Middle East mobility in motion
Fossil fuels have historically been the foundation on which many Middle Eastern economies have been built. So it’s perhaps ironic that several of the countries supplying much of the world’s oil and gas are in the front rank of those committed to reducing our dependence on them.
Throughout the countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), there are policies to phase out fossil fuels to create low-carbon, sustainable economies. Promoting and encouraging the use of electric vehicles and other forms of ‘green mobility’ are often central to these plans.
The UAE, for instance, has a National Climate Change Plan 2017–2050, which is a roadmap to bolster nationwide actions for climate change mitigation. It has launched a number of initiatives to enhance its sustainability and has set key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure its priority targets. Similarly, in Saudi Arabia the National Transport and Logistics Strategy, launched in 2021, includes environmental goals. These include enhanced sustainability, cutting fuel consumption by 25%, and the provision of smart solutions to transport challenges through the adoption of cutting-edge and innovative global mobility technologies.
But their commitment to green mobility goes further than this. The plans for new ‘smart cities’ such as Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City and Saudi Arabia’s landmark NEOM eliminate the need for the car and the internal combustion engine . . . by design.
NEOM promises a city of “no cars, no traditional roads”. Its ambition is to create the world’s first sustainable and seamlessly connected mobility system powered by 100% renewable energy, using zero-emission vehicles.
Unlike established cities, such as London, New York and Paris, residents of the smart city will get around via integrated networks of sustainably powered transport – road, rail and air – rather than the current mishmash of a few electric cars (EV), hybrid vehicles and cycle lanes. At the neighborhood level, key amenities will be within a short walk or bike ride. Otherwise, the city’s transport needs will be answered by shared autonomous and electric shuttles that will be available on-demand, together with a high-speed underground transit system.
The objectives for green mobility are to reduce both air and noise pollution and to tackle climate change in the sector through mitigation and adaptation. According to a World Bank report, transport currently contributes 23% of global energy-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and 18% of all man-made emissions in the global economy. In one projection in the report, energy related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are expected to grow by 40% between 2013 and 2040. Air pollution — both ambient (outdoor) and household (indoor) — is the biggest single environmental risk to health: ambient air pollution alone kills about three million people each year. In addition, evidence from several countries suggests that traffic noise has the second biggest environmental impact on health.
Green mobility is also essential to meeting the UN’s Paris Agreement targets of halving global carbon emissions by 2030 and achieving Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050.
To meet any emissions reduction target, the minimum requirement is that economic growth decouples from emissions growth. This means emissions would be reduced from year to year, at a steady pace, even if the economy grows—a process called absolute decoupling. At second-best, the growth rate of the economy would outpace the growth rate of emissions—a process called relative decoupling.
The rewards of going green in transport policy are not simply environmental. The burden that car ownership places upon a country are immense, from the costs of constructing the roads and associated infrastructure, to providing adequate hospital care to deal with the inevitable traffic accidents. A report from Strategy & Co, part of the PwC network, calculated that GCC countries could amass US$ 400 billion in economic value over the next 20 years if they prioritized public transport, along with electric and hybrid-powered cars and trucks, vehicle-sharing programs, and micro-mobility solutions such as bicycles and scooters rather than cars.
That US$ 400 billion comes from a number of sources. The report argues that reduced spending on roads and other infrastructure, combined with policies to discourage car ownership and investment in mass transit projects, could save up to US$ 145 billion and boost the use of public transport from 2.2% to 13.6% by 2040. Reduced reliance on personal cars would also translate into fewer accidents, a drop of 13% by 2040 that would save US$ 115 billion in all the costs associated with auto accidents. Commuting times would be shredded as traffic jams disappeared, boosting productivity by up to US$ 75 billion over the next 20 years.
For MENA countries, then, there are strong incentives to green mobility as well as a commitment to sustainable transport in its newest cities. Yet there are also substantial barriers to be overcome too, not least the vicious circle that has trapped many cities not only in this region, but across the globe. Cities are designed around cars because everyone has a car, which means people need to use cars to get around the city
In GCC cities, private transport makes up 91% of all travel – as opposed to 30% in comparable cities elsewhere in the world. That is partly because the cost of owning and running a car is far less than most countries, thanks largely to subsidized gasoline.
