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Can Islam shape sustainable business?

Dubai entrepreneur Brahim Zitouni at a conference, talking about his plan to turn dates into fuel.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: Long before oil transformed the economy in the Middle East, and big business transformed Dubai, Muslim traditions defined almost every aspect of life here, and not just religious customs. Islam frowns on wasting natural resources. It's a nod to tribal days when survival depended on it. Today some Middle Eastern businesses are reaching back to those green Islamic roots to get an edge on the global competition.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sam Eaton reports.


SAM EATON: This is the sound of modern Dubai, family outings at the plush Mall of the Emirates. A jumble of well-known calling cards: Gucci, Versace, Starbucks, a Virgin Megastore. It could be anywhere really, but keep listening. That's the evening call to prayer echoing through six and a half million square feet of retail space. Several decades ago, Dubai was nothing but a sun-baked fishing village. Now it's one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with an annual growth rate of nearly 17 percent. Dubai business leader Mishal Kanoo.

MISHAL KANOO: With the flow of wealth into this region, it's like taking a teenage boy. It's introducing him to the concept of girls. When he first gets into it his hormones are driving him nuts.

Kanoo says those financial hormones and this unbridled consumption violate key Islamic principles like the careful balance between man and nature and the sustainable use of land, forests and water.

KANOO: If you applied the teachings of the Qur'an it would fail, because we have failed to fulfill what is required of us, for example, the concept of throwing away plastic that doesn't degrade for 100 years. Wastage is not acceptable.

Tough words for a place that produces more waste per capita than any other nation on the planet, more than five times the global average. Many Middle Eastern businesses are trying to shake that wasteful image as they contemplate a post-oil future. Dubai is expected to run out of oil in the next few decades. Abu Dhabi, its prosperous neighbor down the coast, has at least another 100 years of reserves, but that's not stopping Abu Dhabi from investing $22 billion dollars in green housing, businesses and transportation. Its goal is to build an Emirate as green as Dubai is flashy.

Abu Dhabi recently hosted the world's largest renewable energy summit in its sprawling exposition center. All ideas were welcome. Consider the ancient palm date. Dubai entrepreneur Brahim Zitouni hopes to use the region's two million ton surplus of this popular Middle Eastern snack to make everything from biofuels to eco-building products.

BRAHIM ZITOUNI: So from the dates, from the beginning we have used all its components and we do not waste anything.

Entrepreneurs like Zitouni show that not only is the Arab world adapting to the modern economy, it's defining it on its own terms. Mariam Al Foudery, with Kuwaiti logistics giant Agility, says that's where Middle Eastern companies stand to gain.

AL FOUDERY: Think about it. This is one of the hottest inhabited regions in the world and yet people lived here not only in days before electricity, but in days when people were dirt poor, I mean literally had nothing.

Al Foudery says Middle Eastern development has so far mimicked the West's wasteful and environmentally damaging practices, but unlike the West, sustainable lifestyles here are only a generation removed.

FOUDERY: There's still memory, individual memory of what it was like in the time before oil. There's still that link to a not-so-distant past.

And not so far away, really. Bedouin camel farmers still live among the sand dunes east of Dubai City where they keep ancient traditions alive. Mohammed Al Shamsi is one of them. He says the modern economy has brought generators, Toyota Land Cruisers, a house in the city, but his heart is here among his camels and his favorite hunting falcon.

MOHAMMED AL SHAMSI: Shh, shh, shh, shh, shh, shh, shh.

EATON: Why do you still have a falcon?

AL SHAMSI: It's my traditional. I like it. This is still with me the falcons. Excuse me.

A four-wheeler sprays us with sand as it tears past. This favorite tourist activity called "dune bashing" carves miles of tracks in the orange sand. It's an uncomfortably close brush between the ancient Middle East and the modern West, and one that hints of the deep challenges still ahead as the Arab world makes its way in the global economy.

In Dubai, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.
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