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Finding success

Dubai’s triumphs amid regional turmoil spark discussion on hosting COP28 and its potential benefits

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — In a city known for its excesses, whether reaching toward the sky with the world’s tallest building or hard partying at its beach resorts and bars, Dubai has pulled off another record-breaking feat in the rolling dunes of its desert outskirts.

Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, named for the ruling sheikh of Dubai, stretches across some 122 square kilometres and represents a pledge of billions of dollars by this city-state to reach its goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. It’s a solar-panelled gamble in a city where casinos have yet to arrive — though it always seems to be betting big no matter the risk.

Rising rapidly from a creek-bound pearling village to a city associated with international glamor, Dubai has a long history of finding economic success amid the war-ravaged woes of the wider Middle East. Its ruling family likely views the upcoming United Nations COP28 climate talks as another such opportunity, though it carries the significant peril of becoming synonymous with a collapse in negotiations on limiting greenhouse emissions, or being overshadowed by the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.

A flock of Arabian Oryx graze at a conservation area in front of the city skyline with the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on January 8. PHOTO: AP

There’s a risk of reputational damage to the UAE if they fail to make any traction in the talks, particularly as they are a major oil producer, said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute who has long studied the region.

“There is also a risk that media and civil society coverage will focus critically on issues such as the UAE’s planned expansion of oil production capacity and depict the UAE as part of the part of the problem rather than the solution in terms of climate politics.”

In response to questions from The Associated Press about criticism over its foreign policy and other issues, the Emirati government insisted that “the UAE is deeply committed to human rights and building upon its steady progress in this field.”

“As the host of COP28, the UAE will welcome constructive dialogue and continue to work with international partners and stakeholders to deliver impactful results,” the statement said. “Climate change is a global problem that demands a collective effort, and this significant, momentous event will be a conference of action.”

Given the futuristic skyline of downtown Dubai — and how it gleams at night as one side of the Burj Khalifa lights up with a massive 770-metre LED display — it can be easy to forget that the city only received its first electrical generator in 1952. Before that, only candles and kerosene lamps lit the night along its eponymous Dubai Creek where the village first grew.

An Emirati mother walks with her daughter in front of six thousands flags on display to celebrate the country’s Flag Day in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on November 4. PHOTO: AP

In recent years, Dubai has started to focus on renewable energy — despite a moment where it appeared it would launch a coal-fired power plant before switching it to be fuelled by natural gas as its hosting of COP28 loomed.

The jewel of Dubai’s clean energy efforts is the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, some 50 kilometres southeast of the city’s downtown. There, solar panels stretch far into the distance, taking in the rays in a country that sees, on average, 10 hours of sunlight some 350 sunny days a year.

By 2030, the city hopes to get 5 gigawatts of electricity from the plant, which could power some 1.3 million homes based on United States averages. These days, peak demand in the city-state is nearly 10 gigawatts, according to the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority, its sole utility provider.

Overall, the Emirates says it plans to be carbon neutral by 2050. While not specifically outlining its plans to achieve the goal, projects like the solar park and Abu Dhabi’s Barakah nuclear power plant, the first on the Arabian Peninsula, aim to make generating electricity a “green” endeavour.

On top of all that, while the UAE pledges to zero out its own emissions, it’s also planning to ramp up oil production. A member of OPEC, the UAE produces some 4 million barrels of crude oil a day. In the coming years, it aims to produce 5 million barrels a day — fuel that will be exported, used by other countries and contribute to climate change.

Solar panels at Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park and its solar tower are visible, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on November 9. PHOTO: AP

Those plans have sparked criticism by activists ahead of COP28, with most aimed particularly at the upcoming talks’ president-designate, the oil company chief Sultan al-Jaber.

Al-Jaber, who also has led billions of dollars in Emirati investments in renewable energy, has dismissed criticism from those who “just go on the attack without knowing anything, without knowing who we are.”

Dubai’s USD7-billion Expo City, built for the 2020 world fair that was delayed a year by the coronavirus pandemic, will host the upcoming climate talks. But its selection also raises questions about Dubai’s reliance on low-paid foreign workers in its construction boom.

The Expo site work saw at least three workers killed and some 200,000 labourers exposed to high heat and potentially exploitative labour practices ahead of the world’s fair. Those labour abuses continue at Expo City, renewable energy projects and elsewhere in the Emirates, according to Equidem, a labour advocacy group.

While the Expo didn’t draw all the world’s biggest names, the climate conference already has King Charles and Pope Francis confirming they’ll attend, along with other world leaders. That makes it an opportunity for Dubai, as well as a risk given the wider regional tensions over the Israel-Hamas war.

People stand on the observation deck of the Dubai Creek Harbour in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on June 18 to view the city skyline with the world’s tallest tower, the Burj Khalifa. PHOTO: AP