Meet three individuals who have dedicated their careers to creating a greener
future for all
Razan Al Mubarak has been at the forefront of the UAE’s successful efforts in the conservation of key species over the last decade
Like most mothers, she aspires for her daughter to grow up in a world of clean air and water, graced by nature.
Unlike most three-year-olds, however, that little girl has a parent whose personal passion and professional tenacity helps render that aspiration realistic.
As managing director of the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, and Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, Razan Al Mubarak is a potent force in conservation and sustainability, in the UAE and beyond. She cites stunning victories for her organisations, most incredibly, perhaps, the EAD-led re-introduction of Arabian oryx into the UAE desert and its programme to restore scimitar-horned oryx to Chad.
The latter was declared globally “extinct in the wild” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in 2000. What followed has been labelled by many as the world’s most ambitious large mammal reintroduction programme – and, by Al Mubarak, a “miraculous story of a species leaping out of [near] extinction”.
Similarly for the Arabian oryx, hunted from UAE dunes in the 1970s.
“It’s never happened before in the history of species conservation that you’ve brought an animal literally from [the brink of] extinction to numbering thousands today,” she says.
“IUCN – the largest environmental organisation globally – puts out the Red List where they do a global health check on various species’ population dynamics. This was the first time a species was delisted from being extinct [in the wild] to critically endangered and then [to a species listed as vulnerable].”
Al Mubarak explains how this success was due greatly to another significant inspiration; the UAE’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed. His renowned passion for nature included establishing a private oryx herd, drawn on to populate the programmes.
“This incredible vision of Sheikh Zayed recognised an important pillar of protecting nature is breeding – recognising, there’s going to be pressure on nature and that we as humans need to chip in.
“Through breeding programmes we were able to not only introduce it in the UAE, but the overall region. It’s a fantastic story that follows a lineage of inter-generational protection from the founder to his son and to now institutionalising that vision around the UAE.”
Crucially, both wins also publicly embossed the effectiveness of conservation. Oryx thrive in EAD-protected areas while the MBZ Species Conservation Fund is today recognised as “one of the most significant institutions working ... globally”, having supported more than 2,000 projects in 160 countries, protecting 1,350 species/sub-species from extinction.
“When you hear these horrific numbers it’s easy to say ‘conservation doesn’t work’, but when you’re actually in the field you see the effects of conservation .”
Other local triumphs include the establishment of Fujairah’s Wadi Wurayah as the UAE’s first national park by Emirates Nature-WWF, a body Al Mubarak helped create. This love affair with nature evolved via childhood desert trips with family. She also embraced the connection between the natural desert and Emirati culture and was compelled to protect that world.
“When you listen to poetry from the region, the songs, it’s very much inspired by nature.
“What made me worry … in the absence of the very thing that inspired, if that goes, what happens to our culture?
“We started this programme, Connect With Nature. We go to different places around the UAE; not just for nature lovers, we also call on yogis, ‘experience doing yoga in the desert’, or artists to get inspired by this particular wadi or mountain.
“Slowly we’re building this community we hope ends up being this lifeline for nature.”
That essence of inclusion is among the touch-points at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, under way until January 18.
WiSER – Women In Sustainability, Environment and Renewable energy – is a Masdar-led impact-focused platform positioning women and girls as drivers of change to actively address global sustainability challenges. It holds its annual forum during ADSW, featuring inspirational women, plus male and female students. Part of WiSER’s advisory council, Al Mubarak says conservation offers career opportunities women and youth don’t always realise exist.
“The organisation and platform is working to provide mentoring and internship opportunities to women to enter those fields. There’s a collective need – women, youth, men – everybody needs to work towards sustainability. Addressing sustainability is a human challenge.”
At EAD, women already represent above half of leadership positions, including technical fields in marine environment, terrestrial ecology, toxicology, Al Mubarak says.
“In the UAE there aren’t as many barriers for women to get into those fields – on the contrary. This was enabled by good government policy and also good inspirational models in the UAE, working in various sectors. But globally … numbers demonstrate there continue to be barriers for women getting into STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects.
“Studies have demonstrated when woman are in leadership positions they tend to make decisions that are equitable and environmentally-friendly. A study conducted by the UN looked at gender issues and women in parliament were more likely to pass laws to increase protected areas and improve environmental policies.”
Ultimately, no-one can ignore the urgency of the current crisis facing biodiversity.
“We’re going to be losing a million species in the next few years if we don’t do anything.
“The numbers are depressing. You need to be outraged to get the work done. It does break my heart. but you have to be optimistic otherwise you end up thinking it’s ‘out of my control’. It isn’t – there are lots of things we can do.
“When you hear these horrific numbers it’s easy to say ‘conservation doesn’t work’, but when you’re actually in the field you see the effects of conservation.
“The population of dugongs, for example, in the UAE, despite development and everything, is consistent, not declining. Turtles numbers are doing exceptionally well because we’ve increased patrolling of the area, of illegal fishing, illegal nets. Those are practical things that, if you consistently do them, work.
