The balancing act

Dr Waddah Ghanem Al Hashmi, winner of IEMA's Sustainability Leader award, talks to Chris Seekings about his career and balancing economic growth with a low-carbon transition

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has gone through a stunning transformation. In just two decades, the country, particularly Dubai, has become a tourism hotspot, famous for its numerous skyscrapers and architectural marvels rising up from the desert.

Oil was largely responsible for this boom in economic development and financial prosperity, with the Emirates National Oil Company (ENOC) instrumental in the country’s upturn in fortunes. However, with concerns around climate change and sustainability at an all-time high, the fossil fuel industry is under immense pressure to adapt to a low-carbon world.

Dr Waddah Ghanem Al Hashmi, senior director of sustainability, operational and business excellence at ENOC, is on the frontline of this transition, and explains here how he fights for that change.

“Now people see sustainability as being good business as much as it is about making the whole world a better place”

Blazing a trail

After applying to study chemical engineering at various universities in the UK, Dr Al Hashmi was offered a place on an environmental engineering course at the University of Wales, Cardiff, in 1993. Despite not knowing much about the subject at the time, he was intrigued by the syllabus. “I had a mentor who told me, ‘Look, son, this is going to become very important in the future, and something you should get into’. I accepted, and it’s a decision I have never regretted to this day.”

He subsequently became the first UAE national to obtain a degree in environmental engineering, and says the subject has only been taught in the region in recent years. “It wasn’t a well-known degree because it was never an option. Now we have many people majoring in environmental engineering and science degrees.” 

Dr Al Hashmi believes that the perception of sustainability is largely responsible for this change, explaining that it may previously have been seen as an obstacle, with businesses only interested in regulatory compliance. “It was a very negative way of looking at it – all red tape and something you would get penalised for if you didn’t comply.” 

The UAE has hosted various international environmental events in recent years, such as the World Green Economy summit in 2017, 2018 and 2019, and Dr Al Hashmi believes global forums have helped change attitudes. “We are involved in many of these discussions and debates, and now people see sustainability as being good business as much as it is about making the whole world a better place,” he says. “To have been a steward of that change in the region has been very rewarding personally.”

“I am interested in transformational projects that create growth but also help sustain the planet”

Leadership in action

Dr Al Hashmi’s list of achievements is impressive, and during the past 10 of his 22 years at ENOC he has been key in setting up the company’s environmental assurance, energy resource management and sustainability functions. 

He received much support from his general manager at the time, who is now the CEO ­– but admits there were some concerns initially. “I was asking the business for a lot of data, because our approach has always been a scientific one,” he says. “You also need a lot of money to invest in new infrastructure and research and development.”

Dr Al Hashmi is responsible for oversight of sustainability practices throughout the whole company, and oversaw a 30% reduction in the firm’s emissions intensity between 2011 and 2015. He and his team played a major role in integrating sustainability-related key performance indicators, and the business is now involved in many corporate social responsibility activities, taking a pragmatic approach to measuring social returns on investments.

“There is a difference between being an environmentalist and a social constructionist environmentalist,” he explains. “I am interested in helping the industry become responsible, more effective in managing resources and generally more sustainable, as opposed to someone that wants to hug trees. I am not against tree hugging – metaphorically speaking – but I am interested in transformational projects that create growth but also help sustain the planet for generations.”

 

Dr Al Hashmi also holds postgraduate degrees in environmental science and business administration, as well as a doctorate in corporate governance and leadership. He is working towards chartership as a board director, explaining: “If you can influence the board towards sustainability, then that’s when you can really create a serious transformation.”

 

A dose of realism

Oil prices have plummeted in recent years and fell as low as $25 a barrel during the coronavirus outbreak – down from $65 at the start of the year. This, coupled with concerns around climate change, is forcing companies to adapt their business models, but Dr Al Hashmi says it cannot happen overnight. “We are moving towards decarbonisation, but how do you do that? You need to bring in the money and create certain funds which are financed through current business models and resources.” He says that a fall in the oil price just makes it harder to fund renewable energy infrastructure projects such as the Mohammed bin Rashid Solar Park in Dubai.

Rapid global changes are also making it harder to start new projects, whether they are related to conventional energy or renewables, and there is a shortage of local talent. “There are more universities providing environment-related subjects and training, and more people coming into the system, but are they skilled enough yet? No. We have shortages of skilled, experienced talent in these fields. Developing talent in this area is the need of the hour.”

There is also the issue of the thousands of staff currently employed across the sector’s traditional business. “These people have particular skills, and if you change the industry suddenly, their skills become irrelevant,” Dr Al Hashmi says. “Their skills need to be transformed, and you need to have enough people with the new skills to support the new industry, so it doesn’t happen overnight. There needs to be a plan over the next five to 10 years – that’s what sustainability is all about.”

