The Royal Environmentalist: An Interview with Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Ali al Nuaimi, “The Green Sheikh”
Oil exports make up 30 percent of the UAE’s total GDP, so how can the UAE balance its economic prosperity with environmental consciousness?
In the UAE now, the diversification of the economy is a paradigm shift. In the early 70s, the main [resources] were oil and gas. Now, the UAE is not dependent on oil and gas; it is dependent on renewable energy from the sun, from nuclear power, from waste. So, the leaders are preparing the government for this diversification. The leaders of the UAE—they understand that in the future, people will not just be relying on oil. And they’re preparing: when the last drop of oil will be exported, what’s next? And we have a culture beyond oil. So they are designing, investing new people with innovation and a new concept of life without energy. That could take another 30 years, 50 years. We don’t know. And now the oil prices have gone down, so until 2020 there will be 7 percent renewables. In 2030 there will be 15 percent, and in 2050 there could be 55 to 60 percent in the UAE. And the UAE is a model catalyzing other states like Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia. They feel jealous, and they want to be better or different. So this is a good move.
So, you’re called the “Green Sheikh.” Are you the only green sheikh, and to what extent do you face opposition or support in the UAE?
I was a sheikh from a royal family. I had a passion not to change the world but to change myself and my community. So I mixed the sheikh and the environment, and I became the Green Sheikh. The key is to open hearts and people’s minds.
The Green Sheikh [is inspired by] my father and my godfather. They were hunters. They didn’t use rifles or guns to hit animals. No, they used falcons. So I told my dad, ‘Give me one falcon, so I can be like you.’ And he said, ‘Don’t be a copy. Create a hobby. You will have a different future; you are the falcon.’
In 2006, the UAE had the highest ecological footprint per capita of any country in the world. In response, the government began the Ecological Footprint Initiative, and the footprint has since dropped. Are attitudes towards environmental protection changing? What remains to be done?
Yes, attitudes are changing on different levels. The government invests in renewable energy. [We should also] encourage the private sector to support new technologies, innovations and entrepreneurs. And on the other side, the public attitude is changing through schools and awards. They give the best award for young entrepreneurs in environment and for the best practices.
So would you advocate rather to act locally?
Locally and globally. Now I’m starting a new initiative called Blue Youth. We are connecting young people to heaven and to earth. Where does water come from? The sky. We need to connect young people to heaven and to God. This land does not belong to me, it belongs to Him. Water connects everyone. When you look at the planet, you see more blue than green. So the water inside is, and around us, and above us—that’s the blue.
We are connecting people from different faiths on the spiritual side. We are using water to establish a foundation. The Christians have baptism. The Jewish do something similar for the spiritual state. And, as Muslims, we wash with water five times a day—it’s a combination of the physical and the spiritual. In the Hindu tradition, they go to rivers, or waterfalls, or oceans, and they do their own ceremony. Water is priceless and precious, and it is holy. We put in people’s conscience that water is not just a medium, it is a spirit, and it has a value—it’s life.
Does this partnership and connection extend to working with other oil producers in the region, not just the UAE?
Yes, we want to link with Jordan and Sudan. When I talk about water, I don’t just talk about the water of my neighbors. No, I talk about water in Canada, which I care about because it’s connected to me. [I care about] water in Antarctica because the ice cap is melting. These are the challenges we are facing, and that’s why we’re initiating Blue Youth for young people, because tomorrow they will be the leaders, the policymakers, the businessmen, the intellectuals, the doctors. So they have to understand the platform we connect with water. It’s symbolic, a global voice. And now we want to go to COP 22 in Morocco to make that voice of a Blue Youth, and I will be there.
So you made the switch from working in the petroleum industry to becoming an environmental advocate. What influenced your decision?
What I saw. What I lived. I worked for an oil and gas company. And I really felt myself harming other people. My background is in chemical engineering, which is linked with the environment directly. So I said, ‘If I have harmed people, I must now protect people.’ So I transformed. In 1996, I changed. I left the oil and gas company and opened up the Environmental Society as a non-profit organization to bring awareness among the people in the UAE about the importance of a good environment.
What advice would you give to students?
They have to focus on three things. First, education. They have to focus and work hard. Second, do volunteering as much as possible, within the university or outside the university, if possible abroad. You have to go outside of your comfort zone. It will expand your knowledge, it will expand your experience and you will also come to appreciate and respect other cultures. And third, keep your physical training sharp and exercise because exercise will help you to perform your wellbeing, your knowledge and your life pressure. There is a lot of stress and pressure in life and one of the best reliefs is exercise.
And the final one is spiritual. If you are a Muslim, be a good Muslim. If you are Jewish, be a good Jew. If you are Christian, be a good Christian. Go to the church. Go to the temple. Go to the mosque. Connect to God because spiritual growth is very powerful. You need the three, and the fourth is hidden. It’s between you and God. Nobody can know. People will see you study, people will see you volunteering and in the gym. But the fourth—nobody will see you. If you focus on those four, you will be an ordinary person but your actions will be extraordinary. That’s what we call a champion.