“We as humans have become increasingly disconnected from nature and the perception is nature is a resource we can draw upon when needed. It’s seen as a luxury and not as a necessity. It is taken for granted.
“When you start recognising that our very survival is dependant on nature, that’s when we start seeing increased funding, more attention to the issue.
“For me, over the last 10 years, the work we’ve been doing at EAD … it’s doubling the number of protected areas, putting the strongest laws on fisheries to reduce the decline of our fish stock, working with over one million children in the UAE on environmental education and awareness.
“There have been incredible milestones enabled through EAD and MBZ Fund. The success of those institutions has provided me with enough fuel to hopefully run another few ‘marathons’.
“I really would like to scale up the work we do with MBZ fund.
“We’ve coined the idea of micro-philanthropy – small money goes a long way. We don’t discriminate in terms of species, we’re the only institution that funds plants, animals and fungi, making sure rangers are out there, conservationists are outside in nature, surveying, protecting.
“We need to roll up our sleeves and get it done.”
Professor Linda Zou’s work offers dramatic and crucial potential for tackling water scarcity amid the effects of climate change such as drought and desertification
Her ground-breaking research, within a Khalifa University laboratory in Abu Dhabi, into water procurement and purification solutions could ease one of our biggest resource issues. Centred on her expertise in water treatment and nanotechnology, the Chinese-born Professor Linda Zou is disrupting decades old cloud seeding technology and fuelling advances in smarter water cleaning, including more sustainable desalination.
“Many emerging contaminants in wastewater challenge the conventional water treatment process,” she says, dressed in a pristine white lab coat.
“It clearly needs new technology that can remove emerging contaminants without excessive energy consumption. Nanotechnology provides a lot of hope to achieve this target.”
Although humble about her progress, she could significantly aid rain-shy, drought-vulnerable regions, including the UAE, where Zou “saw the need for water technology innovations was very strong”.
“Water is related to every life. Any effort to make production for human consumption more efficient will be vital,” says Zou. “My job is searching for the future, using nanotechnologies and making materials such as the membranes or absorbents or electrodes (for purification) more efficient, using low cost technology. More water production, less energy consumption.”
While water industry scientists have improved their processes, Zou says the “raw material remains very challenging”, with salt content considerable.
“If you produce fresh water from dams and rivers, energy consumption will be really low. They are conventional sources, our first choice, but in parts of the world you don’t have those so [you] turn to non-conventional resources such as sea or ground water, which is the case here.
“My research doesn’t immediately make a lot of pure water, but is incremental – like a jigsaw puzzle, you need to do it piece by piece.
“The future of our water, in summary, will be a combination of multiple technologies and means; it has to be a suite of different technologies targeted for different purposes of water usage.”
Zou’s research includes working with University of Manchester’s Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (half the funding for this centre has been provided by Masdar). Already an expert with graphene – a thin, strong “wonder material” – she cites successful collaborations with Manchester professors and is researching graphene-assisted salt selective desalination membranes.
“We have a meeting every few months, send samples across the globe. In the research world, the idea matters,” says the academic. “We are a community.”
In 2016, Prof Zou’s team received a grant under the Research Programme for Rain Enhancement Science. This related to cloud seeding – a process that stimulates clouds to generate rain by dispersing substances in the air. A technique largely unchanged for decades, it is being updated by Zou’s development of nano-structured cloud seeding materials that accelerate water condensation and enable ‘cloud design’ with more rain potential.
After successful laboratory experiments, scaled quantities of material were produced with a manufacturer for open atmosphere aircraft trials, largely in the US.
“Rain precipitation, if increased, can be used for groundwater recharge. Groundwater here has been used heavily, so any extra rain will be precious. ”
She will outline this project during a talk for Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week. “I hope we can have more nurturing and fostering of research outcomes to become native brand water technologies,” she says. “I really want people attending ADSW to see what is coming up, really see the potential.”
Zou was motivated to follow an academic career path early in her life as it “celebrates individual creativity and a desire to make a difference within the scientific framework”.
Years later, Zou hopes that same “creativity” and the wider research sector of which she is a part can drive the UAE to become a “regional force” in water technology and sustainability, either through government-led initiatives or partnerships, backed by political and commercial will.
“It’s not up to me. I’m the little nut [in the machine]. There are many people like me in the world.
“I can play a small part as a researcher in improving current practice without it being at the expense of future generations and the natural environment and resources. I feel good working where it is needed most.”
Ibrahim Al Zu’bi is
on a mission to put a
sustainability onto the main agenda in boardrooms across the region
As a young boy Ibrahim Al-Zu’bi delivered a dramatic indication of the route his life might take.
It wasn’t a journey – to his parents’ initial dismay – he would be embarking upon on his bike, however.
“I was in fifth grade and sold my bicycle without their knowledge to pay $25 to Greenpeace,” he recalls.
