How She Leads: Nawal Al-Hosany, Masdar

How She Leads

How She Leads: Nawal Al-Hosany, Masdar

How She Leads is a regular feature spotlighting influential women in sustainable business.

Meet Nawal Al-Hosany, director of sustainability at Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, and director of the Zayed Future Energy Prize. She leads Masdar’s sustainability standards and policies team, and oversees sustainability auditing, monitoring and reporting. In 2011, Abu Dhabi Magazine cited Al-Hosany as one of the 40 most influential Emiratis who have helped shape the country. She was also the first female deputy director of the Abu Dhabi Police. Her accolades include the Emirates Business Women Award in the Professional and Career Achievements category. In addition, Al-Hosany is one of the first two Emirati women to have climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Masdar, a renewable energy company in the UAE, was founded in 2006 as a government initiative to incubate and establish the new energy industry in Abu Dhabi and around the world. The enterprise includes the Masdar Institute, a graduate-level research university; Masdar City, one of the world's most sustainable urban developments; Masdar Clean Energy, a commercial-scale, renewable energy developer; and Masdar Capital, investor in the world’s most promising clean tech companies.

Here, Al-Hosany explains what it takes for women to lead positive change throughout the Middle East.

Maya Albanese: What is your background prior to working in the director of sustainability role?

Al-Hosany: I studied architectural engineering, worked in a small consulting office and later as a teaching assistant. I decided to leave academia to work for the defense department of Abu Dhabi. The police force was looking at building a new prison and they had to face a lot of international standards. At that point, I realized that the building could be constructed to optimize energy efficiency and make the inmates more comfortable. My eyes opened to the fact that sustainability is simply a better way to do business. From 1999 to 2002, I worked on my Ph.D. on this topic in the U.K. At that time, sustainability was still a very new concept, especially in the Middle East. When I came back to the UAE, I started to integrate sustainability into my job and into my different networks. I joined sustainability at Masdar City in 2008 just a couple months after its creation. We have realized that we need a sustainability policy for the entire company, though, so I have moved into my current role as director of sustainability at Masdar.

Albanese: What is Masdar City, and what was the purpose in creating?

Al-Hosany: Masdar City is part of the Masdar Initiative, which is Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy company. It was started seven years ago with two main goals: Diversify the local economy and extend our leadership into the global energy sector. At Masdar, we play an important role of positioning Abu Dhabi as an intellectual center that can export new energy technology to other countries. Masdar City is one of the most sustainable urban communities in the world, a renewable energy zone that is already attracting top talent and businesses.

Albanese: Why is Masdar one of the most sustainable cities in the world?

Al-Hosany: Masdar is powered by renewable energy and other passive heating and cooling technologies to reduce its total energy and water demand. In this harsh climate, water is a big issue. The city has a diverse array of businesses operating in harmony with the local environment and climate. For example, the temperature is an average of 20 degrees Celsius lower on a street in Masdar than on a similar street in the rest of Abu Dhabi. The buildings and infrastructure are designed to absorb heat and cool everything naturally. The city took a lot of time to design because we wanted all the buildings to be oriented in just the right way to capitalize on the wind direction, sun angle, etc. We have also achieved an A+ on our sustainability reporting through the GRI framework for our sustainability reporting.

Albanese: How does your position fit into the UAE government structure?

Al-Hosany: I sit on the executive committee and report directly to the CEO of Masdar. My function is part of the C-suite, as we see sustainability strategy as being part of the entire organization.

Albanese: Do you have a team that works with you?

Al-Hosany: I have an immediate team comprising five people. The sustainability office monitors the performance of the city and takes feedback. I also have “sustainability champions” across the entire organization, and I make sure that sustainability is integrated into every facet of the business. Together, we are evaluating: How can we can improve and move forward on new and better projects? Then, we also work with other Abu Dhabi sustainability entities, like the Sustainability Group from civic society, the financial sector, etc.

Albanese: What are your top responsibilities?

Al-Hosany: My role is global and comprehensive. There are three main areas of focus:

  1. Sustainability performance of the Masdar organization.
  2. Managing relations with other stakeholders in the UAE and working with them to incorporate sustainability into the bigger UAE agenda.
  3. Developing external, international awareness of our initiatives by speaking at conferences, being part of international boards, working with universities, etc.

