Lessons from our Arab forefathers on sustainability

Re-adopting community-centred approaches to sustainability would honour Arab traditions


Volunteers set up a 20mx20m light installation, comprised of 2,000 solar lanterns, arranged to reveal the Zayed Sustainability Prize logo.

Following a month-long, five-country, transcontinental journey, the Zayed Sustainability Prizes Guiding Light campaign arrived to Abu Dhabi today. 

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

Section:  NA
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

This month, prominent world leaders, representatives and delegates from 190 countries gathered in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, for the UN Climate Change Conference, Cop27. It was encouraging to see high levels of engagement from countries across the globe on the ill effects of climate change and to best combat them and protect the planet.

There are various large-scale efforts being planned and implemented to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, I strongly believe it would help to look back on practices from decades past that were in fact sustainable and then adapt them to the modern, post-industrial world.

Arab tradition has inherently been centred around people, and while Arab nations have been investing heavily in renewable energy and making significant strides, we must also draw from the wisdom of our forefathers, whose lifestyles were not only sustainable, broadly speaking, but geared towards the benefit of the wider community.

The onus is now on us Arab citizens to adapt the community mindset to the modern context

An increase in greenhouse gas emissions is a direct result of the industrial revolution, which, undoubtedly, transformed the world but also brought forth a series of drawbacks that have long been overlooked.

As the world continues to move towards the digital era, we must reconcile our long-standing values with the present and future, and in the true spirit of Arab tradition, lead by example while we engage global communities in practices that support sustainability goals.

Families at a park in Dubai, on October 25.  EPA

Across Arab nations and throughout the course of history, people have existed as valued parts of a larger puzzle – a tribe or fraternity that engages every member to the best of their capacity. Familial values have not been limited to kin, and are extended to friends, neighbours and business networks.

We cannot doubt the importance of large-scale projects, individual and government efforts to reduce carbon emissions. But a community-centred lifestyle that has long been part of Arab culture can make an enormous difference if it is adopted by countries around the world.

The idea that one makes choices based on the wider impact and repercussions of their actions is key and will vary with each scenario.

Valuing, reusing, gifting, sharing and lending possessions are all part of Arab tradition. With the rise of consumerism and external influences on lifestyles, however, these practices have faded to a large extent. Experts on sustainability are now all advising consumers to make conscious decisions about purchasing and find ways to reuse or repurpose items rather than discarding them, which is in line with the lifestyles led by our forefathers.

The onus is now on Arab citizens to adapt the community mindset to the modern context, honouring our rich heritage, while looking forward and safeguarding the interests of our global allies and future generations.

Sustainable practices at home such as reducing energy consumption, growing vegetables, being water-wise, investing in renewable energy sources such as solar lights and panels are a great place to start. Waste reduction can take many forms – food waste can be reduced by sharing leftovers in communal spaces – like some communities in the GCC have successfully operated neighbourhood pantries and refrigerators so everyone has access to meals.

In 2016, Sumayyah Sayed set up 20 sharing fridges across Dubai that gave anyone access to food during ramadan. Anna Nielsen / The National

The digital frameworks we now have access to present a plethora of opportunities. Geolocation apps, or community-centric apps can be developed to support lowering wastage and encouraging sharing, giving and lending within the community.

This concept can be carried over to the business sphere, where services and resources can be posted online and communal possession of assets becomes the norm. For example, businesses operating in the same industry can look into options for joint ownership of equipment they use part-time, or consider leasing their equipment so resources are used for maximum mileage.

There are opportunities for business growth as well, perhaps a renewed approach to infrastructure that supports the concept of shared assets across industries. Governments can incentivise shared use of resources in the private sector as well in order to help organisations reduce their carbon footprint.

There is also plenty of room for innovation where materials that typically find their way to landfills can be given a new life and used to develop products. Various companies across the world have ventured in this area and achieved excellent results – from using the plastic of water bottles to manufacture footwear, to food scraps repurposed to make household items.

Entrepreneurs with a vision that supports sustainability can be given incentives and support from governments, financial institutions and established players in the private sector.

There is no shortage of creativity among Arab youth and even older citizens; I am always in awe of the brilliant ideas members of our society have to share.

There truly is no better time than now to renew our commitment not only to our community but to our planet, and lead our friends and allies from various cultures across the world by example and adopt a community-centred mindset towards sustainability.

We know now that all of humanity is at serious threat, and the only path to security is to be united and always prioritise the greater good over individual benefit. This is an important part of Arab tradition that we can and must adapt to our current context to offset the damage the planet has endured. In these ways we can work towards a healthier and secure future.

Published: November 23, 2022, 2:00 PM