Posted by on March 01, 2014 in Blog

By Firas Suqi
Spring Intern, 2014

The notion of harnessing the power of the sun as a renewable energy source is by no means a modern one. As thousands of immigrants from Arab countries crossed through Ellis Island in aftermath of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, so did the vision of Lebanese American Hassan Kamel Al-Sabbah – who dreamt of one day returning to his home and transforming the sunny skies of the Arabian Desert into a solar powered paradise. While he’d never make it back to Lebanon, his legacy in developing renewable energy technology is alive and well today.

Upon immigrating to the U.S. in 1921, Al-Sabbah studied at MIT for a year before receiving his Master’s degree in Engineering Sciences from the University of Illinois in 1923. While working for General Electric (GE), Al-Sabbah was credited for over 70 international patents – in the aerospace, automotive, and television industries among others – although all of them were licensed under the GE name.

Nevertheless, Al-Sabbah made significant contributions in solar cell technology and the sodium sulfur battery (used in early electric car concepts), while expanding the library of research in the limited field of renewable energy exploration. What the great hero and inventor Nikola Tesla was for the Serbian American community, similar parallels can be drawn for Al-Sabbah in the Arab American community. His contributions to science and engineering have set the foundation for the current age of renewable energy exploration.

Since his untimely death in 1935, Al-Sabbah’s vision of a solar powered paradise in the Arabian Desert was delayed by the discovery of massive oil reserves throughout Arab nations. While the latter half of his vision – a sprawling paradise of sunshine and technology – has come to fruition in tourist hotspots like Beirut and Dubai, the massive Arabian Desert has only scraped the surface of Al-Sabbah’s vision in its potential to become a [literal] solar powered Mecca.

Arab Advancements in Solar Power

The Arabian Desert has long been the world’s energy giant due to its massive crude oil and natural gas reserves. Along with its geostrategic position as a bridge between Europe, Africa and Asia, and as buoyant as it sounds, the abundance of sunny days in the region may very well make it an energy center for years to come.

Nearly 80 years after Al-Sabbah’s passing, his dream of turning the Arab World into a solar paradise may have arrived. In 2013 Saudi Arabia announced plans to raise $109 billion in creating what would be one of the most ambitious solar projects ever, generating 41,000 megawatts of energy, or roughly a third of all domestic energy use, by 2032.

Saudi Arabia's projected increase in renewable energy. Source PV Magazine

Last year Abu Dhabi commissioned Shams I, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates’ construction of the largest concentrated solar power (CSP) plant in the Middle East. With 258,048 mirrors stretched over 2.5 km2, the world's largest-funded solar field will be one of the most productive CSP plants in the world, generating 100 megawatts of energy on its own.

Investment in solar energy isn’t just found in oil-rich Arab Gulf states either. Solar power plants are found in the Levantine countries of Jordan and Syria, and throughout Northern Africa in the Maghreb countries as far west as Tunisia and Mauritania -- the latter of which is constructing a 15 megawatt photovoltaic facility that will increase the country’s total electric grid capacity by over 10%. The entirety of the MENA region is projected to surpass 3.5 gigawatts of total solar production by 2015, signaling the realization of Al-Sabbah’s dream – which was inspired by Lebanon, researched and tested in U.S. labs, and now with returning to the deserts of the Middle East with the potential to create sprawling solar paradises.

Foreign Policy Implications

Solar contributions to the energy grids of Arab nations suffering from load shedding and frequent power outages has the potential to stimulate the economies of these low-to-middle income countries. Sustainable energy is a longstanding topic in the poverty alleviation efforts of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and has been a key focus area of the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), which state that “none of the MDGs can be met without major improvement in the quality and quantity of energy services in developing countries.” See below figure illustrating the percentage of poverty in MENA:

Poverty trends in the MENA region. Source: World Bank

The effects of alleviating poverty through solar power has potential to stabilize countries like Yemen, which suffers from high poverty rates (54% of Yemenis live below the poverty line) and political instability. Solar power shouldn’t be seen as the cure to poverty and conflict, but rather as a capacity-builder for development projects implemented by the UNDP and other aid organizations.

For the more pragmatic and immediate outcomes of solar power in the Middle East, one can simply look at the change in energy policy in oil-rich Saudi Arabia and the UAE. After decades of rapid economic modernization, both countries have invested heavily in building a solar energy infrastructure in response to growing domestic energy needs. The change in energy policy has clear-cut economic benefits, as it frees up more oil for exports or reserves, ensuring continued economic growth in the event of shortages in oil production.

In such a transient political climate that of the Middle East, U.S. interests in Arab countries are starting to be reevaluated, and diplomatic strategies are shifting. The materialization of Al-Sabbah’s vision of a solar Middle East will not only change the Arabian desert landscape, but also improve bilateral relations between Arab nations and the U.S. with increased solar power generated in the region.

The current strategy of U.S. energy diplomacy, provides both economically developing countries and large energy exporters will have diplomatic incentives from increased solar energy production – as the goals deal primarily with sustainable energy diversification, both domestically and in the developing world, in addition to fostering greater relationships with energy giant Arab nations that make up the majority of OPEC member states. 

Al-Sabbah’s vision can be the bridge to making the sun shine brighter than ever for U.S.- Arab relations. To see the promise circulating in the air, one must simply look to the sun in the sky – although it’ll probably be safest to step outside and feel the sun’s energy potential rather than look at it.