If you've visited Europe - and especially if you've driven there - you'll have noticed that a lot of new cars don't run on petrol. They run on diesel. The fuel has become the juice of choice for European passenger vehicles. It gives better fuel economy, meaning fewer trips to fill up. And in an increasingly environmentally conscious part of the world, diesel vehicles emit considerably less carbon dioxide - a greenhouse gas blamed primarily for climate change - from their exhausts.
But in the UAE, it's a different story. Petrol rules and diesel is almost exclusively the preserve of noisy, smoky commercial vehicles certainly not geared towards performance - a big handicap in a country with such a reverence of horsepower. However, diesel technology has made great leaps forward in recent years, due in large parts to international government pressures to convert people to the environmental benefits of diesel. More expensive to produce than petrol, the fuel is heavily subsidised and diesel customers are often tempted by tax advantages and the lure of better fuel economy. As well, diesel cars have been made to run cleaner, with particulate filters that collect much of the soot produced and systems that use the chemical urea to neutralise nitrogen oxide from the exhaust.
From a performance point of view, Peugeot won the 24 Hours of Le Mans last weekend in a diesel, while Audi had won the race under diesel power the previous three years. On the road, the inherent characteristics of diesel technology mean plenty of torque and instant grunt under the driver's right foot. So why do we not see modern diesels here? Car manufacturers say the quality of fuel simply isn't good enough. Too many impurities will foul the emission controls of a modern diesel engine, and in some cases damage it.
Oil companies here say the fuel is as good as anywhere else, but the price of it in the UAE makes it unattractive - earlier this month, the price was raised in Dubai by five per cent to Dh9.90 per gallon versus less than Dh7 for petrol. Wouter Kingma, a freelance photographer from Dubai, has had a diesel-powered Land Rover Defender as his everyday car for the past three years. "The Defender is a car you either like or you don't," he says. "It wasn't necessarily a choice to choose a diesel but it only gets made in diesel."
His experience of filling up tends to vary depending on where he is within the Emirates. "Generally in Dubai it's good," he explains. "Every petrol station has it, although sometimes you have to queue with the trucks. "But Abu Dhabi is an absolute nightmare. It's a real challenge to find stations that sell diesel. They sell to trucks and buses but not to civilian cars, because there was such a big price difference that Dubai people would queue up there. The police said it was a hazard.
"You have to make sure you're filled up before you go to Abu Dhabi. It's really annoying." The price has proved problematic too. While petrol prices are fixed by the federal government, diesel prices - in Dubai and the Northern Emirates - fluctuate according to international market prices. While the Abu Dhabi government has fixed the diesel rate at Dh8.60 per gallon, the lack of availability still makes it an unattractive proposition.
Wouter's solution? "I don't go to Abu Dhabi that often," he says simply. "I have learnt the hard way and find places to fill up. I want to drive a Defender so that's the main reason I have the car. If you go to Abu Dhabi regularly, it's not worth it." There are people keen to change that view, but they argue over why nothing has happened so far. Audi is one car maker keen to see modern diesel cars sold here, but it says the quality of fuel here is not yet up to scratch. It claims the fuel's sulphur content (a natural product of crude oil and from which particulates or soot is derived) is too high in the UAE.
The Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) announced in March that it would improve its diesel quality by 2011 from 500 sulphur parts per million (ppm) to 10ppm. When contacted for comment, however, Adnoc officials did not return calls from The National. The Emirates National Oil Company (ENOC) completely rejects any claims of poor quality fuel and says smuggling of cheaper, foreign fuel could be to blame for that perception. It would like to sell more diesel as it would make more money from it than petrol.
ENOC's group brand and marketing manager Khalid M Hadi is entirely unambiguous. "The fuel here is the cleanest in the world when it comes to diesel," he says. "We have never had any problems with quality. The problem has been manufacturers producing cars that run on petrol." But Wayne Banoub of Audi Middle East says fuel quality is the main barrier to diesel sales here. "We have been monitoring fuel quality in the region since 2006," he says.
"When we first started looking, the sulphur ppm we found was 5,000. We were launching diesel engines in Europe with a maximum tolerance of 50ppm." Phil Horton, managing director of BMW in the Middle East, agrees. "Our diesel engines may be able to work at around 500ppm, but not at 5,000," he says. "We understand that there's some move by authorities to try and improve the fuel quality but the talk seems to be around 2,000ppm, which still wouldn't be good enough."
Progress is being made. Oman and Kuwait already have diesel that is of a sufficiently high quality, and Banoub expects the UAE to announce improvements soon. However, he says there has been a lack of government support until now. "The fuel not being in the region has not encouraged us to push for the introduction of diesels and spend money on testing in super hot countries," he says. "We need the fuel but also the factory to give us cars that can be cooled enough for the region.
"There are other factors, too, like customer perception. People here still think of diesels as smoky, smelly and noisy." Again, Horton from BMW concurs. "Customers here say 'Why would I be interested in going near that smelly fuel?' Acceptance and understanding is much lower here, as is appreciation of the need to do something about emissions - one of the big drivers in Europe." Horton is pessimistic about the situation changing without considerable government intervention.
"If governments change things, either through taxation or taking away the subsidy on petrol, then getting 25 to 30 per cent more mileage from a diesel will appeal to people," he says. Audi is more positive. Recently conducted blind tests with customers between its petrol and diesel cars found the diesel was generally preferred. In fact, it is launching a performance version of its Q7 SUV in the UAE later this year, with a diesel V12 engine producing close to 500bhp. It's a niche (and expensive) model, but nevertheless represents the first performance diesel to get a release in the UAE.
"From a technical point of view, it has huge potential." Banoub says. "People here like power and luxury and we have that in terms of diesel. But we have to lift the image. We can't expect our customers to queue behind trucks (at petrol stations). "This will require some initiatives directly from the government and from the oil companies. As yet we don't see a clear strategy from the government to create a way forward."
Hadi says ENOC is being asked by the federal government to look into compressed natural gas (CNG) rather than diesel as part of government eco-efforts. "We have abras running CNG to reduce the use of diesel, and the government wants us to look into CNG for cars," he says. "But the conversion costs will be around Dh7,000 to Dh8,000. The product is available but it also requires a heavy investment in infrastructure."
Hadi admits that an increased focus on diesel would be better for oil companies - especially in Dubai and the Northern Emirates. "It's better for us to sell more diesel," he explains. "With petrol, we sell at a price fixed by the federal government which costs us a lot, daily. In Abu Dhabi the price of diesel has been fixed at Dh8.60. The government doesn't want to change the price because, in Abu Dhabi, they can produce crude oil and can compensate the losses."
The Dubai government has always favoured subsidies for petrol over diesel. Hadi says the reason given was that increasing the petrol prices could increase inflation. He said the industry would support manufacturers wanting to launch diesel cars. "I don't know what's stopping them. We support the manufacturing companies 100 per cent to bring more diesel cars. We can supply the product to our customers and we encourage them." firstname.lastname@example.org