14 October 2009

Certified Abu Dhabi Ramble

After residing here for about 7 months, I present you with a compilation ofAbu Dhabi random facts.

Abu Dhabi literally translates to "Father of the Gazelle."  It is the name of both an Emirate and a City.  

United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a country.  An emirate is kind of like a state.  So, it's like the United States of America, just substitute "Emirates" for "States" and "Arab" for "America."

The Emirate of Abu Dhabi takes up something like 80% of the landmass of the UAE.  It's a big emirate.  Dubai is the next door emirate.  Dubai is the place with the tallest building in the world, the man-made islands in the shape of palm trees and countries, the indoor ski resort.  All the stuff you've probably heard of.  

Thus, Dubai is at the edge of everyone's tongue.  "How's Dubai?" They ask.  I say, "Abu Dhabi's great."  I don't think most people notice.  Dubai's the one that gets all the world press.  They have better PR.  

[Abu Dhabi/Dubai confusions don't bother me.  Just don't conflate them if you're arranging airplane transit...]

Besides having all the land, Abu Dhabi also has the large majority of the oil money. About 95% of the oil in all the UAE, which is about 9% of the world's oil reserves.  Crazy.

Abu Dhabi's economy is built on oil.  Dubai's economy is built on tourism, finance, and real estate.  Thus, Dubai screams louder for world attention, because the success of its economy depends on the world noticing it. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi relaxes in its pool of oil and money.  

To be fair, Abu Dhabi realizes that its pool of oil and money will not always be there.  They are working towards muscling up their tourist attractions and  also building a "knowledge economy" instead, like Boston (biotech central) or Silicon Valley.  Masdar (where I am) is a large part of this master plan.  

Abu Dhabi has the highest per capita energy use in the world.  And the highest per capita carbon footprint.  (Yes, they even beat the good ol' USA.) Not to mention the highest per capita water consumption.  (It's all linked, really.  All the water here needs to be desalinated, which requires lots of energy.)

I wonder if I get points for being a fuel locavore here--all the petro-fuel in the buses I ride around in was produced only a few miles away.  Local consumption, right?  Hahahaha...I'm just kidding...

You'll also be happy to know that the city of Abu Dhabi has over 2,000 mosques.  I swear there's one every block, which makes sense because the majority of the population prays 5 times a day.  (I really like hearing the call to prayer ring through the streets...)

Less than 20% of the population are local.  More than 80% are expatriates.  From the Filipino cashier to the Pakistani taxi driver, and the Ugandan security guard, it's quite apparent this is a major destination for people who want to make money to send back to their families.   

But perhaps the most fascinating facet of Abu Dhabi is that it didn't exist 40 years ago.  Rather, there was a village of grass huts and about 1,500 residents.  It became a ghost town during the oppressive summer heat - residents would ride for days by camel to Al Ain, a nearby town with cooler temperature and more shade.  (It takes an hour to drive to Al Ain today.)  

Today, Abu Dhabi is a gleaming city of skyscrapers thick with six-lane rivers of traffic.  

The fascinating part is that so much of the oil wealth was distributed throughout the local population During the early oil wealth years under Sheikh Zayed, bundles of money (literally) were given to locals to help infuse the local economy with the wealth rolling in.  Apparently, "it was not uncommon to see local people walking out of the banks carrying cardboard boxes full of cash on their heads," according to Mohammed Al-Fahim, who wrote an autobiography about growing up in pre-oil Abu Dhabi and the changes that came afterward.

 Actually, the giving away bundles of money thing happened more than once.

Al-Fahim notes that each time it led to a "frenzied buying spree fueled by the oil wealth."  Some people invested wisely - built a nice house -- others blew it all on few flashy cars that became worthless in a few years.  Some people were really smart and opened car dealerships.  In fact, Al-Fahim's dad was in the car business.  

To give you an idea of the kind of explosive growth Abu Dhabi has experienced, imagine this: in 1966 his father sold about 200 tires.  The next year he sold 10,000 tires.  A 5000% increase.  Al-Fahim himself took on the family business and described what it was like to import cars and have them snatched off his hands when they rolled off of barges onto the still undeveloped sandy coastline.  If a buyer wanted a vehicle, "they would stuff bundles of cash into my hands, slip into the driver's sear and drive away in their new car."

