Consider, for a moment, the United Arab Emirates as microcosm and metaphor for the human condition.

The story goes like this: Early settlers eking out a hardscrabble existence suddenly discover the riches of the natural resources under their feet. They harvest them, prosper, build gleaming monuments to their own cleverness, grow plump and happy... and multiply. And multiply.

Suddenly, there are so many that continued growth seems perilous. And the reckoning begins.

Much of the developed world began its reckoning a few years ago. But after a week in the Middle East, I can't help but wonder whether the region is either indeed just slowly beginning this reckoning, or whether it's a larger-than-life illustration of our innate human desire to have our cake and eat it, too.

Because cake is clearly still plentiful in the UAE.

As much as the government of Abu Dhabi has shown leadership in the region by strategically investing billions into its Masdar clean technology initiative, extravagance abounds.

Many Emirati, the highest per capita carbon emitters on the planet, drive monster SUVs. In a region where the desalinated water costs more than petrol, showers in my so-new-it-was-technically-not-yet-open hotel in Abu Dhabi have foot-wide high flow nozzles. The organizers of the Masdar-sponsored World Future Energy Summit (WFES) printed a numbing amount of attendees materials on seemingly unrecycled paper. Water at WFES was served in plastic and styrofoam.

One could be numbed by the excess. Or inspired by the essential question it raises: Can clean technologies indeed preserve, or even improve, the extravagant way of life that many of us have grown accustomed to? Does sustainability have to mean scarcity, as it has started to for many? The UAE appears to be gambling on a grand scale that, no, it doesn't.

Masdar City—the intended jewel in the crown of the Masdar initiative—is taking form (see Pictures from a walking tour of Masdar City). The WFES attracted a larger number of exhibits this year than last. Prestigious multi-million dollar cleantech innovation prizes being given out by the government dwarf those in North America, with dollar values 10 times those at the Cleantech Open, for instance. A commitment is being made to education, with the new Masdar Institute for Science and Technology attracting its first 80 students—significant in a country where only 15 percent of its population goes to post-secondary education and nationals can collect a comfortable income from the Emirate without having to work.

The scale of Abu Dhabi's bet to attract scientists, large corporations and investors to help transform the oil-rich region into a clean technology center is becoming clear. A lot of capital is obviously in play, and it feels real.

But there have been cracks showing:

  • Masdar City is behind schedule; builders still call 2016 the official completion date, but media reports suggest it's been delayed four or more years
  • Speculation has risen in recent months that Masdar may be struggling to raise the capital to finish Masdar City and attract enough tenants to fill it
  • The WFES attracted fewer attendees this year than previous years, according to exhibitors (don't believe the official numbers, they groused quietly, lamenting the lack of show-goers)
  • Abu Dhabi's audaciousness at making such big moves towards renewable energy is not earning it many friends elsewhere in the petroleum-centric Arab world, some local residents confide

Will the bet succeed?

Abu Dhabi is late to cleantech, compared to Europe, North America and China. But don't underestimate the depth of its pockets and the resolve and efficiency of authoritarian governments. The region is off the beaten path, but it has been drawing bright talent to its fledgling new industry, rewarding them amply. And China's cleantech rise is evidence of how quickly things can move when 'unencumbered' by democracy.

The Emirates are clearly eyeing the profits to be made in next generation energy. But there's perhaps no better motivation than knowing your lifeblood, the fuel of your very existence, is about to run dry. The Emirates' rulers know just how much oil remains in their fields, and when they should ratchet up alternatives and at what cost.

"This region has lived in the past with scarcity," reminded Rajendra Kumar Pachuri, Chair of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, earlier in the week at the WFES.

Not that many of the hundreds of Arabs in the room would want to again.

And for that reason, if nothing else, the smart money would likely be on the UAE and the region overall indeed emerging as a significant cleantech player in time.

And I hope it does. Because in my future, I envision good, long showers and nice cars, too.

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