Cities spread out, reinforcing the dependence on private transport, partly because everyone has a car. There are no congestion charges to discourage using petrol and diesel engine vehicles, and there is no large-scale development of electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Although cities such as Dubai offer some encouragement in the form of free parking and a small network of EV charging points, this has not proved enough in itself to trigger a significant shift in everyone’s behavior when it comes to mobility.
Globally, there is an increasing amount of investment going into the types of mass transit systems needed to provide a practical alternative to the car – and much of this has been in the Middle East. Qatar, for instance, has built one of the most advanced metro train systems ever built, the Doha Metro, partly in preparation for soccer’s World Cup. Operational since 2019, its driverless trains are fast – 60 mph – zipping through a 47-mile network with 37 stations. The project is among a raft of measures to reduce the city’s traffic congestion by 50%, saving around US$ 1 billion in 20 years, and cutting carbon emissions by 30%.
In Saudi Arabia, the US$ 22.5 billion Riyadh metro is set to open in 2023. It includes 85 stations, with a daily capacity of 1.16 million passengers at the start of the operation, estimated to rise to 3.6 million passengers after ten years. The project is expected to contribute to reducing the number of car trips by approximately 250,000 trips per day, save the equivalent of 400,000 liters of fuel per day and raise the percentage of public transport use from 5% currently to 20% within 10 years. Part of the King Abdulaziz Project for Riyadh Public Transport, the metro system will be complemented by a comprehensive bus network consisting of 2,860 stops and 80 routes, served by 842 buses.
Elsewhere in the region established mass transit systems are continuing to grow. In Dubai, the six-station 15km metro extension to Expo 2020, costing an estimated US$ 2.9 billion, was regarded as a major factor in the success of the World’s Fair, transporting hundreds of thousands of visitors there quickly and efficiently. Now the Emirate’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) is considering extending the metro network with more than 12 miles of new track and a dozen additional stations being built.
The Cairo Metro, the first of its kind in Africa, has been operating since 1987, and expanding ever since. It now has 56 miles of track, 74 stations and carries nearly four million passengers a day. It is managed by the National Authority for Tunnels (NAT), which has awarded contracts worth €650 million to construct a fourth line. This 12-mile section will include 16 stations and will connect the Hadayek El Ashgar station in 6th of October City, to the Malek El Saleh station in New Cairo, serving the new Grand Egyptian Museum and the Giza pyramids.
Historically, one of the biggest challenges facing countries in the MENA region when developing sustainable public transport options is the relative under-development of public transport systems of any kind, and the long-standing behaviors and perceptions that go with that. Why use a crowded bus when a private car is so cheap to run? Of the 180 countries listed in the Environmental Performance Index 2022 the UAE is ranked 39 (up from 42 in 2020), Saudi Arabia is ranked 109, and Qatar is ranked 137, which places their environmental performance well below those of some of their European counterparts. But that is gradually changing. The bus fleets are growing and many of them are electric – or even hydrogen-powered.
Green mobility in MENA at full throttle
In the UAE, electric buses are being trialed in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah.
Abu Dhabi is testing an eco-bus that was jointly developed by Masdar, Hafilat, and Siemens, while in Dubai the RTA is preparing to use wireless charging that enables buses and other vehicles to charge while in motion through an embedded power-charging grid underneath a 60-metre road strip.
It has signed agreements with both Volvo and Australia’s BusTech Group to test the operation of zero-emission electric buses.
Qatar already operates one of the largest electric bus fleets in the world. It now has 741 Yutong e-buses used to ferry soccer fans to the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The buses are part of a total order for 1,002 e-buses operated by Mowasalat, the country’s public transport body. Meanwhile in Egypt, a fleet of 110 electric buses has been purchased for public transport in Cairo and Alexandria.
