Ahmed al-Jaber: Oil-rich Abu Dhabi pins its hopes on dreams of a green future

The Business Interview: A carbon-neutral city is just the start, the chief executive of the Masdar investment fund tells Sarah Arnott

We are part of a transformation," says Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber with the uninhibited zeal of a man on a mission. "We are making history." The chief executive of Masdar, the Abu Dhabi government's green investment vehicle, may not be exaggerating. Not only does his organisation command a budget most company bosses would swap their left leg for, but the "vision" behind it is nothing short of turning the unimaginable petro-wealth of one of the richest Gulf states into a diversified, sustainable economy. And the success of the initiative is "very, very high" on the agenda of the emirate's all-powerful, hereditary leadership.

"Masdar has helped to raise the profile of Abu Dhabi and is also contributing on a global scale," Dr Al Jaber says. "Abu Dhabi has always been known as a global energy player, but with Masdar it set out the responsibility of oil nations and what is required of them to help create a balance between hydrocarbons and renewable energy."

In a country where the majority of powerful positions are occupied by members of the ruling al-Nahyan family, Dr Al Jaber has risen purely on merit. He is highly respected among his staff and has a reputation for knowing his subordinates' jobs as well as they do. But he scoffs at the notion that his exacting approach is a mirror of pressure from above.

"The guidance from the leadership is very clear and helps me do my job," he says. "We are blessed with leadership that understands the challenges of making Masdar a reality, and has the will to do it. There is a real desire for this to happen, because it is the future, not just for Abu Dhabi but for the whole world."

The list of the organisation's activities is long. There is the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MI), a postgraduate research body with links to Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US. Like everything else in Abu Dhabi, MI is not short on ambition. The newly created institute has only 88 students so far, with another 154 starting in the next academic year. But the plan is to turn it into the best place in the world for research into advanced renewable energy and sustainability, with 600 students plus the faculty by 2015.

But MI is just the beginning. There are also Masdar's industrial investments, the largest of which is Masdar PV, which is the anchor client in Abu Dhabi's nascent high-tech manufacturing cluster and aims to become one of the world's top thin-film photovoltaic technology companies. Then there is Masdar's carbon management unit, working on how to make money from carbon reduction through the United Nations' Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), and on the development of carbon capture and storage technologies.

Then there is the utilities and asset management branch, which includes a $265m (£166m) clean-tech private equity fund and power project developments around the world, not least a 20 per cent stake in the 271-turbine London Array wind farm planned for the Thames Estuary. "Masdar covers the whole value chain of the green sector," Dr Al Jaber says. "That means education, seed capital, research and development, manufacturing, building, reduction of carbon emissions, CDM and investment in mature companies."

Even that is not everything. The real show-stopper is Masdar City. So far, the scheme is in its infancy – a vast expanse of virgin desert dotted with construction sites on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. But the plan is for a whole new city: a tax-free, super-green home for 40,000 residents and 1,500 clean-tech companies that is entirely carbon neutral, powered by renewable energy and equipped with a futuristic transportation system.

The development, designed by British architects Foster and Partners, has turned urban planning on its head, starting from scratch to create a low-energy environment attuned to the harsh Gulf climate. Without the need to accommodate cars that belch carbon, the streets are narrow and shaded by buildings which are themselves angled to funnel prevailing winds through the city. No windows are positioned flat on to direct sunlight but 80 per cent of all buildings are covered with solar panels. The beautiful curve of the half-built library is no aesthetic gimmick but will harvest the morning and evening sun. It is an almost unbelievably ambitious plan, but it is really happening. The first phase is already under construction and the Masdar Institute headquarters and campus, complete with labs, accommodation, shops and cafés, is scheduled to open in September. The surrounding area, which has General Electric and Boeing as committed anchor tenants, is scheduled for completion by 2013.

Yet even Abu Dhabi cannot entirely escape the repercussions of the global economic downturn. Dr Al Jaber denies outright any rumours of finance issues and delays, saying: "We always said Masdar City would be delivered in phases and I am confident there is no delay whatsoever with phase one."

Masdar itself may no have finance troubles, but it is less easy to dismiss the impact of recession on the companies its new city must attract if it is to fulfil its promise as a cluster for clean-tech business. "Masdar City is difficult, challenging and ambitious," Dr Al Jaber says. "The progress that can be made is not only dependent on financial ability – that is only the facilitator."

There are all kinds of risks. One is the technology itself, much of which exists only in small demonstraion projects. But the biggest is undoubtedly the state of the market and the nominal completion date of 2016 is being quietly dropped. That said, Dr Al Jaber dismisses concerns that the development will end up as an expensive white elephant. "This is not a 'build and they will come' project," he says. "We are not going to build without a clear understanding between us as the developer and the international companies that are going to be interested in coming and getting involved."

Although that interest still exists, there may be other short term priorities. "A couple of years ago the excitement was very, very high," Dr Al Jaber says. "It is still there today, but these are companies exposed to the economic crisis. That doesn't mean they are changing their position, but they are slowing down their activities."

Whatever the mood in the global economy, Masdar itself will not be so easily deterred. "Renewables are a way to diversify the economy, to maintain the position in the global energy market, and to help encourage human capital development," Dr Al Jaber says, implying that there is simply too much to lose.

Masdar City: Tomorrow's world today

* Few of its buildings may be finished, but Masdar City already has a field of solar panels covering 210,000 square metres. They produce 17,500 megawatt hours of power per year, enough to power up to 8,000 households. At the moment the bulk of the power is being fed back into the Abu Dhabi grid, but ultimately the solar farm will be the main power source for the green city.

* Elsewhere on the largely undeveloped site, research into cutting-edge renewable energy technology is already under way. The "beamdown" project looks like something straight out of a James Bond villain's lair, with a massive array of mirrors focusing and re-focusing sunlight to create a patch of light with the intensity of 100 suns and a temperature of 500C.

* Perhaps wackiest of all is a "personal rapid transit" system. The streets of Masdar City are at first-floor level, beneath which six-person pods will race around a network of sealed tunnels using magnetic guidance rather than fixed tracks. The scheme is at an early stage, but the first two stations – at Masdar Institute and the nearby Project One gateway into the city – are in the process of being built.

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