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The GCC needs to make green upskilling a priority

A speedy and successful energy transition needs a retrained workforce – Gulf leaders must act now

A recent IEA report shows that the Middle East is trailing significantly behind almost all other regions in clean energy employment Reuters/Sayed Sheasha
A recent IEA report shows that the Middle East is trailing significantly behind almost all other regions in clean energy employment

For months, parts of the global media have asked why the UAE – a major fossil fuel-producing nation – should be hosting Cop28, the world’s preeminent conference on climate change. 

An understandable question, but in our view easy to answer.

If we are serious about a global energy transition – one that minimises the number of people, assets and countries left behind by this colossal task – it’s only right that the biggest fossil fuel producers are actively and constructively engaged in the conversation.

A speedy and successful energy transition in these countries is arguably the most pressing challenge because they have such a huge role to play.

So the start of Cop28 in Dubai this week is an apt moment to consider one of the biggest hurdles the Middle East, and by default the global energy transition, faces today: the training and reskilling of its local workforce. 

A shortage of green workers  

This critical issue is underscored by the latest World Energy Employment report from the International Energy Agency, published this month. It shows that the Middle East is trailing significantly behind almost all other regions in clean energy employment, despite the number of jobs in this sector overtaking fossil fuel roles for the first time in 2021. 

It is also despite an estimated shortage of 7 million green workers by 2030, according to Boston Consulting Group, of which the bulk will be in top carbon-emitting countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia. 

This dynamic may not be surprising but it means that the Middle East is storing up a problem for the future. It also underpins the region’s ongoing need for inward migration – a high-skilled, high-salaried expat workforce provided mostly by foreign multinationals at the expense of promoting local businesses and workers. 

Leaving aside the brake these factors put on the pace of energy transition, acting late or last only means higher costs and fewer benefits for the region in the long run.  

A just energy transition requires large-scale retraining, which is happening increasingly fast elsewhere – in the UK and Germany, for example – but nowhere near fast enough in the Middle East.

The region’s leaders should grasp the nettle and act now. Doing so would create a huge opportunity to deliver positive labour and GDP outcomes, not to mention greater economic diversification and resilience. 

Need for ‘energy transition academies’

The potential economic benefits are not distant, either. With local training and reskilling programmes funded and rolled out at a scale never seen before there could be an almost immediate payback.

Such an ambitious approach would be in keeping with the region’s track record of taking on the biggest tasks and delivering them at an almost impossible speed.

These efforts could be aligned with the GCC’s established employment policies, such as Emiratisation in the UAE, which require companies to hire a mandatory quota of national citizens.

Priority sectors for Emiratisation are in science and technology, construction and manufacturing – all relevant to the skills required in the renewable and clean power industries.

To build momentum, the region should partner with private companies to establish “energy transition skills academies”. These would not only focus on the local population but become global centres of excellence – the envy of the world. 

With around £17 million ($21 million), the UK government managed to retrain around 4,000 oil and gas workers in emerging green skills – a fine achievement. We envisage the GCC being able to scale up initiatives like this and leapfrog other parts of the world. 

Plans announced by the Qatar Foundation to develop a £4 billion ($5 billion) green energy research and development centre spanning the UK and Qatar – dubbed the “MIT for the energy transition”– are among the region’s first steps towards this aim.  

Transferable skills 

With world class academies in place the region could lead the charge in some of the most exciting areas for energy transition, such as solar power and storage solutions for businesses, and in hydrogen production, transport and distribution. 

The fact that most fossil fuel jobs already have many of the core skills required for clean and green jobs, making these workers highly transferable, makes the opportunity both clear and low risk. 

In a short time I can see the region becoming an attractive destination for a global energy workforce to locate to train and retrain, giving GCC nations a readymade local and expat workforce – first-pick status – and a role in exporting skills back out to the world. It would also bring more stability and resilience to the region, especially in a period of geopolitical and supply chain volatility. 

We should not let today’s acute shortage of clean and green skills become a choke point for progress on the urgent transition journey. But taking large-scale action needs forethought from stakeholders.

Hopefully Cop28 can provide a platform to progress this conversation, and encourage companies to act with ambition and purpose.

Shami Nissan is head of responsible investment at Actis, a global sustainable infrastructure investor

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