This move towards electric-powered sustainable transport solutions is not limited to buses and cars –e-aircraft could soon be buzzing around Middle Eastern skies, too. Aviation accounts for about 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, so transitioning the sector away from its dependence on fossil fuels to clean electric power is seen as a priority. Abu Dhabi-based Falcon Aviation Services is to acquire 35 Eve electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft to launch tourist flights in Dubai in 2026. Saudi Arabia’s plans are even bigger. Its national airline, Saudia, has signed a memorandum of understanding with NASDAQ-listed Lilium – a German company – that could see it take delivery of up to 100 electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) jets. The airline is reported to be considering creating a network of business-class services around the country, with both point-to-point flights and services feeding into Saudia Airlines main hubs.
Through the Jameel Investment Management Company (JIMCO), Abdul Latif Jameel is also involved in the move to e-aviation. It has invested in the Californian start-up Joby Aviation, which is developing an eVTOL taxi. The five-seater piloted aircraft vehicle can fly at 200mph and cover 150 miles on a single charge and aiming to commercialize its services by 2024.
“Air taxi service is still in the early stages of commercialization, but one that has the potential to completely transform the future of mobility. Improving daily transportation in line with environmental sustainability is a mission we share with all our partners in business,” commented Hassan Jameel, Deputy President and Vice Chairman of Abdul Latif Jameel.
Moving even further away from conventional transport, Dubai looks to be inching closer to launching world’s first hyperloop connecting Abu Dhabi and Dubai. This multi-billion dollar project is expected to cut travel-time for Dubai-Abu Dhabi commuters from more than 60 minutes to just 12 – although completion date is yet to be confirmed.
Cargo and passengers, seated in pods, will be carried in a suspended capsule in a near vacuum at speeds of up to 760 mph. Minimal energy is required thanks to a proprietary linear electric-motor system, no-contact electromagnetism and ultra-low aerodynamic drag. The only sound associated with the hyper-loop is, apparently, “whoosh”. The concept was originally envisioned by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk and then adopted by Virgin Hyperloop One.
DP World, the Dubai-based logistics specialist, has also invested to form a joint venture, DP World Cargospeed, that will “will transport high-priority, time-sensitive goods including fresh food, medical supplies, electronics, and more.” The CEO of DP World, Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, has great ambitions for this technology: “We expect a hyperloop project in the Gulf to bring all cities to less than an hour away from each other, with the potential for moving 45 million passengers a year,” he predicted in 2020, adding that the company was working with the Saudi Arabian Economic City Authority to explore a hyperloop research and development centre and manufacturing facility, expected to create more than 124,000 high-tech local jobs and generate approximately US$4 billion in GDP growth by 2030.
In the meantime, shared mobility and micro-mobility are proving popular. Shared mobility can mean full-time or part-time taxi services such as Careem, on-demand bus and shuttle services like Swvl, as well as self-driving car rental options, such as ekar and Udrive in Dubai. Careem, famous as being the first ‘unicorn’ (a start-up growing to be worth US$ 1 billion or more), is very much the pack-leader. Sold to Uber for US$ 3 billion in 2020, Careem is based in Dubai and operates in 14 countries – including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt – more than 90 cities and has 33 million registered users. Its ‘captains’ – as it prefers to call its drivers – completed a total of 109 million rides across all its markets and included a partnership with Abdul Latif Jameel Motors, and Bab Rizq Jameel in 2016, to create jobs.
Careem’s decision to offer e-scooters and docked bicycles in Dubai confirms that the market for micro-mobility – anything on two wheels that carries just one person – has potential. In Dubai, operators such as Tier, Skrrt, Arnab, and Lime also offer app-based e-scooters.
Green mobility is definitely on the way up in the MENA region, most obviously in those countries that are benefiting from oil wealth and relatively small populations. That improvement is, sceptics might say, from a low base yet it is also demonstrably true that countries in the region are not simply paying lip service to the issue of greenhouse gas and carbon emissions. Their actions are serious, financially significant and, in some cases, impressively innovative.
 ‘Doha metro rings fans together’, The Observer, 4 December 2022.