The United Arab Emirates: An unlikely development partner for the Pacific Islands

The United Arab Emirates has helped much-needed infrastructure.

Mitiana Arbon

Politics, International relations, Development | Pacific

25 May 2016

Mitiana Arbon reflects on the flourishing development partnership between the United Arab Emirates and Pacific Island States.

The last decade for Pacific Island States has seen the diplomatic growth of many non-traditional partners in development. Since 2013 the emergence of the United Arab Emirates has seen the implementation of multiple renewable energy projects through its $50 million UAE Pacific Partnership Fund in over eleven different island nations. Managed by the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development, the fund represents one of the largest ever investments in clean energy in the Pacific region.

Despite multiple reports by the International Renewable Energy Agency highlighting the cost effectiveness of renewable energy for island nations, estimates from 2015 showed that the Pacific spent as much as 25 percent of their GDP on petroleum imports just to provide essential services. The UAE Pacific Partnership Fund has helped to bridge past challenges through the provision of financial and technological expertise.

This month marks the successful completion of the second cycle of projects by Masdar, the subsidiary company implementing the funds projects. Spread across the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Marshall Islands, Palau and the Solomon Islands, this second cycle of projects will help to produce a combined output of 3.1 megawatts of clean energy, and reducing the reliance on diesel fuel imports by 1.7 million litres per year.

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UAE Pacific Partnership funded wind farm on the Island of Upolu, Samoa (Photo source: Masdar/Masdar)

The UAE Pacific Partnerhsip Fund have incorporated varied innovative features into projects including space optimizing solar solutions in Tonga and Vanuatu. The Vailoa Aleipata wind farm in Samoa was designed to be lowered and locked in the case of a cyclonic event and provides 1,500 MWh of power per year, saving almost $500,000 in fuel import costs. Additionally, the projects include the transfer of technical skills for those involved, with the training of local operators and technical support of up to two years included as part of the grants.

Other non-energy based projects by the UAE include a recent proposal to develop artificial islands in the Kiribati using technology utilised in Dubai for the Palm Jumeirah. Such drastic measures were proposed as a hopeful technique to combat rising sea levels and shore up atoll islands that already face extreme erosion. As President Tong of Kiribati argues: “We are on the frontline of climate change, and need to be ready for all scenarios. The UAE has stepped forward quickly with world-class technical skill, and that is a critical and much-appreciated contribution to our ability to cope with change.”

Despite the financial and technological benefits of the projects, others have highlighted the political and diplomatic costs of such partnerships beyond the smokescreen of renewable energy assistance. 

According to the Abu Dhabi Communiqué, support for the fund had hinged on Pacific Island’s “appropriate consideration to the Arab Peace Initiative, recognizing that the views of the Arab States were crucial to a just, comprehensive and permanent peace in the Middle East.” This included the backing of Arab states towards recognition of Palestine, in addition to the UAE’s claim over the disputed Persian Gulf islands of the Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa with Iran.

At the time, the Marshall Islands foreign minister even complained that his country’s support of the United States’ position on Israel resulted in the loss of valuable development assisstance from the UAE.

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UAE Pacific Partnership funded 500 kW solar and water protection plant on the Tarawa atoll, Kiribati (Photo source: Masdar/The Gulf Times) 

The last decade has witnessed a shift in the priorities of Pacific Island States and their development needs. The increased effects of climate change have resulted in a rapid adoption of renewable energy as an important source of power in the Pacific region, both as a practical financial measures as well as a political display on the feasibility of national clean energy targets. Currently more then half the participating countries have set renewable energy targets of 100%. By funding such energy projects the United Arab Emirates has helped free up valuable capital in the region for investments in other much-needed infrastructure.

While the region’s future in renewable energy looks promising, one must remember that this does not come without a political cost.

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  1. Richard Arbon says:

    Interesting. I like the way you also thought about the political implications of this funding. I read an interesting article on the hydro electricity in Samoa as well.

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