Exciting times in Abu Dhabi's western region, the heart of the energy sector

While there is a reliance on the oil industry for jobs, Al Gharbia’s people do not appear to feel threatened by the arrival of a cutting-edge solar-energy project. In fact they welcome it.

Saif Al Hamli, centre, and his family live in Al Dhafrah Marabiea, the closest residential area to Shams 1. Like many of their neighbours, the Al Hamli family keeps a traditional bedouin tent outside their home. The National
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There are no glittering towers or huge malls here, life is more relaxed with a respect for tradition. While there is a reliance on the oil industry for jobs, Al Gharbia’s people do not appear to feel threatened by the arrival of a cutting-edge solar-energy project. In fact they welcome it.

ABU DHABI // Nestled between the waters of the Arabian Gulf and sands of the Empty Quarter is Abu Dhabi's western region, Al Gharbia.

There are no glass and steel towers here, or huge shopping malls.

Life has a different pace, and residents pride themselves on being more in touch with their bedouin heritage than their cousins in the cities.

Jobs in this region are limited to the government sector, the military and the oil industry.

Yet in the midst of this quiet land is the UAE's latest milestone: Shams 1, the country's first large-scale solar power plant.

"People are still together here, everybody knows each other, it's a real community," says Mohammed Salem Al Mazroui, who works at Madinat Zayed municipality.

Mr Al Mazroui's father and grandfather lived here in Al Gharbia, and he says he feels closer to them by living here as they did.

"We still have our roots here, people still live somewhat like their bedouin ancestors did."

He and his family live in the new Al Dhafrah Marabiea community, the closest residential area to Shams 1.

On just about every street in this suburb, in front of a modern villa stands a bedouin tent. The tents have the same elements as the bedouins once had, such as majlis seating and a fire to make tea and coffee. Most also have modern comforts such satellite television and air conditioning.

"Everyone has a hobby here that occupies their time, hobbies that reflect our bedouin heritage," says Saif Al Hamli, another resident of the community.

Sitting with his three sons in his lavish tent, Mr Al Hamli proudly talks about life in Al Gharbia.

His passion is racing camels. "Some have falcons, some have horses, some have cattle, some grow date palms. Here we have time for such activities, and those with similar interests will gather at their majlis and spend the night talking about it over coffee and tea."

Mr Al Hamli works at the nearby Habshan oil field, and knows how much people here depend on the oil and gas industry for their livelihood.

"I know oil is important to us, but we must not lose sight of how it affects our environment.

"If Shams 1 were a diesel plant I would not allow my family to live so close to it. The environmental and health side effects would be too severe. Thankfully, because it's solar, we hardly even know it's there."

That environmental aspect is also important to Mr Al Mazroui. "Part of being a bedouin is to respect your surroundings, and care for land and the blessings it provides," he says. "It was very appropriate that this solar plant was built here."

He added that in the last two years there have been delays in getting homes connected to the electrical grid.

"I hope having this plant here will solve the problem." When fully operational, Shams 1 will produce 100 megawatts of electricity - enough to power 20,000 UAE homes.

Khaled Mubarak Al Qubaisi, 28, was one of two Higher College of Technology students to get an early chance to visit the plant, accompanied by eight HCT academics.

"The scale of it was really incredible," says the second-year chemical engineering student.

"This plant can power 100 Sheikh Zayed mosques. This was truly a unique experience for me, to be one of the first people to get a chance to visit this huge milestone in the UAE's vision of the future. This is a real investment in the future of this country and its people."

Though Mr Al Qubaisi lives in Abu Dhabi, he works at the projects department of Adnoc's Al Ruwais oil field in Al Gharbia.

"Our family is originally from Liwa, so I was very proud to see that such projects are taking place there. I'm sure Shams 1 will serve the people of Al Gharbia well and aid in the expansion and development of that part of the country."

Many of his fellow students have been eager to hear about his visit. "Renewable energy is a very important subject, and I'm happy that the UAE has taken steps to protect its natural resources for the coming generations."

Since his visit, Mr Al Qubaisi has been considering looking for work in the renewable energy sector.

"It's been in the back of my mind," he says. "I'm not sure yet, but maybe I will."

Ghanem Al Subaihi, an armed forces officer who is stationed at the UAE-Saudi border and lives in Madinat Zayed, says it was "about time" the UAE launched such a large-scale solar project.

"Solar is the most easily available resource we have, and especially here in the UAE where we have sunny days almost all year round," he says.

"I don't know why they haven't done this sooner. Solar is clean, renewable, and readily abundant. I guess we have been just too dependent on fossil fuels.

"I don't see this as a threat to our oil industry, if anything this will aid it since there will be less local consumption."

He was proud the UAE and his home region in particular concentrating on alternative energy.

"I have family in Al Ain, I hope this is the first of many, and that they build the next solar plant there," says Mr Al Subaihi.

Al Ain, too, has plenty of potential for solar power, according to the general manager of Shams 1, Yousif Al Ali.

"Before we built the station here, we looked around the country to see where would be the most suitable location.

"We had to study how clear the air is, the less particles in the air the more efficient this solar system will be. The cleanest place we found was Al Ain."