The Shifting Sands

The following is an article Michael and I wrote for the Middle East Edition of CIM. It was written to create debate and thought over the growth and environmental issues of the UAE development in the last few years. The Middle East development strategy has performed badly in terms of sustainability. Yet there is hope and they can become a shinning star of progress. Please read on. we would welcome your comments and to know if you agree or disagree.

Business Revolution

A business revolution is happening and the Middle East is lagging behind, watching the shifting sands of the market blow past an out-of-date business model. With a business strategy founded on the core values of fossil fuels, excess and luxury, the Middle Eastern brand is out of step with the global economy in these tough economic times. In no sector of the market is this as apparent as in the meetings industry. Rather than use its wealth and influence to lead a change for sustainable development and innovative approaches to sustainable product creation, industry experts have opted instead to showcase larger, inefficient, wasteful developments in an environment that can scarcely support them.

Next year’s United Nations Climate Change conference will certainly make the burning of fossil fuels and their emissions more costly. Further, should the unchecked burning of fossil fuels warm the climate as scientists have predicted, it is estimated that temperatures of the Middle East’s most beautiful cities will see an average rise of 2ºC thereby compromising life in many ways by as early as 2030 (www.IPCC.ch)

On the social side of sustainability, the Gulf’s hospitality industry has a desperate record of human and labour rights. Dig a little and you will see a murky world of cheap imported labour, terrible working conditions and existence level wages. Meanwhile, the corporations driving the strongest economies of the world are rapidly integrating smarter, more responsible business practices and are reaping the rewards. Consumer demand for alternative energy solutions and environmentally sustainable lifestyles are changing the way we communicate and operate.

Will the Middle East collectively continue to march down a path of evaporating demand and compromised viability? Or will it recognise the opportunity, no, responsibility, as a global leader to bring environmental and social solutions when we need them the most?

Waste is not sexy…green is cool

Most Middle Eastern businesses and events do not participate in the fundamental practice of recycling. Few (we could only find one) measure and account for carbon emissions or create a sustainability report, versus 74% of the top 1500 global companies who participate in the Carbon Disclosure Project (www.cdproject.net). Luxury in the Gulf is linked to an unsustainable business model that must rely on an investment in foreign products which have attached to them expansive carbon footprints. In addition, the import of plastic, glass and aluminum that is not recycled becomes a burden on the local communities. They are forced to shoulder the expense of disposal and environmental consequences of the landfill. Waste, this business model seems to suggest, is considered a cost of doing business rather than an expense that compromises profit.

Waste is cost. Waste is inefficient. Waste is bad planning. Should industry suppliers pander to the irresponsible urges of the smallest percentages of the population? Or should they begin to integrate smart choices that reduce waste while preserving a high quality experience?

So the traditional view of green needs to change. Out with brown recycled paper – ugly congress bags and lentils – and in with cool, trendy sustainable solutions. Green is sexy, chic and people want it. A 2008 Deloitte study revealed that 40% of business travellers would pay more for a hotel committed to green practices. Pioneering cities such as London, Copenhagen, Monaco, San Francisco have already spotted the trend and have developed solutions and products for the rapidly growing demand of the green and responsible traveller and event manager.

Leaders emerging

All is not lost and opportunities remain to re-shape the industry and gain the benefits of more efficient business practices. The larger Middle East is a vast land of talented entrepreneurs who understand too well the forces and nature of supply and demand. A burgeoning group of professionals from the public and private sectors are emerging with plans and visions of a more sustainable region with impressive efforts on both sides.

Abu Dhabi’s Masdar initiative is a US $22 billion development project led by Foster and Partners, to position the city as the sustainable capital of the Middle East. It is a platform that searches for solutions to some of mankind’s most pressing issues: energy security, climate change and the development of human expertise in sustainability.

An important cornerstone of the climate neutral city is an environmentally friendly hotel. Khaled Awad, director of property development for Masdar, was quoted in a December 2008 World Business Times interview as saying that “people are finally beginning to see how the consequences of climate change could affect the Middle East. That is why, alongside the conventional construction boom, we are also seeing a growing interest in sustainable development.” National Geographic magazine has recognized Dubai’s Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa, which is managed by Emirates Hotels and Resorts, as being among the world’s finest examples of ecotourism businesses.

So the issue is not a lack of talent or resources; what keeps the Middle East meetings industry from pursuing the benefits of sustainable development is perhaps a lack of motivation. Public demand for sustainable products may be what is needed to grow the number of business leaders in the region. The meetings industry can help spark that movement by using the tools and resources for creating sustainable events. Meeting planners can leverage the buying power of the industry, to influence needed change in the industry and become leaders in the effort in the process.

Wake up time

The meetings industry is changing. Over 78% of planners in the 2008 IMEX survey, which we assist with, report that they are considering the environment in the planning of the events. Hundreds of organisations around the globe are “sustainarising” their event departments. Even the good old US government that spends more than US $14.1 billion on travel is going green in 2009.

Methodologies, like MeetGreen and standards like BS8901, are gaining market acceptance and helping to measure and reduce the environmental impact of events. International venue and hotel certification systems such as GreenGlobe are evolving and giving needed credibility and peace of mind to responsible buyers. Expect these and hundreds of other examples to have a massive ripple effect on event buying habits globally. So Dubai and Abu Dhabi, its wake up time! Sustainability is the most important revolution our businesses will see in our lifetime. The sands have shifted. Join the revolution. Step up and lead the charge. Make initiatives like Masdar a norm and help make the regions event offering green and sexy!

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