A member of one of the ruling royal families in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Ali al Nuaimi’s work as an environmental campaigner might seem an unlikely vocation.
But, Al Nuaimi, 45, affectionately known internationally as the “Green Sheikh,” abandoned a lucrative career in the petroleum industry to pursue a vocation defending the climate.
After completing a doctorate in Cleaner Production and Industrial Eco-systems, Al Nuaimi — whose uncle is ruler of Ajman, the smallest of the UAE’s seven emirates — joined the government as environmental adviser.
The Green Sheikh now works as chairman of the International Steering Committee for the Global Initiative Towards a Sustainable Iraq and is honorable president of the Zayed Environmental Impact Network, at the UAE’s Zayed University.
In an interview with CNN’s Road to Rio, he talks about how he mitigates his own carbon footprint in daily life, his role in the forthcoming Rio+20 earth summit and says of his previous career in the oil industry: “You want to go to paradise? First you go to hell.”
CNN: Why do they call you the Green Sheikh?
Al Nuaimi: It is not what people normally think of green like (the) color of an object. Green for me means, G for global, R for rethink, E for enlightenment — we need guidance, we need a way to follow … the other E is ethics — morals, values; and last one is N, we can not live alone, we can not live (as) individuals, but we can live together as a network.
CNN: You preach about the environment in an oil country … Some might say they may not care about the environment. What do you think?
AN: I studied chemical engineering … but then I (converted) from polluter to protector … I have to make a change. The change is to inspire myself, to inspire my people, to think about the capacity of natural resources.
CNN: What do you think the problems are when it comes to environment in the UAE?
AN: The partnership and the relationship between public, private and NGOs. I think the collaboration is important. We can say it’s a problem … we can say (it’s) a challenge. I think the most important thing is cultural and behavioral change.
CNN: The U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development is taking place in Rio de Janeiro in a few months. What will be your role at the conference?
AN: I want to focus on the youth. Really, I love the youth because even (as) I grow, my soul is young, my heart is young. I think the youth is changing worldwide.
The thing is not to tell them what to do … As someone from (a) ruling family, you are so prestigious, you are so high, when you go down, listening to them, inspiring them, talking to them, giving them the hope … They feel so motivated and very powerful.
CNN: Will the UAE be participating in the conference?
AN: Yes, the UAE from the government, from the public and the NGOs delegate, (will) go, and I will be joining them. (It) will be interesting to tell our stories about sustainability in the UAE.
CNN: You could have been in the fuel industry and that would have made you more money. But instead you chose to be a protector … how much did this decision cost you?
AN: First of all, I worked in the oil industry (for) about three years. And the gas industry, and I smelled sulfur dioxide; I drank (hydrogen sulfide); I was contaminated with a lot hazardous waste.
CNN: So you were an environmental criminal?
AN: I was … You want to go to paradise? First you go to hell.
CNN: And, when was the day that you said, that’s it?
AN: I felt it from inside. My lungs, you know, becoming irritated; my breathing becoming vibrated. And I have seen people are dying, in front of me, (really) dying, when doing exercise through that environment.
From that point, I went to the public. I went to the society … empowering the public; running on the street; telling the people to save the environment — that was 1996. A lot of people (said): ‘Sheikh, are you crazy? You want to clean the road? There we have a lot of labors can do that work for you and for others.’ But I said: ‘No, we should do that. The cleaning is not just about removing harmful things on the road, no, we have to clean our hearts. We have to clean our mind. We have to think better.’
CNN: What would you like to teach your own kids?
AN: Habits, the good habits … Like reduce your income, not income (like) money, income of consumption. If you go to buy a product, do we need (it) all?
We go to a restaurant, but if we are five we order for two. I don’t order, what I do, the remaining food, I eat from them. So, I keep minimizing my (input), reducing my carbon footprint.
CNN: This is a country that has issues with water … how do you use it on a daily basis?
AN: Two minutes per shower. Do you know how many liters (are produced in two minutes)? Fifteen liters. If you ask any ordinary person, they will tell you (they spend)10-15 minutes shower with dancing, with singing — that’s more than 50-60 liters.
CNN: The theme for the Rio conference is ‘Changing Our Future’, what is the future that you want?
AN: We need to understand the planet we live on. I think the young people, will learn from me, what resources they are going to keep … and this resource is not about (natural) resources, but about their future generation.