitment to settle the Yemen war in a way that suits the UAE. In short, the major oil production capacity has allowed the UAE to exert its influence in the world and the exhaustion of the natural resource would deprive the country of the leverage over other major powers in the world.
Thirdly, the world’s oil phase-out and the depletion of this resource in the future also affects the UAE’s leading membership in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which is also a major source of power for the country. Firstly, as one of the primary members of OPEC with large per capita oil reserves, the UAE can influence global oil prices. To illustrate, oil prices witnessed the sharpest decline to $16.84, or 13.2%, at $111.14 a barrel in two years after the Gulf country expressed its support for pumping more oil into the market disrupted by the Russian invasion in Ukraine. In addition, the UAE can wield political influence over other OPEC members. As an important member, the UAE has a strong voice in the organization and can often voice up its preference about oil policies of OPEC. While the OPEC+ alliance declined to pump up more oil, in March 2022, the UAE was the first member to encourage the other fellow members to increase oil production. The support for an output increase by the UAE could be considered one of the contributing factors to the final decision of OPEC in June to “increase monthly overall production for the month of August by 648,000 barrels per day”.
The consequences of oil depletion for MBZ
The depletion of oil as a major source of power has severe implications for MBZ regarding his presidency and Abu Dhabi’s leadership in the UAE. Firsty, the exhaustion of oil as a natural resource would deprive MBZ of significant financial capabilities. He currently controls sovereign wealth funds worth $1.3 trillion, more than any other country. After the death of Sheik Khalifa, MBZ is expected to become the chairman of Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA), a major sovereign fund whose revenue is mainly generated from the oil industry of the country. MBZ is also the chairman of Mubadala Investment Company, a state-owned holding company whose revenue is also driven by investment in oil. Besides, MBZ works as the chairman of the board of directors of Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. (ADNOC), a leading diversified energy and petrochemicals group which is wholly owned by the state and pumps most of the oil in the UAE. It hence can be seen that oil is a source of revenue for those companies and sovereign wealth funds, which gives MBZ enormous financial capabilities to implement his policies and projects such as the Gulf Railway connecting all six Gulf Cooperation Council member states. Therefore, the depletion of oil would affect the revenues of sovereign wealth funds and major companies in the UAE, reducing his financial power to enact his policies.
Secondly, oil depletion would undermine the power of the al-Nahyan family of Abu Dhabi in the federation. Since the UAE was founded as a federation, the head of the al-Nahyan family has served as the president of the country. Holding the majority of the UAE’s oil reserves, the ruling family of Abu Dhabi has exerted its influence over the other emirates via the heavy dependence on oil revenues as a primary source of funding. A clear example could be seen in the rivalry between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, with the former being the political center and the latter being the major trade hub of the UAE. Within the federation, Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the two most important emirates and often have different viewpoints regarding the expansion policies inside and outside the country. However, the al-Nahyan family and Abu Dhabi started gaining more political leverage over Dubai after the 2008 financial crisis when they used their oil money to provide Dubai with a $10bn bail-out. Thus, the oil depletion in the future would threaten the legitimacy of MBZ’s royal family with the other emirates.
Finally, the depletion of oil reserves would undermine MBZ’s efforts in consolidating his position as an influential leader. Since MBZ started acting as a de facto ruler in 2014, he has been trying to expand his power beyond the border of the UAE. Oil production has laid a solid foundation for MBZ’s power. An example of MBZ directly exerting his power via the oil wealth is the recent rebuff of the UAE at the request of the US to pump up oil production. This has shown how the natural resource grants MBZ certain political leverage with other states. Besides, oil revenues are important to the creation of the UAE’s defense industry and military, allowing MBZ to lead an interventionist foreign policy in the Arab world, which is exemplified in his backing General el-Sisi’s coup in Egypt in 2013 and later in the civil war in Yemen in 2015. This illustrates how oil revenues can indirectly benefit MBZ’s foreign policies. Therefore, the oil industry in the UAE is a means for MBZ to exert his influence as a major leader in the international community.
