In Abu Dhabi, is there prosperity to be found beyond oil?

In Abu Dhabi, is there prosperity to be found beyond oil?

Abu Dhabi skyline oil prosperity and energy future
ShutterstockProchasson Frederic
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The United Arab Emirates is built on oil. The shiny buildings and pristine housing developments in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, once a desert, have been paid for by selling millions of barrels of the stuff to fuel the world's energy needs.

But that oil is running out. For the first time, local politicians are asking themselves a big question: What does prosperity beyond oil look like?

In 2011, oil exports accounted for 77 percent of United Arab Emirates (UAE)'s state budget. As of this year, the country has 98 billion barrels of oil left. Selling up to 10 million barrels a day, the country is looking at a further 50 years before its main export runs out.

Last month, Abu Dhabi's policy makers invited researchers and practitioners together to explore alternative, more resilient and diverse economic models.

The UAE imports more than 80 percent of its food, and the value of this will increase from $3 billion in 2011 to $8.4 billion by 2020 to meet growing demand. Dubai relies on desalination plants for 98.8 percent of its water supply, paying about $6 for every cubic meter of water.

Over a decade ago, Dubai, the emirate with the least amount of oil, tried to diversify its economy by moving into high level tourism. But when the 2008-2009 financial crisis hit, it needed to be bailed out by UAE oil money.

Masdar, the flagship green economy city built with high sustainability credentials, was another attempt to diversify the economy. The Guardian just ran a story under the headline "Masdar's zero-carbon dream could become world's first green ghost town," detailing how ambitions waned and costs rose after the financial crisis struck.

UAE's prime minister, Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, assures his country that about 70 percent of GDP comes from non-oil sectors. But the statistic does not tell the whole story.

Dependence takes on many forms, because oil has paid for a way of life. Young emirates are given a house, a job, a salary, free health care, free education — and subsidised utilities.

There is a pervading sense of gold rush in the UAE. Four-fifths of the UAE's inhabitants are foreign workers. The majority of people arriving in UAE are manual workers or service providers — people coming in to "help," but mostly to profit.

The original emirate — once composed of fishermen, desert people and traders — seem to have lost its sense of desert. When water leaks from the pipes, people glance to the ocean and say, "There is no shortage of water."

Here is perhaps the biggest challenge: the behavior change, remembering a past without oil money, when resilience was fundamental to survival, when there was no one to "help."

Facing the future

The decision makers in Abu Dhabi are asking some serious questions about the future of their economic model. While attending a conference hosted there recently, two messages came out clearly for me.

First, after much conversation, the conference participants voted on the headline phrase that captured the mood. It was "sustainable behavior is patriotism." This shows how the culture of change needs to go back to its roots, respect its traditions and forge a national character and economy that can endure.

The second striking feature was the number of ambitious, intelligent, hard-working emirate women. They made up a disproportionate number of conference attendees.

The UAE is one of the more empowering Arab nations when it comes to the status of women. And you can see a bright new future, as these women grasp this opportunity and step up to lead.

So will UAE smile as the last barrel of oil leaves? It will be difficult, in part due to the money and dependency it has created, but it is not beyond the emirate, if it remembers its desert history, inner resilience and wisdom to empower the brightest and best, whatever their gender.

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