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Looking Towards a Sustainable Future: A Conversation with Ambassador Al Otaiba, UAE’s Ambassador to the United States

His Excellency Yousef Al Otaiba has served as the Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to the United States (U.S.) since 2008 and as Minister of State since 2017. He previously worked under President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, during the latter’s tenure as the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and served as Non-Resident Ambassador to Mexico. He was awarded Ambassador of the Year in 2010 by the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce and listed among TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in 2020.

Ambassador Al Otaiba spoke with Kim Montgomery, Director of International Affairs and Science Diplomacy at AAAS and Executive Editor of Science & Diplomacy, on the UAE’s approach to science and technology diplomacy. This conversation is part of the Ambassador Conversation Series, which was launched in Spring 2021.

Kim Montgomery (interviewer): The United States and the United Arab Emirates have had a friendly relationship since diplomatic relations were established in 1972. You have served as the Ambassador of the UAE to the United States since 2008. Given your experience in the position, what do you think are the most significant shared priorities in science and technology between the United States and the UAE, and how have you seen them evolve over the years?

Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba: Climate and the energy transition have been the biggest priorities in the UAE-U.S. scientific relationship throughout my 15-year ambassadorship. The UAE has long recognized that facilitating the energy transition is a strategic, economic, and environmental imperative, and has thus made this issue a serious policy priority.

Indeed, the increasingly devastating weather events that we see on the news on a near-daily basis—in the United States, in the UAE, and around the world—underscore just how urgent the need is for strong international collaboration on climate science and clean energy technology. As a result, the UAE is prioritizing work with partners1 across the United States—in government, higher education, the private sector, and beyond2—to strengthen the international response to climate change through scientific research and technological innovation.

One example of this shared interest is the Partnership for Accelerating Clean Energy (PACE),3 which will mobilize $100 billion USD and deploy 100 new gigawatts of clean energy in the United States, the UAE, and emerging economies around the world by 2035. The initiative represents a shared commitment by two major energy producers to a responsible and ambitious energy transition.

The energy transition is not just an environmental imperative; it is also a major opportunity to diversify and expand the economy, create new jobs, and create innovative solutions to our shared challenges. On that front, I’m pleased to say we’re in lockstep with the United States, as our two nations work together to decrease global emissions and lead a just energy transition.

Another shared priority is the sustainable production of food. The UAE and United States co-lead the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM for Climate),4 a coalition of over 500 partners that seeks to accelerate innovation, research, and development in agriculture and food systems in order to spur low-carbon growth and enhance food security.

Montgomery: Oil and gas have played a major role in the UAE’s economy for decades, but the country is working to create greener sources of energy through nuclear reactors and solar parks. Why is it important to adapt to new, greener energy methods for both environmental and economic reasons? What role does science play in this transition, and how is hosting COP28 affecting these efforts?

Ambassador Al Otaiba: We just got through the hottest month on record in human history in July 2023. Everywhere you look, wildfires are destroying communities, hurricanes are hitting coastlines, and droughts are wiping out crops. These observations confirm what science tells us. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we need to dramatically cut emissions to maintain a livable planet. Unless we all take urgent action now, climate impacts will only get worse.

In 2008, the UAE clean-energy company Masdar, with funding from the government of Abu Dhabi, began construction on a low-carbon eco-city that now serves as a “greenprint” for future cities and sustainable living—fittingly dubbed “Masdar City.” This was the UAE’s first-ever large-scale “greening” initiative and demonstrated its commitment to serving as a regional leader and first mover in the clean energy space. Today, the city is home to a rapidly growing clean-tech cluster, a residential neighborhood, and a free zone where businesses can benefit from a wide array of business support services. Since then, the UAE has continued to make significant investments in clean and renewable energy at home and around the world. Today, Masdar is active in more than 40 countries and has invested in or committed investments to projects worth more than $30 billion USD.

In addition, solar energy has become a big priority for the UAE. The Noor Abu Dhabi solar plant, which is one of the world’s largest single-site solar power projects, started commercial operations in 2019, generating about one gigawatt of electricity. We are now in the process of developing additional solar projects in the UAE, such as the five-gigawatt Mohammed bin Rashid Solar Park in Dubai and the 1.5-gigawatt Al Dhafra station.

Our energy goals do not end there; the UAE is the first country in the Middle East to operate zero-carbon nuclear power, which, along with renewable energy, will provide 14 gigawatts of clean power for the UAE by 2030. Also, as part of its net-zero ambitions, the UAE plans to invest $163 billion in clean and renewable energy sources over the next three decades. The UAE is doing all it can to facilitate the energy transition, but we recognize that it will be a team effort.

The UAE is taking its climate responsibility seriously, and a key aspect of minimizing the effects of climate change is creating cleaner sources of energy. We have traditionally provided one type of energy, and we want to continue to provide the energy of the future. That’s why we’re currently hosting COP285 (November 30-December 12, 2023) and mobilizing action toward a rapid phase-up of renewable energy as we build towards an energy system free of all unabated fossil fuels.

Montgomery: The UAE was an original signatory of the Artemis Accords, an international agreement to promote safety and peace in space exploration. Why was it important for the UAE to sign onto the agreement? How do you think it will affect UAE’s space goals, such as sending spacecraft to the Moon and Mars, as well as its broader science diplomacy objectives?