To conclude, the strong reliance on oil production has made the UAE vulnerable to the global efforts in oil phase-out and the depletion of the resource in the future. This would reduce the UAE’s revenues generated from the oil sector and therefore affect the national economic growth. Besides, the depletion of oil money reduces MBZ’s financial capabilities to implement his policies inside and outside the country. The decline of the oil sector as a major source of funding would also undermine the position of the house of Nahyan as the most important ruling family in the UAE and MBZ’s position as an influential leader on a domestic, regional, and international scale. Recognizing this challenge, MBZ has actively sought to diversify the UAE’s economy, by making the country a financial hub, key link in international supply chains with free ports, tourism center and renewable energy leader.
Desertification is another dire environmental threat, with 80% of the area in the UAE being desert. According to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), desertification is land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors including climatic variations and human activities. “Desertification and land degradation in parts of UAE is driven by a number of natural and anthropogenic factors, including wind erosion, salinisation, waterlogging, vegetation loss, expansion of built-up areas, excavation and landfilling. There has been a constant increasing pressure on natural resources with the fast pace of urbanization and encroachment on arable land. With an increase in population and food consumption systems, land degradation and desertification are becoming rampant.”
Desertification, which is mainly caused by human activities and the overexploitation of natural resources, has severe implications for the UAE. Firstly, it is one of the contributing factors to a biodiversity loss by exacerbating the living conditions of many species. The loss of forest cover in the UAE caused by desertification means that many species are losing their favorable living environments: “Over the last few decades, the UAE has lost most of its big fauna and is witnessing the remaining Arabian leopard, Mountain Gazelle, Arabian Tahr, Arabian Sailfish, groupers and shark populations at the brink of extinction”. In addition, the heightened rates of desertification also leads to food insecurity due to crop failure. Desertification, along with shrinking freshwater resources, rising temperatures, is a major threat posed to the food security of the country. “In the last 20 years, the UAE’s loss of valuable land has been stark. According to the World Bank, the UAE had 75,000 hectares (290 sq miles) of arable land in 2002, but by 2018 had only 42,300 hectares (163 sq miles). The data also indicated that, in the same timeframe, the percentage of agricultural land in the UAE fell from 7.97% to 5.38%”. Thirdly, desertification has caused a shortage of drinking water in the Gulf country. Land plays an important role in refining the drinking water; therefore, it is difficult to meet the demand of a growing population if the amount of productive land continues to decrease because of desertification.
MBZ’s policies in fighting desertification reflects the influence from his family and his efforts in maintaining the long-term survival of his country. Firstly, MBZ’s father, also known as Sheikh Zayed, devoted his lifetime to mitigating the adverse impacts of desertification. In particular, Shaikh Zayed developed extensive projects to level dunes and sand hills and cover surface areas with mud. He set up green belts around farms to protect them against the wind and to stabilize the soil. Additionally, he worked to protect cities against sandstorms and restrict humidity ratio by ensuring that forests were set up around city borders. Sheikh Zayed’s enduring efforts in reversing desertification are now carried on by MBZ and his environmental agenda. Secondly, MBZ’s endeavor to combat desertification is also to maintain the sustainable development and long-term survival of the UAE. In a country with already nearly 80% of the area being desert, the increased rate of desertification is a dire threat to the survival of people there. A lack of arable land, drinking water scarcity, food insecurity, drought, and sand storms resulting from desertification could make the UAE an inhabitable place in the future. When desert encroaches cities, it could destroy the tourism sector, induce migration, create social unrest and hence challenge MBZ’s rule in the country.
Air pollution is another severe environmental issue that is high on the environmental agenda of the UAE, which is reflected in the UAE National Vision 2021. The Gulf country has one of the highest levels of air pollution in the world, ranking 15th out of 118 countries surveyed in 2021. Apart from natural factors such as sandstorms and naturally born dust, industrial activities from the oil and gas sectors are one of the primary contributing factors to air pollution in the UAE. The UAE National Air Emissions Inventory Project 2019 identified the stationary energy and transport sectors as the dominant sources of air pollutants, followed by agriculture and waste sectors. In order to cater for the demand of a growing population, there has been an increase in construction of houses and infrastructures, which necessitates the increased exploitation of natural resources and thus exacerbates air pollution in the country.