“You need enough people with the new skills to support the new industry, so it doesn’t happen overnight”

Sustainable growth

One of the biggest challenges facing companies in the UAE and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is managing a high economic growth rate with sustainability. “It’s shocking what we have been able to do in the last 20 years alone,” Dr Al Hashmi says. “Dubai is fast-growing, with a big requirement for resources, electricity, water, building materials, so it’s difficult to manage in terms of overall sustainability. At the end of the day there needs to be a balance.” He believes that the buildings “will keep going up”, but not at the same rate, and is encouraged by the UAE’s introduction of green building standards ­­– the first country in the GCC to do so. Dubai’s Integrated Energy Strategy, which aims for 25% of energy to be from clean sources in 2030 and 75% by 2050, is also grounds for optimism. “Honestly, when they first came out with this plan a few years ago I didn’t think it was achievable. But looking at the fast-changing technology, improving efficiencies and commitment, now I think it is possible. We seem to be moving faster than expected.”

He also describes Dubai’s young population as a “massive opportunity” – 85% of UAE nationals are below the age of 40 – and says that mentoring is now a passion of his. “A lot of people have chosen to live a life where they can have access to more power and energy, stuff which as kids they may not have had, but this has fuelled overuse of resources on earth,” he says. “I think it is about responsible consumption, and we have to educate people how to be responsible, rather than telling them they should not consume at all, because that’s a lost battle.”

 

Solar solution?

With sunny weather for most of the year and temperatures hitting more than 45°C in the summer, it may seem puzzling as to why solar energy is not more prevalent in the Middle East. The International Renewable Energy Agency believes 60% of the GCC’s surface area is well suited for solar. “I had the pleasure to meet Prince Charles about a year ago, and he said, ‘You should tell your friends to keep the black stuff in the ground, you guys have a lot of sun’. I replied, ‘Yes, Your Highness, but I must respectfully remind you that there is also a lot of dust that comes with that sun!’” The efficiency of solar is impeded by dust landing on the panels, and when this dust collects in the air it also limits the amount of direct sunlight. “That’s why, in places like Scotland or Germany, solar is effective – because when it’s sunny, the skies are clear.” 

There is also not much land available for solar in Dubai, and the sector is highly regulated. “If I wanted to put solar panels on my house, I would have to go to certain contractors approved by the authorities – I can’t shop around.” The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority has a mandate from the government to produce electricity from solar to ensure public safety, quality installations, and balanced power generation within the emirate. Nevertheless, solar panels feature heavily in ENOC’s ghaf tree-inspired service station, which is to be unveiled at Dubai Expo 2020, delivering power savings of 48% and the region’s first LEED Gold-certified service station. “I don’t know if we can build all stations that way, but we have exciting plans.”

 

Celebrating success

The judges at IEMA’s Sustainability Impact Awards last year said: “Transformative individuals who are willing to challenge their board’s systemic thinking and their sector both nationally and globally must be recognised for the work they do. Dr Waddah Ghanem Al Hashmi is such an individual.” He says that he was particularly proud to win the Sustainability Leader Award considering the competition from his European counterparts. “I have had the opportunity to achieve many things at different stages of my career, and I was very happy, and am very privileged, to win such a prestigious award,” he says  “It was very tough for someone not working in Europe, where a lot of these applications come from, and IEMA took a lot of care in producing a very well-thought-out event. I want to place on record my appreciation for my team, the management team led by the CEO, and the board of directors at ENOC for their support, leadership and stewardship.”

As well as being a highly respected sustainability leader in the Middle East, Dr Al Hashmi is an accomplished author; he has written six various technical books to date, and co-written a book on the first seven verses of the Quran with his father, Dr Shihab M Ghanem – the first Arab to receive the Tagore Peace Prize for Literature from the government of India in 2013. 

“We believe that when the Almighty created mankind, he told the angels that he was to place humans on earth to represent him as custodians of the planet,” he says. “There are many versus in the Holy Quran about protecting God’s creations, and particularly beautiful verses describing the servants of the Most Merciful as being those who tread softly on the earth, and others that describe the spread of corruption of the land and sea, which you could interpret as pollution.”

In a final message of optimism, he says: “It’s impossible to say what the fossil fuel industry will look like in 30 years, but the good news is that there are many new developments and technologies that are making the sector cleaner and safer, and we will leverage sustainable technologies more than we have over the previous 30 years.” 

 

For further information on the IEMA Sustainability Impact Awards 2020 visit: www.iemaawards.net

 

Picture Credit | Getty | iStock
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