10/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The U.A.E. and the U.S.

While in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) on business last week, I expected to find an alien country. What I found instead was a place maybe not so foreign after all.

For sure, some things went counter to my American mindset. The local garb was different -- the white, head-to-toe dishdasha with head cover on men and the black abaya on women. Some of the laws seemed arcane. Sexual relations outside of marriage will land you in jail -- not a problem for me as I am happily married, thank you very much. And, alas, those carrying Israeli passports are not welcome, although I have been assured that Israelis do enter the country routinely using foreign passports.

But in many respects the U.A.E., while steeped in Islamic tradition, were surprisingly cosmopolitan. My hosts were warm, open, and impeccably gracious. Malls and shops overflowed with Western consumer products, and Starbucks stores abounded. The workforce is a polyglot of ex-pats from around the world. Men and women in modern togs socialize together as you might expect to see in any Western country. The faculty of the Higher Colleges of Technology (where I met with officials to discuss a joint masters program in environmental management) numbers about 1,600. As best as I could tell, the entire faculty is made up of non-Emiratis -- Americans, Europeans, Indians, and so forth.

Emirates' Environmentalism: Room for Improvement

From an environmental point of view, the U.A.E. have a long way to go. For one, there is apparently no recycling. And in spite of being in a desert, the government in Abu Dhabi desalinates seawater to grow non-native shrubs, trees, and lawns.

The average Emirati emits about 34 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year. That's a lot -- it's about 70 percent more than the relatively profligate American, according to government figures. However, their small population of about 4.4 million means that their total CO2 emissions are only about 138 million metric tons per year -- a factor of more than 40 less than the United States' emissions.

I was surprised to learn about the Emirates' proven oil reserves: they aren't that much more than ours -- 98 billion barrels in the U.A.E. compared with 21 billion barrels in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Even more surprising, the United States produces more oil than the U.A.E. -- 8 million barrels a day compared to the the U.A.E.'s 3 million. The big difference is that the United States consumes almost 21 million barrels per day while the Emirates consume a mere 381,000. As a result, the U.A.E. are the third largest exporter of oil (after Saudi Arabia and Russia), and are thus awash with capital for infrastructure and business investments. The United States, on the other hand, the world's largest importer of oil, chugs some 12 million barrels of imported oil a day and has a huge trade imbalance and rising debt.

The promising news is that the U.A.E. recognizes there's room for improvement, and they're trying to turn things around. Their invitation to the dean of an environmental school is just one small sign of their desire to be greener.

The U.A.E. Grapples With Rising Demand on Resources

Despite their huge oil income (and bountiful natural gas reserves [pdf], the U.A.E. have begun to feel the energy pinch. As demand for electricity and water has skyrocketed, the Emirates have had to consider how to meet the growing demand: follow the fossil-fuel path despite climate repercussions and the inevitability that that spigot will eventually run dry, or invest in renewable energy? Having just spent a week there, I can attest to the plentiful quantities of sunshine.

It seems that the U.A.E. can't quite decide. On the one hand, they're preparing to build their first coal-fired power plant. On the other they've announced plans to construct the "world's first zero-carbon, zero-waste, car-free city" to be powered entirely by solar energy. The government has also announced plans for a 500-megawatt solar power plant.

Not all that different from the United States. We debate over whether to drill for new oil and push ahead plans for new coal-fired power plants while talking up the need to get green and invest in renewable energy. And just like the Emiratis, we have big plans. Around the same time that the U.A.E. announced their big solar project, California i(n collaboration with Southern California Edison) announced its own 500-megawatt solar power project. The race is on.