Air pollution is a grave concern for the UAE and MBZ due to its detrimental impacts on public health, the environment and economy. Exposure to air pollution has been one of the leading contributors to premature deaths in the UAE. Analyses in 2012 suggested that “…indoor air pollution is a considerable risk to public health in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), accounting for at least 77,000 excess visits to health-care facilities in 2008 in addition to the 280 excess deaths. In terms of mortality, indoor air quality ranks second only to outdoor air pollution as a cause of environmentally related diseases in the UAE”. Although substantial progress has been made in combating air pollution, it is still a severe environmental risk to public health in the Gulf country. A case report in 2019 in the UAE indicated that “…regular exposure to ambient air pollutants contributes to increased odds of cardiovascular diseases (CVD) and cardiometabolic disease. Air pollution from particulate matters size 2.5 Mm (PM2.5) increases the risk of premature death from stroke (19%) and coronary heart disease (13%).” Apart from the human cost, the UAE is also bearing a huge economic cost resulting from high levels of air pollution. “The human and economic cost of air pollution and degraded seas and coastlines is immense, estimated to be more than 3% of GDP in some countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)”. The implications of air pollution are not limited to public health but extended to economic growth as well; thus, alleviating air pollution is a priority for the UAE now.
Reducing air pollution not only allows MBZ to address public health issues but also mitigate environmental injustice within the country. The effects of air pollution not only illustrate health-related concerns but also reflect intense social injustice. With a lack of green and open spaces, unprivileged densely populated neighborhoods are often home to facilities such as industries, landfills, and biological treatment plants which discharge a considerable amount of air pollutants into the atmosphere. Air quality in these areas are then greatly degraded. In other words, urban dwellers do not equally enjoy environmental quality. This social injustice regarding environmental quality is a challenge to MBZ’s governance in the UAE. Therefore, it is essential for MBZ not only to tackle air pollution and improve public health but also to mitigate environmental inequalities. Finally, improving the air quality in the UAE’s major urban hubs is key to MBZ’s image as an environmental leader. MBZ knows clean cities are a quantifiable and observable strategy to project successful environmental policy and carbon goals on the world stage, an image that is very important to Abu Dhabi’s ruler.
Wildlife protection plays an important role in the environmental agenda of the Gulf country. The UAE government has been pushing forward conservation projects of endangered species to reduce biodiversity loss. The varied terrain of the UAE, including the coast, offshore islands, mangrove areas, mudflats, salt pans, sand and gravel plains, sand dunes, has been home to a rich array of wildlife. However, the rapid urbanization, high levels of pollution, and climate change have posed severe threats to the vibrant wildlife there. “Almost half of all mammals in the UAE are endangered, according to new government research that looked at the extinction risk for 1,167 species in the country”. Now, six of the most vulnerable creatures found in the UAE are hawksbill turtle, Arabian leopard, Arabian tahr, spiny-tailed lizard, socotra cormorant, houbara bustard.
A significant decline in animal population has both environmental and economic implications for the country. Firstly, the gradual disappearance of threatened species is a major contributing factor to biodiversity loss of the UAE which directly and indirectly affects human life. The World Health Organisation shows that “biodiversity loss can have significant direct human health impacts if ecosystem services are no longer adequate to meet social needs. Indirectly, changes in ecosystem services affect livelihoods, income, local migration and, on occasion, may even cause or exacerbate political conflict”. Secondly, the economic cost of a decline in vibrant wildlife is also enormous for the Gulf state. This is primarily because wildlife plays an essential role in the tourism industry of the UAE. Creating eco attractions is one of the economic goals of the country to boost tourism. Aside from environmental benefits, some plants such as coral reefs and mangroves also bring about economic benefits for the country. “For example, mangroves serve as habitat for a variety of organisms; help in pollution control; provide a source for lumber and energy, and offer recreational and educational opportunities”. Mangrove forests in Abu Dhabi are a popular eco-tourist attraction where people often flock there for birdwatching, snorkeling, kayaking and other recreational activities. Therefore, wildlife extinction not only results in environmental damage but also economic loss for the UAE.
