I was lucky this year to get a very exclusive interview with the CEO of Masdar while in Abu Dhabi for Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week. I spent about 15 minutes with him trying to get to the roots of Masdar and its aims.
I first asked Dr Ahmad Belhoul about the roots of his interest in sustainability and cleantech. He focused on a topic that has been highlighted in the opening ceremonies of a few Zayed Future Energy Prize events: the UAE is in a very harsh climate (very hot & dry, with little water) and its founding fathers and mothers thus had to live very thoughtful and sustainable lifestyles. Dr Belhoul noted that his own grandmother lived in carefully sustainable way as a result, and that seemingly had an effect on him.
But Masdar’s CEO didn’t paint roses on the reality in the UAE today. He noted that the culture moved away from that lifestyle as it became rich from its oil resources. His generation moved away from that focus on sustainable living. But now there is a strong effort to get back to it, with a lot of that effort being channeled through Masdar, a $15 billion clean energy company aiming, as I put it, to create a “Silicon Valley of Cleantech.”
While working in the Department of Tourism, Dr Belhoul’s interest in sustainability grew as he looked at environmental impact assessments related to specific projects — how they affected water supply and other environmental issues in the region.
Coming back to that idea of the UAE trying to create a Silicon Valley of Cleantech, I asked Dr Belhoul if my take on that seemed accurate to him. He noted that Abu Dhabi as a whole has been a “first mover” in this sector, one of the first cities in the region to set a renewable energy target. He noted that there was essentially no renewable energy industry in the region when they created Masdar, and now it is a global hub in some respects. That “whole ecosystem” created by Masdar — starting from R&D and going all the way to direct investments in cleantech companies and projects — is what it’s all about. He even gave examples of people who had gone through the whole cycle, starting out at Masdar Institute (which is based in Masdar City) and now leading clean energy projects in the corporate sector.
I also talked with Dr Belhoul about the Zayed Future Energy Prize and how strong its focus on the youth is, which is very atypical for such a prize and especially a prize of such scale and prestige. His first sentence in response was, “What we’re building today is for the future generations.” Going on: “They need to buy into this and need to understand the importance of this.”
As a sociologist at heart, and as someone who has been trying to understand how to help society help itself since I was a teenager, I was very happy to hear this follow-up statement from Belhoul: “A big portion of what I believe affects climate change and sustainability is behavior. If people don’t socially accept sustainability, you cannot impose it on them.” Since I could not capture this on video, but do have it recorded on audio, let me emphasize here that there’s a great sincerity and concern in Belhoul’s voice when he talks about this. It’s not in a contrarian or defensive way at all, as we might expect from an executive at a US oil company, even a “renewables” or “sustainability” department of such a company. He, as his predecessor at Masdar (who is now its Chairman), is passionate about the matter, and aiming to do what he can to move sustainability forward societally.
The goal is not to hide from climate change or pretend it’s not a critical problem society must overcome. The goal is to deal with it, including at the deep roots of behavior change, education, and socialization.
My takeaways from my privileged chat with Belhoul are that he is: passionate about addressing climate change, a deep thinker, has a keen analytical side that he is trying to put to work in order to advance the clean energy revolution, and is a very fast talker. I’ll admit that I was a little concerned to see someone from the tourism industry taking over the CEO role from Dr Al Jaber, whose work and speeches I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, but I feel confident that Masdar really is in good hands with Dr Belhoul. Furthermore, he noted that Dr Al Jaber is working closely with him in order to help him navigate the broad and technically deep market in his relatively new position as the head of one of the world’s most influential cleantech companies.
Thanks to Dr Belhoul, and I look forward to getting an update in January. In the meantime, if anyone here has any more questions for Dr Belhoul, I can pass them over to him via email, so drop them in the comments below.
Images via Masdar