WKND chatted with the United Arab Emirates’ Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Ali al Nuaimi. Known as the “Green Sheikh” for his work in sustainability, al Nuaimi shared his journey from the oil fields to the world of environmentalism.
Q: How did you get interested in environmentalism?
A: My level of engagement changed in different stages of my life. My father loves nature and he loves falcons. Nature, falcons and wildlife, that really took my attention. With this, my father didn’t just tell me what to do. I got really passionate about the link between the falconer and the falcon and nature. So when I saw my dad going to a hunting trip, I said, “I want to be like you.” He said “No, I’m a falconer but you will be different. You focus on your studies and you’ll have a different future.” He said “You’ll be the falcon yourself.” That’s an analogy for taking only what [you need], saving the environment, having courage and foresight. These values came to my life when I became mature.
Q: Was there a moment in your adolescence when you realized this might be your career?
A: I knew in high school I wanted to do something with the environment. I didn’t find the right specialty in the university, so I chose chemical and petroleum engineering, which has some relation. After university, I found myself [thinking], “Where can I work in oil and gas?” I thought [about being an] expert, but then I thought I should go beyond just working in the oil industry. I wanted to do something better, cleaner, healthier. So I changed.
Q: Do you see a contradiction between being in the oil industry and being an environmentalist?
A: You cannot do both. Sometimes you can, but you really have to choose between the two. I chose to do something that is more protective.
Q: Do you feel at odds with your family who are very involved with oil production?
A. No, some people like environmentalism, some people don’t and some have no comments. But the government and the public, they know it’s my passion.
Q. What are the biggest challenges you’ve run into in working with the government?
A: Enforcing the law. This is still not being put in place. Still there are some gaps. Monetary fines and penalties are lacking; the law is not enforced.
Q. What does environmentalism in Arab states look like?
A: Protection of the protected areas. Conservation of wildlife; hunting is banned. Also introducing renewable energy into the country. There are some countries that are copying and trying to promote their cities from the UAE.
Q: What types of initiatives do you have in place?
A: Blue Youth is an initiative that connects different schools in different countries so that they can produce the best practices and be aware about saving and protecting water from pollution and conflict. This was my idea to connect youth to climate change and water. I’m also working on environmental leadership, trying to have young people focus on sustainable leadership of sustainable entrepreneurship. The best way is to coach these students and provide them with mentorship and show them the best practices on the ground.
Q. How do you specifically deal with water conservation?
A: For daily consumption, using the shower and showing people the quantity of water being used. Show them some examples of the quantity of water being used because water use is higher here than in other countries. I show them what I practice. People love to copy what you practice. If you tell them “do this, do that” they won’t follow. They don’t like instructions but they like to do what others do. For me, I take fewer showers, like 2 minutes long. Secondly, I try to minimize my use of water. I turn off gardening, use a different water supply and minimize use of water in washing. All these small things make a difference.
Q: In addition to water conservation, what are other daily things people can do to conserve energy?
A: People can use energy more efficiently, like with lighting. You can use a timer for lights. Also, with air conditioning, it’s a huge use of energy. When you’re not home, turn the AC off and allow natural light to come in.
Q: How do you feel your advice has been received?
A: I am a good example and people respect me, so they see me and like to learn more from me. I don’t use a lot of force and am not strict. People don’t like strict, so I’m trying to be patient. I try to go slow. Some people like it and some don’t change. You know, it doesn’t frustrate me. What they do is their choice.
Q: Has there been a point that’s been very inspiring or validating for you?
A: Yes, when I give a talk and see people really change. I remember a long time ago in 1996 a kid came and asked me to define what “environment” means. He then got his Ph.D. in environmental studies. The definition changed his life and made him passionate.
Q: Movements advocating fossil fuel divestment have arisen on many campuses. Last April, 19 students at Yale were arrested after holding a sit-in that advocated divestment. What are your thoughts on fossil fuel divestment and student efforts?
A: I think this is not the way to act. They should debate or make an intellectual discussion. This is a fine and noble university and discussion of pros and cons is better. Creating a dialogue and lobbying and taking time is the best approach. You don’t need to be polite, but you need to be aggressive not in terms of confrontation, but in terms of dialogue. You have to communicate, send letters and be persistent. All the students need to be really convinced. If the majority of students are interested, then the university will change.
Q: How has the environmental movement in the UAE expanded?
A: There, the leadership and public are interested. There is a movement from the top down and from the bottom up. All the government buildings need elite certification; there are many sustainable buildings and projects with solar panels. People have learned not to be dependent on oil, and they’ve begun to think about what happens after oil.
Q. Do you think people in the West have misconceptions about environmentalism in the Arab world?
A. Yes, they do. They think people are just interested in the oil and gas businesses. But there are many people with interest in the environment.
Q. Should the U.S. be dialoguing with Arab states on issues of sustainability?
A. Yes, I think it’s important. They may have technology, policies or procedures and they should share. The U.S. is looking out for their interests; the best thing is to establish a council that will really help both sides. This council could create an Arab-U.S. agreement on climate change, renewable energy or water resources. We need to grow young leaders on both sides because this is the future.
Q. What’s the best and worst part about being royal?
A. The best is when I serve people and talk to people. The worst is when the royal family is independent, when the people are isolated and away from their community. When [we’re] serving people and with the people, that’s the difference.