Overline: Interview
Headline: The Arabian Peninsula Lacks a Sense of "Environmental Citizenship"

One of the new IASS Fellows this year is Natalie Koch. She is a professor in the Department of Geography and Environment at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Koch is currently researching the geopolitics of sustainability and "post-oil" futures in the Arabian Peninsula. In this interview, she discusses her research project and the extent to which the war in Ukraine may be accelerating Europe's transformation to a renewable energy supply.

Fellow Natalie Koch
Natalie Koch researches the geopolitics of sustainability and "post-oil" futures in the Arabian Peninsula. IASS/ S. Letz

Could you briefly introduce me to what you mainly research and how it came about?
Natalie Koch: My research asks why leaders in the Arabian Peninsula have been promoting large sustainability and renewable energy projects in the past decade. I focus mostly on the United Arab Emirates, which is the region’s clear leader in imagining and building for a “post-oil” future, but I have also been considering developments in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. When I started my research in the Gulf countries, I immediately noticed that sustainability was an important way idea that these regimes were using to promote a modern and benevolent image. But like all the other spectacular projects I research, iconic sustainability projects are not just about PR: they are always underpinned by mighty international networks of power, money, and expertise. So my project about “post-oil” futures aims to map these networks – and to understand what it means for the energy transition in the region and globally.

Can – paradoxically – Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the energy dependence of European states that it reveals be helpful for the great transformation?
N.K.: The Russian war on Ukraine has given renewed attention to the challenge of energy interdependence across Eurasia, and the riskiness of depending on the authoritarian state of Russia. But it is not a new problem – my earlier research focused on Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, where oil pipelines were a favorite political tool of Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. And I still remember when the Russian government cut off gas to Ukraine in 2006. The Western sanctions are new this time, though, which suggests an acceptance of European complicity in the politically and environmentally unsustainable energy architecture that defines our hydrocarbon present. If leaders in Europe are able to take advantage of the crisis to promote a more resolute path toward renewables, perhaps it will become a hydrocarbon past sooner than it would have otherwise.

What role could the Arab countries play in this?
N.K.: Leaders in the Gulf states are opportunists and the Russian war has made their energy resources seem even more valuable than before. They also understand that relations with Germany are particularly important – something made clear from Vice Chancellor Habeck’s visit to the region in March, and the Qatari Emir’s visit to meet with Chancellor Scholz in Berlin in May. The resulting energy deals have focused on LNG supplies from Qatar, whereas the Emirati agreements are mainly connected to hydrogen. The new LNG terminals that are being planned in Germany to receive Qatari gas are also being planned to be able to process deliveries of hydrogen-based products. This includes ammonia, which is how the first Emirati (blue) hydrogen will be shipped to Germany. There are many difficult questions about how “green” hydrogen can be in the future, but the Gulf actors are keen to lock in the new energy relationships that are being formed in the wake of the Russian war. For now, though, only time will tell if that will result in more environmental benefits than harms.

One of your projects during your fellowship at the IASS is to compare the efforts of the Gulf states as well as the European states for an energy transition and a more sustainable energy supply - what can you already say about this?
N.K.: Comparing the Gulf states and European states is difficult, given the vast difference between their political and social geography, not to mention the physical and material aspects of their place in the global energy system. Yet we can learn a lot from asking what explains their differences in terms of the energy transition. I focus on how the nondemocratic system in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar is reflected in energy policy. To approach sustainability, these governments have prioritized large-scale projects, which reinforce the traditional role of the state in controlling and profiting from energy. This in turn means that Gulf residents are not being activated as active participants in the energy transition in the same way that they are in Europe. Young people in the Gulf are encountering the sustainability message much more these days, but there still is no comparable sense of “environmental citizenship” that one finds among many Europeans. Sustainability here is frequently approached as having a democratizing potential. This is not so in the Gulf.

Forging a "post-oil" future for the Arabian Peninsula is changing narratives - so how are these new sustainability narratives working at the local level, what is it doing to Gulf societies that have lived the opposite for decades?
N.K.: The sustainability idea has become much more present in the public sphere in the last ten years. But I don’t think the situation has changed dramatically. For example, Dubai has a “Clean Energy Strategy,” which aims to have the Emirate powered by 75 percent clean energy by 2050. To achieve this, the government and its various state-controlled utilities have invested in building the Al Maktoum Solar Park – a massive site in a remote part of the desert. By focusing on a project like this, the government is not asking ordinary people to change anything about their lifestyle, and these people are even very unlikely to ever see the site themselves. This pattern is also seen in Qatar, where the government has invested a tremendous amount of money in a high-tech integrated waste facility. All waste and recyclables are processed together, which means that residents do not have to separate goods themselves. Here again, there is no social behavior change required and the acts of being a good “environmental citizen” that we see in other parts of the world are rendered irrelevant.

How serious are the Arab state leaders about the energy transition? What renewable energy projects are there in the Arab region that you are observing or find noteworthy?
N.K.: Leaders in the Gulf region are serious about the energy transition, but mostly because they understand that their entire political economic system has been built on revenues from hydrocarbon extraction – and that these revenues are soon to be in jeopardy. They know that if they are not strategic about how they invest these revenues now, they are sure to face both economic and political crisis. In the UAE, their renewable energy initiatives have focused on two huge solar parks – the Al Maktoum Solar Park in Dubai and the Noor Abu Dhabi Park in Abu Dhabi. Both have major problems with keeping the solar arrays clean from dust, since the waterless cleaning technologies they have piloted are not working properly. So, in a region that gets almost all its water from the energy-intensive process of desalination, water is a major limiting factor for these large solar installations. Beyond this, the governments of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Oman are all supporting hydrogen energy. As most other actors in this sphere, they all suggest it will be “green” hydrogen in the future, but till now, it is mostly gray or blue hydrogen. Two of region’s oil giants, ADNOC (Abu Dhabi National Oil Company) in the UAE and Aramco in Saudi Arabia have large and expanding carbon capture and storage projects, and how this develops in the future will be important to watch.