Over the past few months a quiet effort has been underway in one of the most recognisable buildings in Abu Dhabi. A team has been carefully assembled under specialised leadership and their mission identified. Their target has been established: her name, Irena, born in Bonn in January 2009 and now in need of a home. The team’s mandate: to secure Irena – short for the International Renewable Energy Agency – a home in Abu Dhabi.
I had the fortune of witnessing first hand how this team, lead by the capable Dr Sultan Al Jaber, presented their case to host Irena to a visiting president of a foreign country in Dubai. It didn’t take too long to win him and his country’s precious vote over. But it was just one success in a more arduous journey.
This is a tough race but no developing country has put out such a bold but realistic proposal to host the global headquarters of any UN entity. The team has travelled to lobby presidents, prime ministers and senior government officials from the 77 signatory nations and approached these country’s allies to lobby them. And they must – two major European cities are also vying to host Irena.
Hosting Irena in the UAE is important because ever since the establishment of the United Nations in the aftermath of the Second World War almost every single entity that was established under its banner has been headquartered in a first world or developed state. Out of the UN’s 192 members only a handful have been honoured by hosting a global headquarters of any of its offshoots. The reasoning is that these countries contribute a significant amount of funding for the UN’s budget or that their host city has a relevant connection to the entity such as the World Tourism Organisation being hosted in tourism magnet Spain or the World Bank and International Monetary Fund being hosted in the US, a country that contributes 22 per cent of the UN’s budget.
If that logic is followed, then Abu Dhabi has the best shot at beating its European competitors in hosting Irena. Here’s why: Irena, the first international organisation that focuses exclusively on the issue of renewable energy in the developing and developed world, has a natural home already being set up in Abu Dhabi. In 2006, three years before Irena’s birth, Abu Dhabi took the giant step of announcing Masdar City, a zero emissions development where cars will run on solar energy and water is recycled. Masdar, arguably the world’s most ambitious sustainable development, will host specialised research and technology intensive facilities for up to 90,000 inhabitants to encourage the study and implementation of renewable energy. Those already on-board in helping build Masdar City include BP, General Electric and Royal Dutch Shell.
Irena’s aim is to work throughout the world to close the gap that exists between the enormous potential of renewable energy and its current relatively small market share in energy consumption. Abu Dhabi, a major Opec oil producer, believes so much in this project that it has committed that by 2020, renewable energy sources will account for at least seven per cent of the emirate’s total power generation capacity.
That nearly all UN headquarters are hosted in either North America or Europe reflects poorly on the UN’s record, especially considering that most of the world’s inhabitants live outside the five or six countries it consistently favours. Curiously, Switzerland hosts several UN agencies including the Universal Postal Union, the International Labour Organisation and the World Health Organisation even though it lacked full membership in the UN as late as 2002. If the UN expects the developing world to take its noble mission seriously – including ensuring social progress and equality – it must start to practise what it preaches and encourage capable emerging countries to take a leading role in development.
Capability is a key word for developing countries wishing to host a UN agency. It is incumbent on any country keen on hosting a UN agency to demonstrate competence as well as a willingness to remain neutral with regard to upholding the principles of the UN and of the specific agency it hosts. And no other city in the world has demonstrated such eagerness and suitability to host a renewable energy centre as Abu Dhabi.
Our duty as nationals and residents of the UAE and the wider region is to provide support for the efforts of this organisation. This century belongs to the emerging world of the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Latin America and no other place better exemplifies resolve towards this project than Abu Dhabi.
In Cairo this coming June, the 78 signatory nations of the renewable energy agency statute will vote to find the six-month-old Irena a new home. She couldn’t be in safer or more capable hands than in the UAE’s capital.
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a non-resident fellow at the Dubai School of Government.
*This article was first published in The National newspaper on Sunday, April 19th 2009.