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Leading the Charge: The Vital Role of the Private Sector in Achieving Net Zero and ESG Objectives in the Middle East

It is now five months until COP28 is hosted in the UAE. As a global community we want the public and private sector to be focused on The Paris Agreement’s central aim of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change. The common goal is to keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees celsius. 

In the Middle East region, there are strong, positive indicators that we are moving in the right direction on the journey towards net zero owing to the ambitious plans and vision of governments.

Recently however, the World Meteorological Organization issued a warning that there is now a 66% chance we will surpass the 1.5°C global warming threshold by 2027. This announcement is one of many highlighting the urgent need for progress, if not at least roadmaps and commitments for sustainable practices towards net zero emissions. Here in the Middle East region, there are strong, positive indicators that we are moving in the right direction on the journey towards net zero owing to the ambitious plans and vision of governments, coupled with the strength, expertise and best practice of the private sector.

The unique environmental challenges of the Middle East

Recognising the unique environmental challenges in the Middle East, such as water scarcity, land degradation and the environmental impacts of a growing population, governments in the region are already focusing on a sustainable future.  In the UAE, the Dubai Clean Energy Strategy 2050 aims to generate 75% of energy from clean sources, with the National Climate Change Plan looking to manage carbon emissions whilst sustaining economic growth. Water conservation is also a priority factored into government plans, the Water Security Strategy 2036 seeks to ensure continued and sustainable access to water and there is a drive to reduce potable (safe for humans to drink) water consumption by 20% and increase the reuse of treated water to 95%.

In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Vision 2030 has sustainability at its heart - from policy development through to infrastructure, it aims to diversify energy sources and reduce reliance on fossil fuels - with the goal of achieving net zero by 2060. While the Saudi Green Initiative and the Green Middle East Initiative both promote renewable energy and tree planting.

Both countries also invest in renewable energy infrastructure, such as solar and wind power plants and prioritising sustainable urban developments with projects like Masdar City and NEOM.

We can’t talk about challenges without mentioning the unique opportunities of the Middle East – many of the projects here are unprecedented, and impressive in scale. Developing cities and destinations from scratch gives public and private sector the opportunity to work together to imbed sustainable practices from the outset, using the latest in technology to plan, implement, measure and tweak as time goes on. Advisory as a service is an area where we have seen rising demand in recent years and Serco is proud to work with a number of giga cities and Royal Commissions including the Royal Commission of Al-‘Ula and The Red Sea.

Collaboration for Impact

A holistic and collaborative approach is needed from all stakeholders. Embracing sustainability is not just a moral imperative but essential for protecting livelihoods, biodiversity and ensuring long-term regional growth and prosperity.  Achieving our mutual environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals is an ambitious task. Whilst these goals are a key element of regional governments’ national visions, it is the private sector organisations, as key drivers of economic growth and innovation, that have a pivotal role to play in supporting governments in driving meaningful change and accelerating progress towards a more sustainable future for the region.

Governments might provide the necessary policy frameworks, regulatory incentives and investment support, but the private sector's expertise, resources, innovation and international experience are crucial. Collaboration between the public and private sector offers the best possible chance of addressing our complex climate and environmental challenges and increasing the chances of achieving our ESG goals and indeed those of The Paris Agreement.  

Partnerships with Purpose

Here at Serco, we are one of very few service providers internationally and regionally who offer a strategic advisory service and the technology, logistics and operations to fully deliver the end-to-end service that can enable our clients, including governments and large organisations, to meet their ESG commitments. As a government impact partner, we are committed throughout our business to building a better future for all, both through how we conduct our own business and how we advise and support our many clients across the region.

To achieve this, we established our Advisory with Purpose division earlier this year that covers the full breadth of our services – from customer experience, fire and rescue services, our space division and more, focusing on partnerships where we can make a long lasting and meaningful impact to citizens and their surrounding communities. In taking an Advisory with Purpose position in all we do, we ensure that sustainable practises, net zero targets and wider social and governance goals (to complement the full ESG ambitions and requirements of many organisations) are the north star in our recommendations. Our overall aim is always to deliver solutions that are not only responsible and sustainable but meet the needs and values of the end users and ultimately making a positive and sustainable impact.

Empowering the workforce

To achieve net zero goals, we also need a skilled workforce equipped with the knowledge and expertise to implement and maintain sustainable practices. Nationalisation efforts therefore also have a role to play in ensuring ESG goals are met.  Through investing in relevant training programmes and initiatives the private sector plays a pivotal role in fostering a culture of sustainability among employees and stakeholders. Empowering the workforce with the skills needed for best practices allows for the creation of a resilient ecosystem capable of driving change from within. Whilst establishing knowledge sharing platforms allows for the exchange of ideas and best practices, facilitating the spread of sustainability expertise across various industries. This strategic approach, that requires both short-term actions and longer-term visions, ensures that nationals are at the forefront of sustainability efforts, leading the way towards a greener future for the country.

Here at Serco, we are proud that in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia 27% of our total headcount are Saudi nationals. Whilst across the UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia combined, 14% of our total year-to-date hires are national hires, which is the exact same percentage of national applicants we received in the same period. We are increasing this percentage year-on-year and continuously looking for ways to attract and retain more talented Emirati and Saudi citizens.

Another way that the private sector can contribute to sustainability is through technological innovation. Clean energy technologies are one obvious example but others, especially those relevant to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and their giga city projects, include innovations in waste management, managing light pollution to preserve and enhance natural light visibility, providing high speed internet access, water conservation and building sustainable infrastructures that conserve and maintain natural habitats through regeneration activities, while also sustainably growing for expanding populations.

One example of this is The Red Sea – a stunning destination that both developers and operators all want to ensure remains so, with its ecosystem protected for us all to enjoy. It will be a carbon-neutral destination covering more than 90 islands, of which only 22 will be developed. And to access these islands, the resorts will be reliant on multiple modes of green transport across land, marine and air.

We know guests will want a luxury experience but at the same time it needs to also be a net zero experience. Serco is working with Red Sea Group to ensure every element of the mobility services operations, maintenance, health and safety and guest experience - each one requiring many different considerations, is not only the highest levels of service, but that they also adhere to their rightfully high requirements of being fully sustainable. 

Through collaborative initiatives such as this, we can leverage differences in perspectives and expertise to develop innovative solutions. Serco’s expertise and international experience ensures we can embed the best practises from around the world here in the region to bring national visions to life. However, the advancements, innovation and technology being implemented in locations such as the Red Sea in Saudi, means we are confident it will only be a few short years until we are taking the practises of the GCC and using them to help other countries achieve their own net zero goals.

Today, the region stands at a crucial juncture, poised to pioneer innovative practices and set an inspiring example for the world. Governments and the private sector must work hand in hand to forge a sustainable path forward that makes the most efficient use of resources and works towards environmental harmony for future generations to enjoy.