Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week: Saudi, UAE energy ministers outline path to net-zero future

As the global energy transition takes center stage at this year’s Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week in the UAE, concerns around energy security, both in the Middle East and the world at large, are high on the agenda.

In light of this, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have taken the lead on pioneering green initiatives, setting a road map for other nations looking to adopt more sustainable energy sources without causing economic harm.

“Energy security is a concerning topic,” said Prince Abdul Aziz bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s minister of energy and chair of OPEC Plus, during a summit discussion titled “Energy Transition in the GCC — Net Zero on the Horizon?”

“We believe, as OPEC Plus, that we have done a lot in bringing about stability. There is nothing more profound or important for energy security than having a stable market and those who are not copying us as OPEC Plus need to copy us.”

The key to energy security is to embrace many different energy sources, he said, as “tabooing” a specific source or being too selective could prove damaging to a nation’s economy.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have focused attention on building a more sustainable energy model, while also working to ensure they remain reliable global suppliers of oil and gas.

“We came up with a strategy in 2017 of going 50 percent green by 2050 and reducing 70 percent of our emissions,” Suhail Mohamed Al-Mazrouei, the UAE minister of energy and infrastructure, told summit delegates.

“But what is important as well is that (going 50 percent green) would save us around $191 billion of the $353 billion of our budget, so almost 60 percent, and that was an eye-opener for many countries.”


Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, at the opening ceremony of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW). (AFP)

Energy officials from Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been working with advanced economies to help diversify their energy mix, while encouraging other countries to adopt renewables, Al-Mazrouei said, adding: “This is what the world was not expecting from us, as conventional producers.”

The Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week Summit will run from Jan. 15-19 is one of the biggest gatherings concerned with exploring sustainability issues, and providing a global platform for cooperation, knowledge exchange, investment and innovation.

Besides launching renewable-energy initiatives and embracing green fuels, Saudi Arabia and the UAE participated enthusiastically in COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, in November, where nations committed to cutting their emissions.

The previous month, Saudi Arabia launched its Saudi Green and Middle East Green initiatives, committing the Kingdom to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2060, and to planting 10 billion trees over the coming decades, rehabilitating 8 million hectares of degraded land and establishing new protected areas.

“These initiatives are ideas that the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself put together,” Prince Abdul Aziz told the panel, adding that the commitments are genuine and not mere “greenwashing” as suggested by critics.

“It is not trying to take Saudi Arabia to a beauty shop. It has more to do with conviction that we need to do all the above because there is a solid economic case for all of us.” 

Referring to two megaprojects taking shape on the Kingdom’s northwest coastline, he said: “We cannot have a place like the Red Sea project or NEOM without being too careful about what you do to the environment.”


Saudi and Emirati ministers at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week 2022. (WAM)

Prince Abdul Aziz added: “We have been advocating the circular carbon economy and we will be demonstrating (it). The circular carbon economy is a closed-loop system designed to promote the reuse of resources that would otherwise have been wasted or discarded.”

Technology is expected to play a core role in the region’s plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in an efficient and cost-effective way, including carbon capture, utilization and storage tools. Scaling these technologies presents many lucrative business opportunities.

“There will be money that will be made because, in the concept of reusing and recycling, carbon and gasses will become a material that will be monetized,” Prince Abdul Aziz said.

Al-Mazrouei drew attention to circular economy’s potential for creating jobs by enabling and incentivizing the private sector.


Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum (R), UAE Vice-President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai with Minister of Defence, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (C), UAE Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs and Armen Sarkissian, President of Armenia, at the ADSW opening ceremony. (AFP)

“Others are watching and copying and catching up, so it has been a positive movement,” he said. “And whenever they see us as the largest two economies in the Middle East doing these things, others are adapting and learning, and we are spreading that learning as much as we can.”

Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a far-reaching economic and industrial transformation under the umbrella of Vision 2030, a diversification plan that is creating jobs in a variety of new industries, while encouraging more young people to seek careers in the rapidly evolving energy sector.

“Some of these technologies are challenging and they will continue to be,” said Prince Abdul Aziz. “But with challenge and creativity, you will see serious men and women approaching this sector with excitement. Because, to them, it is making them look like models — in their  ambition of having economic prosperity and monetizing their natural resources, including wind and sun, and advancing the diversity of the economy.”

Prince Abdul Aziz said he is confident that Saudi Arabia will achieve its goal of eliminating 278 million tons of emissions, almost equivalent to the emissions of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman combined.

“If we are not proud and willing to show that, I don’t know what else we would show,” he said.

Hydrogen has emerged as one potentially game-changing source of renewable energy. The UAE is working on seven hydrogen projects in the hopes of capturing 25 percent of the market share.

“We think we can export hydrogen to some of our partners and we’re already in discussions with many countries that we supply hydrocarbons to today,” Al-Mazrouei said. “We will work on both blue and green hydrogen; we have built the first Middle East green hydrogen plant and we are now testing the utilization.”

Green hydrogen is produced using solar energy, and is a major feature of the energy equation at Saudi Arabia’s planned NEOM megacity. Although hydrogen presents its own set of challenges, research and development will be a crucial step in the transition.


Workers plant trees next to a highway in Riyadh, on March 29, 2021. The Saudi Green Initiative aims to reduce emissions by generating half of the Kingdom’s energy from renewables by 2030. (AFP)

“We will spare no effort in ensuring we make this a viable option for us, and we think that because we are big in hydrocarbons, both of our countries will be big in hydrogen and hydrogen export,” Al-Mazrouei said.

In his concluding remarks, Prince Abdul Aziz pressed home the need for all nations to help reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

“We owe it to ourselves, as Saudi Arabia; I owe it to our friends in the UAE, that if you look at our commitments when it comes to emission reduction, we are doing way beyond our share.”

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