Between describing the hardships of living in the desert and how the locals worked hard to scratch out a living, Al-Fahim off-handedly mentions, "Naturally, there was no domestic help as there is today."

In what other country has the local population gone from walking miles for brackish water to hired help as the norm?  I would bet that in the overwhelming majority of countries that discover oil, the wealth only reaches the wealthiest, most powerful top sliver of the population.  In this case, it reached everyone, who then turned into the wealthiest, most powerful sliver as the population boomed when more people arrived.

The government of Abu Dhabi certainly looks after its locals.  Sheikh Zayed was known for his generosity and compassion, and I think he's left an admirable legacy.  If you're local, and you get married, the government gives you a house.  If you want to study abroad, the government will pay for your tuition. (And it's common to hear people say, "There's no such thing as a poor Emirati.")

When I first arrived here, I resented a lot of the laws that favor the local Emiratis - double/triple salaries for locals over foreigners doing the same job, only locals can own land here, if you want to open a business, you need a local partner.  Not that I want to buy land or start a business here, -it just seemed like an uber elite high society making rules to maintain its own eliteness.

But now I'm impressed by how Sheikh Zayed set up regulations like these to ensure that the wealth benefited the locals, that the money from oil circulated in the local economy and didn't go straight to the pockets of foreign businessmen.  

It was really smart at the beginning, but these days, if Abu Dhabi really wants to become a "knowledge economy" they'd be wise to be more supportive of immigrants.  In my personal opinion, immigration is a huge plus for innovation.  The US is arguably the most innovative country in the world (the oil industry, electricity, the internet all have their roots in the US) and I think that a significant reason is because the US is a nation of immigrants.  

When different cultures mix, it becomes a more fertile ground for innovative ideas to break forth. (For more details, read The Medici Effect. Also, here's a Harvard paper that explores the links between immigrants to how innovative cities are--hat tip BoPreneur. "Immigrants are very important for US invention, representing 24% and 47% of the US scientist and engineer workforce," while the rest of the US workforce is only 12% immigrants...)

Finally, this ramble post wouldn't be complete if I didn't mention that robots are an important part of camel races in the UAE.  Once, camel jockeys were lightweight, starved children, but the UAE outlawed this practice and the children have been since replaced with robots that are essentially a remote-controlled hand drills attached to a riding crop. Technology to the rescue. 

13 October 2009

Tick tick tick

Huh.  There go my empty zen days.  Guess I'm a student again, grinding out problem sets.  I feel like a lower life form. 

I have no time for thesis research.  GROWL.

01 October 2009

Alternative Energy Myths

Tim recently sent me an awesome article from Foreign Policy: Seven Myths About Alternative Energy

Several points stood out for me...

Nuclear is super expensive and take a long time to implement. Amory Lovins estimates that nuclear costs 3 times what wind power does.

There's a lot of people running after developing sexy new technologies (sigh...biofuel...), while focusing on unglamorous efficiency has the potential to cut 20% to 30% of the world's energy consumption by using technology that's already widely available.

Efficiency also does not ask people to change their lifestyles -- it finds ways to do the same activities with less energy, as opposed to conservation, which asks people to cut back on activities to preserve energy.

For example, power companies make more money when consumers use more electricity and they need to build more power plants. However, California has implemented measures to decouple consumer electricity use from the energy company profits. Thus, companies have been enabled to work with consumers to reduce energy consumption.

As a result, electricity use per capita in California has remained flat over the past 3 decades, while in the rest of the US, it has jumped 50%.

Here at Masdar, there's lots of plans afoot to experiment with different techniques of enabling people in the city to use less energy. I think an important part is giving a clear signal to individuals about how much energy they are using. For example, imagine a small number display next to each appliance that displays the energy use/cost.

I think that most people want to use less energy, but there's a wide range of how far out of their way people are willing to go to use less energy. If the default option is "use less energy", if it's the easiest path, then the majority of people will take it.

The sustainability movement needs more persuasive technology, or rather, persuasive applications of the technology we already have.