A short stroll through Doha, the capital of Qatar, is a jarring experience for the new visitor accustomed to walking without hindrance through his or her neighbourhood. Construction cranes soar all over the city's newly rising skyscrapers while dust and sand spill onto pavements and roads. Pavements are often lacking and crossing Doha's streets feels dangerous: roaring SUVs and sports cars show little mercy for pedestrians who dare to use the crossings or are mad enough to jaywalk. And walking into one of the city's sparkling shopping centres or five star hotels reveals massive fountains and, at the Doha City Centre mall, an ice skating rink. Odd sights, indeed, for a country that relies on desalination for water and where the mercury creeps towards 50° during the summer. So locals and expatriates do not walk: they leave that to the naive first-time visitor. Cars reign.
Welcome to Qatar, the country that has both the highest per capita income and the highest per capita carbon footprint on Earth. A barren desert a generation ago, Qatar at first glance has leveraged its overflowing petroleum and natural gas wealth for the benefit of its 300,000 citizens. The government generously invests in education, and the Qatar Foundation funds countless programmes in the sciences, culture and social welfare. Citizens enjoy free water and electricity and the 1.5 million expatriates pay little for these basic services. Petrol, of course, is cheap.
And therein lurk problems if Qatar is ever to become a genuinely sustainable society. Citizens, and even expatriates, have little incentive to mind their water and fuel consumption. Excess is the norm, from supermarket clerks placing only two or three items in supermarket bags to the obvious food waste at the posh restaurants that line Doha's Souq Waqif. Driving through neighbourhoods at night reveal gleaming villas that boast more lights turned on than off. Trash is everywhere, even in remote patches of the desert I explored on my last day in Qatar.
In fairness, Qatar has developed in two decades to a point that took the West over two centuries. And Qatar is slowly starting to turn a corner. Qatar's National Vision 2030 plan, which makes slight calls for sound environmental management, is a step. I spoke with Issa Al Mohannadi, CEO of Msheireb Properties and chair of the Qatar Green Building Council. He pointed out that Qatar is sixth in the world in green buildings (earning it another global highest per capita rate). To that end, Msheireb is building a 31 hectare site in downtown Doha that will feature platinum-certified LEED buildings and ones that incorporate the traditional Arabian architectural elements that allowed Qataris to survive the desert in the first place.
"We have to develop a new architectural language and keep the identity of the past," said Al Mohannadi. Msheireb's features include thick walls, narrow zig-zagging alleys that allow buildings to shade each other and structures oriented at 45 degrees to maximise winds. Watch for Msheireb and other projects that could transform Doha into a green building laboratory, critical if Doha's infrastructure is to support Qatar's hosting of the 2022 World Cup. Billions of dollars worth of rail and solar projects are also underway.
And Qatar will soon start harnessing its abundant sun to good use. One initiative for a post-oil Qatar is a $1bn (£632m) polysilicon manufacturing facility; with Doha's focus on becoming a convention and sporting events hub, the tiny country will have plenty of demand for its new solar power stations. For young entrepreneurs like Amr Belal, the future in solar and green building is one that shines brightly. The Egyptian American has worked in Qatar for six years running the solar installation company, Innovations Unlimited, which currently has 20 employees and is growing. Belal explained says he feels bullish about clean energy's future here.
Qatar has a long way to go before it heals its environment, but for sustainability professionals, plenty of opportunities abound in this tiny thumb of land that juts into the Arabian Gulf.
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