Apart from a desire to mitigate environmental impacts caused by animal extinction in the country, MBZ’s efforts in pushing forward wildlife protection also reflects the influence of his family and his desire in economic diversification. Growing up in an environment with a tradition of falconry, MBZ soon developed an interest in hunting and equestrianism. MBZ’s passion for hunting and falconry was passed on to him by his father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Sheik Zayed, the founding father of the federation, was always fascinated by falconry and made tremendous efforts in preserving this heritage sport. He is also known as one of the world’s greatest conservationists whose vision was to transform deserts into a green haven. During his lifetime, Sheik Zayed had been pushing forward agriculture and wildlife conservation to mitigate desertification, change the face of the UAE and give the country an environmental conscience. Sheik Khalifa, the second president of the UAE, then continued the legacy and environmental agenda of his father, establishing environmental protection as a cornerstone of the legislative system and government policies. “His vision of conservation and sustainability was demonstrated through his support for path-breaking environmental conservation initiatives, including breeding and release programmes for falcons and the Houbara Bustard (a protected bird species in the UAE) in the Arabian Peninsula and Central Asian regions. His commitment to environmental conservation also prompted him to appoint a Minister of Environment in the first Cabinet formed under his Presidency.” Therefore, MBZ’s efforts in environmental protection are not only prompted by current concerns in international public opinion but also by the legacy of his family who attached great importance to conservationism as an essential part of their culture.
Secondly, wildlife conservation is also an important part of MBZ’s efforts in diversifying the economy and reducing the UAE’s heavy reliance on the oil and gas sector. MBZ knows the paradox in his conservation policy: the UAE’s oil and gas exploitation are the main drivers for negative environmental impacts on biodiversity and pollution. However, he is faced with the reality that his position as ruler of Abu Dhabi, President of the UAE and power position on the world stage depends almost entirely on oil and gas. Thus, environmental concerns will never outweigh the exploitation of fossil fuels while there is still a global demand. Nevertheless, he uses the massive proceeds from this industry to mitigate the environmental impact and try to contain the negative externalities to specific zones. Thus, MBZ’s conservation projects reflect his desire to present the Gulf country as a global ecotourism hub. Therefore, it is sufficient to say that wildlife conservation is a crucial part of MBZ’s environmental agenda.
In conclusion, MBZ and the UAE are currently facing four major environmental challenges: Oil depletion and a potential global oil phase-out, desertification, air pollution, and threats to wildlife. Firstly, due to the heavy dependence on oil production, the petrostate is highly susceptible to the global efforts in oil phase-out and the depletion of the resource in the future. This would have severe implications for the country by affecting the national revenues of the UAE, hampering its position as a major energy provider and power player regionally and internationally. Furthermore, this challenge would impact MBZ’s financial capabilities, and the al-Nahyan family’s leadership position within the federation. Desertification is the second major concern for MBZ when over 80% of the country is already desert. Encroaching deserts threaten the long-term survival of the country and also act as a significant obstacle that disrupts economic activities, triggers migration, creates social unrest and hence challenges MBZ’s rule in the country. Thirdly, the UAE is one of the countries in the world with the highest level of air pollution. The air contamination is a grave concern as its impacts are not limited to public health but extended to economic growth as well, as well as hampering MBZ’s image as a world climate leader. Finally, dangers to wildlife and a gradual disappearance of threatened species have both environmental and economic implications by resulting in a biodiversity loss and hindering the development of eco-tourism in the UAE. The following section “The Defining Moment” will analyze the event that catapulted MBZ as an environmental leader on the regional stage, before presenting the solutions to the challenges outlined above in “Part 4: Policy Outlook”.