Ambassador Al Otaiba: In the past decade alone, the UAE has evolved from a mere buyer and operator of satellites to building its own engineering capabilities for space systems in collaboration with a variety of international partners, including the United States, the EU, and Japan. By setting basic principles to guide civil space exploration, the Artemis Accords are helping guide operational excellence, both for ourselves and our partners, allowing us to work together for the benefit of all. Transparency, public registration, and deconflicting activities are all core to the Accords, which will also help to build future multilateral discussions at the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and other international forums.

As a member of the Accords, the UAE looks forward to working with NASA and other international partners to promote responsible exploration and research of the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Indeed, the UAE is currently preparing for its second lunar mission.6 The UAE’s Rashid 2 Rover, if successful, will help establish a knowledge base that will aid in the creation of a lunar research station and help answer questions about the formation of the solar system and its planets. And in the longer term, we hope that the mission will serve as a catalyst for human habitation on the Moon. Stay tuned!

Montgomery: In 2016, H.H. Sheikh Mohammed launched the Dubai 3-D Printing Strategy with the goal that by 2030 Dubai would be a leading hub of 3-D printing technology. How do you expect this strategy and further investment to benefit the country, and why place so much focus on this innovation?

Ambassador Al Otaiba: The Dubai 3-D Printing Strategy aims to help the UAE leverage this fascinating technology for the development of products and services that benefit all humanity. One core focus of the Strategy is the development of medical products, like 3-D printed teeth, bones, artificial organs, medical and surgical devices, and hearing aids. This will enable doctors in the next five years to print out replicas of organs such as the heart, kidneys and brain. As a result, patients will benefit from shorter waiting times and cheaper treatment options.

In the future, 3-D-printed innovations will be present in all aspects of our life, from the houses we live in to the cars we drive and the food we eat. Because of this, the UAE also sees value in investing in this growing sector. As such, we must ensure that we have the right regulatory infrastructure in place to attract the world’s biggest companies and the best and brightest talent from around the globe.

Montgomery: One way that the UAE has fostered innovation is through its multidisciplinary free zones, which provide full foreign ownership, minimal to no tax, and 100% repatriation of capital and profits.7 Beyond bringing in foreign investment to the UAE’s economy, how do you think this kind of model could contribute to a more open scientific enterprise?

Ambassador Al Otaiba: These free zones allow the UAE to be at the forefront of innovation and entrepreneurship. The districts serve as catalysts for nascent industries—from biotech to fintech and beyond—by creating a platform for start-ups to test ideas and business models in new and developing sectors. Free zones also help us attract (and keep!) top international talent by providing a business-friendly environment for companies seeking to set up shop in the UAE.

One example of this is the Dubai Science Park, a free zone community that serves the entire value chain of the science, health, and pharmaceutical sectors, fostering an environment that supports research, creativity, and innovation. Established in 2015, it is now home to more than 400 companies, from multinational corporations to small- and medium-sized enterprises, and 4,000 professionals.

Among those who call the Dubai Science Park home is the Neuro Spinal Hospital, which has brought cutting-edge technologies to the region, including the UAE’s first robotic Cyberknife and radiosurgery center. The Park is also home to many late-stage clinical trials, including by multinational pharmaceutical companies like AstraZeneca, with the aim of providing access to treatments for rare diseases.

Montgomery: What are some must-see travel destinations in the UAE? In particular, are there things that you would recommend for someone visiting who is interested in science or innovation

Ambassador Al Otaiba: There is lots to see and do in the UAE for those with an interest in science and innovation! One of my favorites is Dubai’s Museum of the Future. This landmark is devoted to the celebration of innovation and the UAE’s future-focused vision. Each of the interactive museum’s seven floors explores various aspects of science and technology, including space travel, biodiversity, and smart cities.

I also highly recommend the Al Ain Aflaj, which are underground aqueducts that helped early Emiratis channel water over long distances—an ancient but highly innovative approach to ensuring water security and irrigation for those in harsh desert climates.

Lastly, I must recommend Masdar City, which is Abu Dhabi’s pioneering vision of a city of the future. With the goal of becoming the world’s most sustainable eco-city, Masdar is leading the way by developing a framework for how cities can accommodate rapid urbanization and dramatically reduce energy, water, and waste.

 

Disclaimer

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Endnotes

  1. For more information about initiatives led by Ambassador Al Otaiba, see https://www.meridian.org/profile/yousef-al-otaiba/ 
  2. For more information on U.S.-UAE partnerships, see www.uaeusaunited.com/yousef-al-otaiba and www.uae-embassy.org/ambassador-yousef-al-otaiba.
  3. For more on PACE, see www.uae-embassy.org/uae-us-partnership-accelerating-clean-energy.
  4. For more on AIM for Climate, see www.state.gov/launching-agriculture-innovation-mission-for-climate.
  5. For more on the UAE’s plans for COP28, see https://yousefalotaiba.com/insights/cop28-climate-conference.
  6. Jessica Morgan, “Rashid Rover 2: Dubai Ruler Announces New Moon Mission,” The National, April 26, 2023, www.thenationalnews.com/uae/2023/04/26/rashid-rover-2-dubai-ruler-announces-new-moon-mission.
  7. For more on multidisciplinary free zones, see www.moec.gov.ae/en/free-zones

Authors

Kimberly Montgomery

Director, International Affairs and Science Diplomacy

Estefania Ortiz Calva

Senior Program Associate, Center for Science Diplomacy

Katie Garner

Program Assistant for International Affairs and Science Diplomacy

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