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CommunitySustainableMeet 12 of the UAE’s environmental thought leaders

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.   Mother Nature is a powerful force, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t need a helping hand. The UAE’s prosperity is built on oil but that goes hand in hand with care for the environment...
Anna PukasApril 23, 202035 min
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Abdulaziz Al Nuaimi, The Green SheikhAbdulaziz Al Nuaimi, The Green Sheikh/Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

Covering Climate Now

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.


Mother Nature is a powerful force, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t need a helping hand. The UAE’s prosperity is built on oil but that goes hand in hand with care for the environment – and these are some of the people leading the charge. 

The Green Sheikh

Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Nuaimi, from the ruling family of Ajman, has made a name for himself as a passionate environmentalist both at home in the UAE and throughout the Arab world. For the past 25 years he has been a man on a mission to make the world a cleaner, greener place. 

The Green Sheikh nickname is an acronym: G for global, R for rethink, E for enlightenment, E for ethics and N for network.

Sheikh Al Nuaimi first came to understand how the world’s eco-systems are interconnected when he trained falcons as a boy with his father. A chemical engineer by training, he abandoned a lucrative career in the oil industry to devote himself to campaigning for the environment.

The interconnectedness of the human race is an eco-system, too, he says. 

“I share everything – my knowledge, my passion,” he says. “If you are hungry, I will share my food with you. If you are thirsty, I will share my drink. Not only is this a tenet of my religion, it’s also what it means to be a universal good citizen.”

Amruta Kshemkalyani: Sustainability Tribe

Amruta Kshemkalyani Sustainability Tribe
Amruta Kshemkalyani, Sustainability Tribe/Instagram

Eleven years ago, Amruta Kshemkalyani was working on green building projects in the UAE when she decided to take things a few steps further: she and her family would try to adopt a zero waste lifestyle. She started taking her own containers when she did her food shopping and made her own shampoo and body scrubs from kitchen scraps. Family activities with her son involved doing beach and desert clean-ups. She also started writing a blog and founded Sustainability Tribe to raise awareness among both the business community and the general public and share tips on how to live in a more environmentally-conscious way by recycling, re-using and re-purposing more. 

Now a professional sustainability consultant based in Dubai, Kshemkalyani praises the UAE’s efforts on promoting eco-consciousness .

“These days it’s much easier than a few years back. The government is building a good infrastructure in terms of sustainability,” she says. 

But, she warns, we should still beware of certain fashionable buzzwords which are often used to “greenwash” products to make consumers feel better about buying them.

Linda Griffin: Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort

Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort
Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort/Instagram

Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort in Abu Dhabi has everything you’d expect of a luxury resort. But there are a few things missing, too. There are no plastic bottles or straws in sight; instead guests are given their own reusable bottles which they can fill up at water stations. The hotel’s proud boast is that it is the first in the Jumeirah group to be committed to reducing single-use plastic and going plastic free. There are many other eco touches throughout the hotel as well, including regionally sourced plants instead of imported flowers in the lobby. 

As general manager since the 293-room hotel opened in December 2018, Linda Griffin is responsible for making sure the hotel and its staff stick to that ethos – and gently pass it on to the clientele. 

“Our commitment to protecting the natural sand dunes and sea around this hotel means that we are also continuously trying to minimize the impact that guests have on this environment by bringing in our own environmentally-friendly solutions,” she says.

Emma Banks: Jumeirah Restaurant Group

Emma Banks
Emma Banks/Instagram

March 18, 2018 was literally the last straw for the Jumeirah Restaurant Group; it was the day that the company went plastic-free. No more plastic straws, toothpicks, stirrers or swizzle sticks and biodegradable packaging for takeaway food and home deliveries. There was also an “amnesty day” at all branches of The Noodle House, JRG’s flagship restaurant brand. Anyone who brought unwanted plastic cutlery in with them got a 50 per cent discount on their food bill. 

Emma Banks, then JRG’s managing director – she has since moved on to serve as Hilton’s vice president, F&B Strategy & Development for Europe, Middle East and Africa – was the driving force.

“It is now clear that we can’t recycle our way out of the plastic problem, and banning the use of indestructible plastic packaging for food and drink products is the only option,” she has said. “The onus is on the F&B industry, as a leading contributor to plastic pollution and waste, to take a stand and deliver meaningful change.”

In September 2018 Banks was named Hospitality Leader of Year at the Hotel Show Dubai and urged others in her industry to join the fight against single-use plastic. 

“I believe we should all be fighting for our environment,” she said. “Together we can end an era of single-use plastics.”

