"If you had talked renewable energy five or six years ago to anyone in the region, they would have said, 'come on we can't do that. It's like shooting ourselves in the foot. We are our oil producers.' Today, nobody would tell you that," El Sayed said.
Vahid Fotuhi couldn't agree more. A longtime proponent of solar in the region, he first worked for an oil giant struggling to sell solar in the region before it gave up on the project a few years back. He has since joined an American solar systems provider, Alion, which set up shop the region six months ago. Fotuhi, who also heads the Emirates Solar Industry Association, admits he is desperate to get a "piece of the pie."
"The real prize is Saudi Arabia," Fotuhi said, noting that it has promised to build 41,000 megawatts of capacity by 2032. "Anyone who is looking at the Middle East will have their eyes sharply focused on the Saudi market. It's the 800-pound gorilla of the Middle East solar market."
But not everyone is so bullish.
Imen Jeridi Bachellerie, a researcher associated with the Gulf Research Center in Geneva, questioned some of the renewable targets as overly ambitious adding that countries would be better off focusing improving energy efficiency of buildings and upgrading existing infrastructure before investing heavily in renewables. She said they will need years to change attitudes about energy, offer significant subsidies that would make solar competitive with fossil fuels and develop the regulatory framework required to help the industry thrive.
"I don't think there should be a rush to renewables," said Bachellerie, warning that a hasty push into the field without first sorting out technological glitches could pose problems.
To some degree, governments in the region understand this.
On the sidelines of U.N. climate talks, Qatar Science & Technology Park, GreenGulf Inc. and Chevron Qatar inaugurated a solar testing facility. The 35,000-square-meter facility will be used to determine what types of solar are best for the region, looking at how dust, heat and humidity impacts various technologies. Qatar, a tiny desert nation which has promised to host a carbon neutral 2022 World Cup, also is looking at ways to make solar more efficient.
"We are one of the biggest believers in solar," Abdullah Bin Hamad al-Attiyah, a former Qatari oil minister who is the president of the climate conference, told reporters. "We have technical problems with solar but I'm a big believer that technology will solve it."
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