It isn’t often that I eat dates, drink coffee, and wax green with a Sheikh from Ajman. But yesterday I did. Known around the world as the Green Sheikh, Abdul Aziz bin Ali Al Nuaimi has spearheaded a variety of environmental initiatives since 1996. Most famously, an experience he recalls fondly, he visited Antarctica in order to witness in person how climate change has altered that vast whitewashed landscape.
The first to admit that other Sheikhs do not share his worldly, green-tinted perspective, the Green Sheikh forges ahead nonetheless. “Number one,” he says, “be yourself!” And for him, doing so starts with humility. Having none of the boundaries typically associated with royalty, Abdul Aziz is an open, inspiring communicator who also knows just how to treat a lady.
No Red Carpet
We met Thursday morning in Dubai’s Mina Al Salam hotel lobby. My taxi driver, who might have broken a few laws to get me there on time, claims the hotel is renowned for catering to royal Emiratis.
But there was no red carpet ceremony. No entourage of men in dark glasses descended on the lobby, where I sat with my working girl back pack. Instead, Abdul Aziz and his young office manager Khalid M. Bin Tameem entered through the front door just like I did minutes before, without any kind of fanfare. Later, we discussed how much the west misunderstands Arabs.
“People think we all have a lot of wealth and four wives,” he said. But the reality is altogether different. The Alihsan Charity Center, of which the Sheikh is Vice Chairman and CEO, provides financial support to 9,000 families.
“25% of them are local Emiratis,” he said, debunking the myth that all Emiratis drive fast (sometimes gold) cars and live a life of luxury. Asked to identify the greatest challenge facing his country, a slight shadow passed over Abdul Aziz’s eyes and he answered quickly: “identity.”
“In my own country, when I speak to people in Arabic, they answer me in English. Everywhere I go. Can you imagine? We are a minority in our own country. We are losing our language and tradition.”
Reviving that tradition, which has been overwhelmed by what many view as reckless development and a throng of working class foreigners, forms the crux of his environmental strategy.
The Green Sheikh Narrative
Much has been written about Abdul Aziz, but closer analysis shows a constant reshuffling of the same story. It starts with his youth and father, who taught him about falconry and the interconnectedness of nature. The narrative then moves on to his brief stint on the dirty side of energy, before it culminates in his role as an environmental protector.
It is a rich story that does much to illuminate why this charismatic and gentle man cares so deeply about his work. But many people on the street want to know how effectively this passion translates into actual happenings.
While the UAE’s rulers are the ultimate decision makers, and they are advised by a posse more gold-minded than green, Abdul Aziz employs a bottoms-up approach. Married with four children, he sees the future in the Middle East’s youth. It is to them, consequently, that he devotes much of his time and attention. But how does the Green Sheikh influence policy?
As environmental adviser to Ajman, Abdul Aziz has both directly and indirectly influenced a ban on petroleum-based plastic bags (we wrote about it, and he agreed to check whether a system to ensure the biodegradable bags don’t enter into traditional landfills will accompany the ban), a new recycling program in Ajman, which is still growing its legs, and an initiative to install sensors that will help reduce energy and water consumption.
He also has other sneaky green tricks up his sleeve that are not yet public knowledge, but in every venture, he emphasizes the importance of not showing off. Although supportive of Masdar City as a hub for R&D in the UAE, the Green Sheikh prefers more modest initiatives.
“Why can we not have many small Masdars,” he asked, “even if 20% of the people had little Masdars and the government gave incentives (like in Europe), that would make a difference.”
I did not remember to ask whether Abdul Aziz has solar panels on his roof, but he did tell me that he limits his meat consumption to one day a week. “I eat meat because I need the iron, he says. I am O+. But my wife doesn’t take meat at all.”
Pomp and Circumstance
We rode together from the hotel to Knowledge Village, where HSBC held a prize-giving ceremony for 20 schools throughout the UAE that participated in a conservation-themed art challenge. It was there that I best understood his tremendous appeal.
What might have been a sweet, modest affair for children and their parents turned into a semi-political platform marred by the kind of pomp and circumstance typically associated with the UAE: formal, stiff speeches, dramatic music, and shrieking parents who acted as though their children had just received an academy award.
But Abdul Aziz eschews ceremony and shows genuine, affection for the people he meets, and openly hugged some of the children on stage. His manner is moving, and in his presence the world feels like a positive and wonderful place, but outside in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, many things beautiful have been replaced with skyscrapers and cranes and factories.
“I can’t be negative,” he said. “I am hopeful. Only a short time ago, there was no environmental awareness, but now there are so many organizations and NGOs. It’s amazing,” he said. This makes sense. Even if it is impossible to ignore the environmentally destructive forces, to dwell on them would mean a certain kind of spiritual death.
Queen for a few hours
What is priority for the Arab world, according to the Green Sheikh?
“We need more public participation,” he said. “Currently very few people engage, but that needs to change.”
Back at the hotel, Abdul Aziz offered to drop me off on the other end of town, but I secretly planned to find my own way since he is so busy. He insisted though and sent Khalid to find me at the end of the prize-giving event.
“We were looking for you,” he said. (Ouch. It’s never a good idea to keep a Sheikh waiting).
“In my culture,” said Abdul Aziz, “we must treat women like a queen, whether they are friends or strangers.” For a short while, that’s exactly how I felt.
More on the Green Sheikh:
all images via Tafline Laylin