Tatiana Antonelli Abella: Goumbook

Goumbook Forward Talks
Tatiana Antonelli Abella, founder of Goumbook/Instagram

When this mother-of-three launched her green information resource in 2009, nobody took her very seriously. They thought she was merely following the eco trend which would soon prove to be no more than that – a trend. 

Those naysayers have had to revise their opinions radically. 

Goumbook is the umbrella for a range of green initiatives, including Sustainable MENA, a directory listing local green businesses; Give a Ghaf Tree, which encourages tree-planting; and the Drop it campaign, which persuades people to drink tap water and reduce plastic use.

Eat It or Save It aims to reduce food waste – a huge problem in the UAE, where an estimated 3.27 million tonnes of food go to waste every year. That’s the equivalent of 350kg of food per person or everyone in the UAE flinging five bowls of rice in the bin every day.

Fair Care offers quality dental treatment to low-paid workers in the UAE and covers 90 percent of the cost. 

In addition to a podcast hosted by Antonelli Abella, Goumbook also hosts think tank events and awareness sessions for businesses, schools, universities and at exhibitions. Antonelli Abella is considered one of the UAE’s most influential voices on the environment.

While searching for a name for her venture, Antonelli Abella wanted to avoid anything that began with “eco” or “green.” She hit upon “Goumbook” after discovering that Goum was the name of a Bedouin tribe that roamed between Morocco and Persia, with a way of life based on sharing resources and wasting nothing. In Emirati Arabic, the word is often written as Goam, which comes from the root word meaning “to rise up.”

Sustainability is an overused and often misunderstood word; most people think it’s related to the environment only, says Antonelli Abella.

“True sustainability is only achieved once economy, society and environment work in balance. If the environment is healthy, people are happy and businesses thrive. The moment one of these pillars falls, the other two fall and there is no more balance.”

Ryan Ingram: Terraloop

Ryan Ingram Terraloop
Photo courtesy Ryan Ingram

Born and raised in South Africa, Ryan Ingram grew up observing nature and studied environmental conservation. But it was in Ras Al Khaimah, where he set up and managed a nature reserve for a hotel, that he saw the heavy toll exacted on water, energy and food by the hospitality industry, and how very little anyone was doing to address it. It was this that prompted him to set up Terraloop, the first food loss and waste consultancy in the Middle East, in 2016. 

“Waste is a resource that’s been misplaced,” says Ingram.

The tipping point, he says, was learning that the UAE imports 95 percent of its food, yet dumps up to a third of it every year.

Terraloop helps companies in the food service sector reduce waste, which makes economic sense as less waste means less spending on food purchases and haulage. Ingram has also worked with the government of Ras Al Khaimah on ways to convert the enormous volume of wasted food from fruit and vegetable markets, butcheries and malls into compost, using upcycled shipping containers as composting “factories.” 

Among the ideas Terraloop has introduced to businesses is the weekly “No Bin Day” when the waste bin is removed from the staff canteen so staff have to eat what they put on their plate (the meals served on those days have no bones, peel or other awkward bits). It makes them more aware of how much food gets wasted and encourages a zero waste culture, says Ingram.

Hotels are also encouraged to plant indigenous flora in their gardens. Not only do they require less watering because they are adapted to the climate, but they also attract birds, bees and butterflies.

Driving home the message about food waste has not been easy, says Ingram, so he set up TerraEd, the educational branch of his consultancy to inspire young eco-warriors and teach them to follow Terraloop’s motto: Tread Responsibly.

Mariska Nell: Mama Earth Talk

Mama Earth Talk
Mariska Nell/Instagram

It started with Nespresso coffee capsules, which were too pretty to throw away. Instead Nell used them to make a lamp for her sitting room. The lamp, which took 913 capsules, became her first artwork created out of rubbish.

Since then, the artist and designer has sculpted a whale from single-use plastic straws and a coat out of trash bags, which she filled every day and wore for a month. By the end she was carrying around 65kg of waste. 

In 2018, Nell, a South African by birth, started hosting the Mama Earth Talk podcast, in which she and her like-minded guests share ideas on how to live more sustainably by following the “5 Rs”: reduce, reuse, recycle, refuse and rot (your waste). 

Natalya Konforti: Glitches and Stitches

Natalya Konforti Glitches and Stitches
Photo courtesy Natalya Konforti Glitches and Stitches

A decade spent in the fast fashion industry designing clothes for mass production made Konforti long for something created with craftsmanship. When she moved to Dubai she decided to fulfil that yearning and founded Glitches and Stitches in 2018.

In her creative workshops for adults, teenagers and children she shows how to jazz up, repair and give clothes a new lease of life, turning snags, holes and stains into beautiful and original embellishments with clever – but not complicated – needlecraft. 

