Home » The drive for safe and sustainable transport in MENA

The drive for safe and sustainable transport in MENA

by Mohammad Ghazal

As the MENA region has some of the highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita globally, with transportation, particularly road transport, a significant contributor, a recent World Bank report has urged the region to provide cleaner and more sustainable transportation options. However, there are still significant barriers to the expansion and, crucially, the adoption of sustainable and safe transport.

That’s not to say MENA nations are not making efforts to transform transport. Recent years have seen significant investment in public transport projects, with the likes of the UAE, Egypt, and Jordan all actively pursuing the path to more sustainable mobility.

Barriers to sustainable transport

In 2021, the Boston Consulting Group examined some of the factors acting as barriers to sustainable living in the GCC and identified infrastructural constraints as a significant issue, with the region’s cities dominated by road infrastructure and privately owned vehicles. The uptake of public transport is currently low, while private car ownership and usage are high. Research shows Dubai and Doha have a 75 percent to 80 percent ratio of private vehicles, with the GCC average at 91 percent. This high level of private car ridership is partly due to the perception of public transport in the MENA region as the mode of transport for ”poor people,” but it also comes down to factors such as transport reliability, affordability, safety and security.

The use of renewable energy is also a big part of decarbonising transportation. Yet, it is the sector that has the lowest share of renewables among end-use sectors. This aligns with broader criticisms of the region that MENA is still too dependent on oil and gas, with low gasoline prices being one of the factors perpetuating high private car usage. Likewise, a recent report by Siemens found despite MENA’s “strong prospects” to become a hub for sustainable energy, it currently only scores 26 percent on the Readiness Index. Increased regulation and targeted investments have been identified as crucial to improving this. That said, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are leading the way here, both regionally and globally, with some of the largest renewable energy projects worldwide. There is also an increasing focus on green hydrogen in the region, and projections by the most recent MESIA Outlook Report suggest the region could account for 20 percent of global green hydrogen production, which would be potentially transformative for the transport industry.

Transport transition

The introduction of new, tangible initiatives and pledges, sees an estimated $100 billion being invested in public transport projects in MENA.

In Egypt, the transport sector has been identified as the second-largest and fastest-growing source of carbon emissions. In response to these concerning facts, as part of Egypt Vision 2030, the country is aiming to increase national public transport ridership to 50 percent by 2050. This is being achieved by establishing an integrated urban transport system, investing in highways, BRT, and metros, and modernising national railways. Green investment is helping to facilitate this change, and back in September 2020, Egypt issued its first-ever green sovereign bond in the region, valued at $750 million, earmarked, in part, for financing clean transportation. A $400 million development financing agreement was also approved by the World Bank’s Board of Executive Directors back in October 2022, to further decarbonise its transport sector.

Elsewhere, in the UAE, Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority recently announced its Supreme Committee for Strategic Planning and Corporate Transformation’s endorsement of the Strategic Plan 2023-2030. The main target of the strategy is to make Dubai a “world leader in seamless and sustainable mobility.” This aligns with the broader CO2 reduction targets set out by the UAE, which, if achieved, would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by eight million tonnes. Likewise, the 2022 world cup in Qatar saw the transformation of the country’s transport infrastructure to meet the needs for fast, reliable, and green transportation, delivering the Doha Metro, expressways, electric buses and tram systems.

Meanwhile, in Jordan, where research shows nearly 50 percent of women have turned down job opportunities due to poor public transport services, there has been a push to close the gender gap. One of the actionable ways the Ministry of Transport is addressing this is by launching the National Framework for Gender Sensitive Transportation.

Conscious consumer on the rise

These days, almost 60 percent of the population in MENA live in urban areas, with the population set to nearly double in the next 50 years. This means there’s a high number of cars on the roads, leading to traffic jams, congestion and pollution. Sustainable public transport is pegged as key to addressing this. The transition to green transport has also been identified as a significant economic opportunity, with a recent Strategy& report identifying that sustainable mobility could unlock a $400 billion monetary benefit in the next two decades. Studies have found that those in the region also increasingly recognise their role in building a greener future, with the conscious consumer on the rise. In the UAE, for example, research from Mastercard found that: 96 percent of adults are willing to take personal action, using public transport, to combat environmental and sustainability issues, compared with 85 percent globally.

Private sector involvement has been identified as vital to facilitating this, and Alstom is one of the companies supporting this shift. In an email correspondence with ESG Mena, the company explained how it has grown to be a key contributor to the advancement of the region’s transport infrastructure. In the UAE, its major projects include the Dubai tramway, the first fully integrated tramway system in the Middle East, and the world’s first 100 percent catenary-free line, which opened in 2014. In Saudi Arabia, where it has had a presence since the 1950s, its projects include constructing King Abdullah Financial District’s monorail transit system, with the most recent project supplying an integrated Metro System for Lines 4, 5, and 6 as part of the FAST Consortium and line 3 within the ArRiyadh New Mobility Consortium. Moreover, while it recently signed an agreement with the Ministry of Investment to identify opportunities in railway infrastructure powered by sustainable technology and energy sources, it is also exploring hydrogen train opportunities with an MoU with the Saudi Railway Company.

Thales is another company providing sustainable transportation solutions. Thales identified rail as the gateway to more sustainable transport. Already rail has the lowest carbon emissions for any mode of land transport, however, Thales is pushing to improve on this through its offerings of data-driven solutions. The company explained that the Dubai Metro, for example, is equipped with an entire package of Thales solutions, including SelTrac CBTC signalling solution, and in partnership with RTA, it has made significant energy savings. According to the company, the percentage of energy saving achieved in real Dubai Metro operation conditions has reached 15 percent.

The road ahead

With the region hosting two consecutive COP summits, it is the perfect opportunity for productive political discussions, effective transport policy and strategy decisions. The recent Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week and associated events, attended by the ESG Mena team, identified transport as a crucial part of the climate action agenda and revealed promising developments in the sector. However, efforts must ramp up over the next few years if the region is to meet its net-zero goals.

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