Albanese: What projects are you focused on right now?

Al-Hosany: There are several important projects that we’re working on. We recently did an energy audit of the Crown Prince Court, and we’re working on its energy performance. Also very exciting is that we’ve developed a database called The Future Build that helps the construction industry define sustainable materials and where they are available. It is open to everyone in the industry.

Albanese: How are incentives being used in Abu Dhabi as a catalyst for clean energy development?

Al-Hosany: The Zayed Future Energy Prize was launched in 2008 by the late President of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, who championed environmental stewardship and sustainability as an integral part of UAE history and heritage. It is an annual award that looks for innovation, impact and long-term leadership in renewable energy. At $4 million, it’s actually the largest prize of its kind in the world.

Albanese: How do you respond to critics who may say that the UAE is an oil-producer contributing to climate change more than offering solutions?

Al-Hosany: As an oil-producing nation, the UAE recognizes that we can leverage our resources to create more sustainable sources of power that will better equip the world to meet rising energy demand. The Middle East and North Africa hold nearly half of the world's renewable energy potential, and the region also has capabilities to develop onshore and offshore wind power. Energy is the fastest growing industry in the world. In 2011, $250 billion was invested in it. Investing in clean energy technology is a viable method of the UAE ensuring its own economic and environmental sustainability for the long-term.

Albanese: What are the biggest challenges to sustainability facing the Middle East?

Al-Hosany: Most challenges are related to the climate. It is extremely hot and humid in the UAE and we lack water. We don’t just need cooling systems, we need efficient cooling systems that can operate on minimal resources. We have Shams 1, the largest concentrated solar power plant in the world. This 100-megawatt project delivers renewable power to more than 20,000 homes and displaces more than 175,000 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year. Energy security is a big challenge in many countries in this region. Importing oil and gas is a huge risk for countries, while renewable energy provides an opportunity for countries to be energy self-sufficient.

Albanese: How are governments and businesses in the UAE fostering female leadership?

Al-Hosany: For the UAE, we have made great strides to support women in leadership roles, especially in the areas of sustainability and climate change. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan once said, "Nothing could delight me more than to see the woman taking up her distinctive position in society. ... Nothing should hinder her progress. ... Like men, women deserve the right to occupy high positions according to their capabilities and qualifications." Today, in the UAE parliament at the Federal National Council, nine out of 40 members of parliament are women. UAE women constitute 66 percent of the public sector workforce, 30 percent of which are senior decision makers. At Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, 35 percent of our student body is women.

Albanese: Why is it important that women participate in sustainable development work?

Al-Hosany: We want to send a very clear message that women have an equal and important place in this world. Women have a social, economic and moral responsibility to participate in the climate change discussion. Women form the majority of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty in the world and are the ones depending on the local environment to find basic shelter and food to survive. Thus, women will be most affected by climate change and are the best-equipped to face the challenges and find effective grassroots solutions to climate change.

Albanese: Describe an obstacle you have overcome in you work, and what you learned from it.

Al-Hosany: One of the main challenges I face is the perception that women in the Middle East are not empowered. When I travel abroad, people look at me as if I am the note-taker or the assistant in the meetings. It was a bit weird to handle this in the beginning. The way I came around this eventually is that I just started enjoying the looks on their faces when I started speaking and they realized I actually know what I’m talking about.

Albanese: What are you most proud of accomplishing thus far?

Al-Hosany: One of the things I’m very proud of is the momentum for change we’ve created. There is so much we’ve done in Masdar that has impacted the entire industry in the UAE. We’ve affected the global supply chain of sustainable materials by bringing them to the UAE and educating the construction industry here about it. On a personal level, I’m very proud of having the opportunity to be in this position and make a difference in the region and the world.

Albanese: What advice would you give other women interested in working in a role similar to yours?

Al-Hosany: One of the things that we’re always challenged with as women is that we always underestimate our strengths and capabilities. If you think you may not be able to operate at the same level as your male colleagues, you are wrong. Never underestimate yourself. Women have the interpersonal skills, the intellect and the leadership skills to succeed and to contribute just as much.