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If EVs can make it here, they can make it anywhere

The battery powered car is on the up, even in the oil-soaked Gulf

Car, electric vehicle, EV, Production has begun on the Polestar 3; the marque offered by Al Futtaim in Dubai Polestar
Production has begun on the Polestar 3 in China; the marque is offered by Al Futtaim in Dubai

Just a year or two ago it was a notable event to see an electric vehicle on the UAE’s roads. Today I encounter several Teslas on every drive. Is the battery car on its way to prominence, even in the oil-soaked Gulf?

Electric vehicle adoption may be small compared to world leaders such as Norway, California or China, but the UAE leads the region. 

There were almost 26,000 electric vehicles (EVs) in Dubai at the end of last year, according to the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa), up 70 percent from a year earlier. Abu Dhabi had 2,400 EVs and over 4,000 hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, which combines a petrol engine with a battery and electric motor.

Last May the UAE’s energy minister, Suhail Mohammed Faraj Al Mazroui, said that EVs made up more than 1 percent of the country’s car market. This could exceed 370,000 by 2032, or 11 percent of passenger vehicles. 

The national target was for half of vehicles to be electric by 2050 and there are additional goals for government and taxi fleet procurement.

Dubai has its own Green Charger Initiative and Green Mobility Strategy. The long-term climate strategy released in November 2023 is yet more aggressive, foreseeing 99 percent EV uptake by mid-century.

The country doesn’t offer the tax incentives or subsidies available in many places, but it has exempted EVs from Salik road tolls. So far, adoption has been driven by customer preferences, more than government action.

The UAE has relatively low fuel prices by global standards, but the cost per kilometre to drive a petrol car is still about four times that of its electric equivalent. Performance of EVs is better and maintenance costs are likely to be lower.

From the point of view of society, they are quieter and produce less air pollution. And they are critical for making progress on the country’s net-zero carbon goal. As the share of nuclear and solar power on the grid increases, charging these cars will become even more environmentally friendly than petrol and diesel engines.

In 2022 just over half the country’s EVs were Teslas, followed by Porsche, Volvo, MG and Jaguar. Chinese marques, notably BYD and MG, are rapidly gaining ground, while Al Futtaim offers the Swedish-built Polestar range.

As a wealthy country where people are keen to highlight their affluence and trend-setting, high-end cars have been popular. But now the increasing choice, from budget to premium options, should support wider adoption. A survey last November found that 19 percent of respondents in Dubai were considering an EV as their next car during the coming year.

While ranges continue to improve, the UAE has the advantage of relatively short driving distances. Several EVs offer 500km of range – enough for the longest drive most are likely to undertake, from Abu Dhabi to Ruwais, Fujairah or Ras Al Khaimah and back without re-charging.

Although real-world conditions, traffic and the need for air conditioning will reduce this in practice, EVs should still prove practical for most regular uses, particularly as many families will also own a petrol car.

As choice and range improve further and as they close the price gap on their petrol-powered rivals, Evs will become the default choice

Charging infrastructure is also steadily improving. Utility company Taqa has formed a partnership with Abu Dhabi National Oil Company to build charging points, while Dewa aims to have 1,000 stations in Dubai by 2025.

A national EV plan is under development and will cover charging infrastructure, interoperability and prices.

In contrast, uptake of battery-powered heavier vehicles – vans, buses and lorries – is minimal so far. Last August Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority began trials of an electric bus along the Jumeirah Beach Road, while Abu Dhabi ran an electric bus service from its airport to the Cop28 venue last year.

Buses, with predictable routes and frequent stops, are a good target for electrification. Their use would also cut air pollution from diesel fumes.

In 2021 the UAE consumed about 137,000 barrels per day of petrol (diesel passenger cars are a rarity). This figure would, of course, rise over time. The estimated EV adoption by 2032, assuming the cars are driven equivalently to petrol vehicles, would save about 5 percent of national oil consumption.

A similar pattern, somewhat delayed, could be seen across the rest of the GCC with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia with its longer driving distances. Fuel prices, though, remain very low and subsidised in the other GCC states.

Though more EVs will conversely raise electricity demand, in the UAE it is likely to be in the order of 2 percent by 2032, which should be readily manageable within existing generation plans. This could further be alleviated with more use of rooftop solar panels powering charging at home or in car parks and offices. 

Electric cars still have some way to go to achieve widespread consumer familiarity in the UAE, and to overcome remaining logistical hurdles. But as choice and range improve further and as they close the price gap on their petrol-powered rivals, they will become the default choice.

If by the early 2030s battery vehicles can take over in the UAE, one of the bastions of Opec, they can do so in most places. This will bring important improvements for climate, clean air and quality of life in the emirates. It will have yet more profound implications for oil demand globally.

Robin M Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis

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