To the surprise of many, the UAE has won the contest to host the permanent headquarters of the Irena, the latest initiative to shift the debate about the future of energy from how to control consumption to ways of producing it more efficiently.

The win has delivered three important messages. The first is that leading oil-exporting countries want to collaborate with consumers. The UAE in particular has abandoned the idea that it needs to protect oil’s market share. With world demand expected to continue to grow inexorably for decades, there is no threat to oil’s position in the energy mix.

The federation is also demonstrating that it shares worries about the implications of global warming due to human action. Rising sea levels threaten the sustainability of the cities on the Arabian coast of the Gulf that have been among the world’s fastest-growing in the past five years.

The third message is that leading energy-importing nations are looking to establish a broader dialogue with oil producers. The US, after expressing doubts about the need for a new supranational agency, is backing Irena. Germany and Austria stepped aside at the last minute to allow the UAE to host the agency’s head office.

The UAE, as a result, has become the first country outside the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to be chosen as the base for a major international body. It will operate from Masdar City, a new Abu Dhabi urban development which has been designed to minimise carbon emissions. The project is the first of its kind in the world and a striking symbol of the UAE’s desire to play a constructive role in the campaign against global warming.

Changing reputation

Basing Irena in the Gulf also constitutes a radical change in the GCC’s environmental image. The UAE has been charged by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) as consuming the greatest amount of natural resources in the world, on a per capita basis. This claim, which has been widely reported, is based on questionable estimates and is probably unprovable. Yet, there is no doubt that the federation, due to its wealth, has been careless with energy and water.

The federation is stepping up efforts to change its reputation. In Dubai, all new buildings are subject to a government decree effective from the start of 2008 requiring them to comply with sustainable building standards. This will soon result in new building regulations that will be mandatory across the emirate. Meanwhile, individual Dubai developers including Tecom Investments, part of Dubai Holding, and Dubai World are implementing their own green building programmes.

Abu Dhabi is piloting its Estidama sustainability rating system and plans call for it to be rolled out comprehensively this autumn. Masdar City is already committed to green building standards that match the most demanding in the world. In total, hundreds of individual buildings and projects in the UAE are being certified as compliant with a green building code.

The message is spreading. A Saudi environmental building council is being established with official approval to promote sustainability in the kingdom’s public and private sectors. The Qatar environmental building council will be formalised this summer. Similar developments are taking place across the Gulf.

Renewables, as the Irena win indicates, are moving up the agenda. The Bahrain World Trade Centre, the world’s first major building using horizontal wind turbines to meet its energy needs, is now operating. On 1 June, the Middle East’s first large solar power plant, developed by Masdar, was connected to the national grid in Abu Dhabi.

No part of the developing world is doing more than the GCC to tackle environmental challenges in a coherent manner. The region’s reputation for wastefulness is increasingly outdated. Once seen as last in world sustainability rankings, the GCC with Abu Dhabi in the vanguard, is now planning to be first.