Konforti, who grew up in Florida and France, can also show you how to make and bind your own books, print textiles, make your own cosmetics, deodorant and toothpaste. 

Konforti holds her workshops in Dubai at Kave in Al Serkal, The Workshop and Jameel Art Centre.

Dr Majid Al Qassimi: Activist and government adviser 

Majid Al Qassimi
Photo courtesy Majid Al Qassimi

A summer spent doing work experience with a pioneering veterinarian convinced the young Dr Al Qassimi that he wanted to be an animal doctor too. In 2010 he became the first Emirati to qualify as a veterinarian and two years later joined the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD), where he was responsible for ensuring the good health of 20,000 animals of different endangered species. From caring for animals it was a natural progression to caring for the wider environment. In 2013 he was appointed director of Terrestrial Biodiversity at EAD, in charge of all flora and fauna conservation throughout the emirate of Abu Dhabi.

Three years later he was appointed director of Animal Health and Development, and since last September has been an adviser to the UAE’s Minister of Climate Change with a special focus on sustainable food production and food security.

Dr Al Qassimi is a powerful and eloquent advocate for conservation, whether on social media – which is full of updates on how his garden or latest woodworking project is doing – or in one of his compelling talks. He is also an accomplished rock drummer, but left his band – who went on to tour in the US – to concentrate on his studies. Rock music’s loss is the environment’s gain.

Natalie Banks: Azraq ME

Azraq Natalie Banks
Azraq founder Natalie Banks/Instagram

A former journalist and media adviser to the Australian government, Banks was drawn to marine conservation through her love of scuba-diving. She helped organize rallies and change environmental policy in her home country before moving to the UAE and entering the nonprofit sector full-time. She founded Azraq, which means “blue” in Arabic, in 2018.

One of their campaigns is MagicMangroves, which works to not only preserve the UAE’s extensive mangrove forests (now the largest in the Arabian Gulf) but expand them by planting more trees. 

A qualified diving instructor, Banks also teaches marine conservation through her “Dive for Debris” and Shark Conservation dives from Dubai and further afield. 

The coronavirus lockdown is helping Azraq’s mission a little as sightings of marine animals, such as Risso’s dolphins, have increased. As Banks told Dubai Eye earlier this month, “The world is slowing down and as result, things are changing and sometimes it’s for good”.

Tom Dillon: Plastic Free UAE

Courtesy Tom Dillon

Two years ago, Tom Dillon attended a talk on sustainability given by an environmentalist friend, Winston Cowie. He was so inspired that he launched his  own community-based campaign to reduce plastic use in the UAE.  He started a Facebook group called plasticfreeuae, which garnered 1,500 members within three days and now has more than 4,000. Plastic Free UAE also has a website, Instagram account and its own dedicated team within Dillon’s digital marketing company,,  based in Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina.

The group has become a valuable resource for sharing eco-tips and information on how to change shopping habits and work toward a zero waste lifestyle. Plastic Free UAE also teams up with schools and businesses on activities, such as beach clean-ups, and eliminating single-use plastic by supplying reusable cups at events including the Taste of Abu Dhabi. One recent campaign involved supplying 300,000 biologically friendly straws to Spinney’s, the supermarket chain, to pass on to its clients in the hospitality industry.
“For businesses to adopt environment practices involves outlay,” says Dillon, who arrived in Abu Dhabi from Ireland in 2015. “You have to sell a narrative and show it’s about enhancing your brand and giving it a sense of purpose.”
Despite his activism, Dillon insists he is no expert on sustainability. “I am not a scientist. I am a sustainability enthusiast. I was inspired by one man giving a talk but through my company I can reach millions of people. There’s no financial basis to it and it’s not an ego-trip – it’s a passion project. The great thing about the UAE is that although they can be a bit slower to embrace an idea, once they do, they really commit and things move fast.”

Ian Ohan: Freedom Pizza 

Freedom Pizza
Freedom Pizza/Instagram

In 2017, Freedom Pizza sent out 500,000 plastic straws and cutlery packs with their deliveries. That was when Ian Ohan, the company’s founder and chief executive, said enough was enough. In February 2018, he made a public pledge: no more straws and a nominal charge for biodegradable cutlery if customers ask for it. 

The move was inspired both by His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, volunteering for a marine clear up and the global environmental movement, Strawless Ocean, which challenges companies to reduce or, preferably, eliminate plastic waste and urge their customers to do the same. 

Freedom Pizza also switched to using recycled plastic bags, napkins and salad boxes.

“One small change can make a world of difference to the environment,” said Ohan. “And we love the UAE and its seas too much to not make a change.”

Anna Pukas

Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.