“With that, I thought at the time, I could go on the Rainbow Warrior [vessel]. I didn’t know the money just supported it.
The young Al-Zu’bi’s noble gesture signalled a love affair with the environment that underwrites his current role as chief sustainability officer for UAE retail, property and leisure group Majid Al Futtaim.
The word ‘sustainable’, meanwhile, only truly resonated later when the World Summit on Sustainable Development, in Johannesburg, followed up 1992’s Rio Earth Summit pledges.
“World leaders introduced sustainable development for the first time,” recalls Al-Zu’bi, now aged 45. “It triggered a point; what it and sustainability means.”
The urgency to do things smarter in all walks of life, including commerce, was clear, but awareness and solutions had to be amplified.
On joining Maf in 2011, Al-Zu’bi began mobilising a boardroom desire for greater sustainability, evolving greener buildings and initiatives for 45,000 employees spanning Maf’s 16 markets.
“Net positive means to put into the environment more than you take,” he says of a priority strategy being developed across different business units.
“Our commitment is not only to be carbon neutral, but also to produce clean energy and put it back into the environment, to produce clean water – that’s a solution for the climate emergency we have globally.”
Then anyone can become a “hero of sustainability”, says Al-Zu’bi.
“No-one likes to do bad things for nature or the environment. Sustainability is a tool, an enabler, for you to make a difference.
“From stopping litter to thinking differently to reduce negative environmental impact, you become a hero.”
Al-Zu’bi’s mission has manifested elsewhere in Dubai, and nationwide, realised through relationships and alliances with a host of organisations; as senior associate of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, agenda contributor to the World Economic Forum and previously as a senior advisor for Dubai Land Department.
Even schoolchildren benefit from Al-Zu’bi’s notions, from his time with Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority.
“I started my career there – head of special projects on sustainable development. I looked at the feel and design of the physical structure of schools and the curriculum on sustainability.”
Al-Zu’bi remains an Emirates Green Building Council board member, corporate advisory board vice chairman of the World Green Building Council, and UAE representative in the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction – a COP21 initiative.
“The only way to make a difference is not to be an isolated person; I have to be part of a system. You have to study and provide solutions.
“My main thing is lobbying, to put it onto the main agenda of decision-makers, wherever they are. [When] we start seeing it as a priority … things will be easy.”
“There is a crisis related to climate that will impact resources or business or one of the stakeholders. Businesses, if they want to think long-term, should consider climate as part of their risk assessment. ”
As a regional ambassador for Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, Al-Zu’bi delivers presentations based around the ground-breaking climate documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. And while he looks at the bigger picture “as a resident of this planet”, as a keen diver, he experiences “an amazing, fragile environment”.
“Every time I go underwater I look at marine life as our first defence line, to anything happening on the planet – a rise in temperature you see coral bleaching,” says the Emirates Diving Association co-founder and founder of Clean-Up Arabia.
Not long ago the notion of a sustainability officer barely existed, let alone one convincing boardrooms of the business case for sustainability.
“You have to show return on investments, so you should have background on that. You should work with designers and engineers. It’s been an evolution for me, but also the company as well.”
And it’s one that needs to touch all, says Al-Zu’bi.
“There is a crisis related to climate that will impact resources or business or one of the stakeholders. Businesses, if they want to think long-term, should consider climate as part of their risk assessment.
“I’ve witnessed amazing and huge change in the UAE, and the region, from an awareness perspective. The UAE is pioneering it [sustainability], on all levels.
“The vision … you wouldn’t have Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week without the leadership. They attend, spend time, they speak. It shows commitment, the strongest message. The decision-makers are there and support it.
“It’s the whole sustainability world in one city – a sustainable idea by itself, – everyone from stakeholders, decision-makers, NGOs, to civil society, private sector, innovators. I’ll be intrigued what new technologies we have this time.”
Now, as a father of boys aged two and four years, Al-Zu’bi remains as motivated and resolute as ever to achieve greater sustainability.
“My eldest hates littering and we see two small eco-warriors coming. I won’t have a problem with that, for sure.
“I look at them as the future. Do I like to take them to a clean ocean, absolutely. Will it make them better people, yes, because they notice things.”
Including, perhaps, that their father is a regional pioneer for sustainability.
“I’m just doing my job, being a citizen. I do what I do. I’m being Ibrahim,” he smiles.
“I would like to look back and say ‘look what this country, in this part of the world, did – a pioneer region that went from water-poor to one of the best environment-friendly regions of the world.
“We have one planet – we are in this together. We all work for the same legacy.”
Editors: Mustafa Alrawi, Ian Oxborrow, Stuart James
Words: David Dunn
Photos: Vidhyaa, Wam, Alamy Stock Photo, Victor Besa, Antonie Robertson, Silvia Razgova, Environment Agency Abu Dhabi
Video: Suhail Rather
Copyright The National, Abu Dhabi, 2020