Gulf universities promote sustainability and gear up for COP28

Universities in the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – are promoting their sustainability successes at the COP28 meeting in Dubai. It is part of a wider bid to climb the global rankings.

The University of Sharjah, for example, is gearing up for COP28 with a plethora of policies to solidify its position as the top-ranked higher education institution for sustainability in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the venue for this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference, the world’s largest international gathering on climate issues.

The university attained the top position as part of an assessment carried out by UI GreenMetric World University Rankings, which cover more than 1,000 universities across the world.

The annual global ranking assesses and measures universities in terms of their green campus and sustainability activities. It employs a six-point approach, covering six areas: infrastructure, energy and climate change, transportation, waste, water and education. Globally, the metric puts the University of Sharjah in 81st place among the world’s top 100 in its global sustainable development ranking.

The university is also the first in the Arab world to earn the gold rank in the Sustainability, Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS), a global rating body aimed at measuring sustainability performance. The rank is granted by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education in the United States, and is based on a league table of 1,085 universities from 40 countries.

Universities Climate Network

In the lead-up to COP28, the University of Sharjah is building on its reputation to climb the ladder of international green rankings through measures that will help it act as a role model for the transformation of higher education sustainability geopolitics in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

The university is not the only higher education institution working hard to showcase its sustainability ‘success story’ during the COP28 meeting scheduled for 30 November to 12 December 2023. UAE’s Ministry of Education has launched the Universities Climate Network, which currently comprises 33 UAE-based universities and higher education institutions.

Through the Universities Climate Network, UAE’s higher education institutions are working together to spur young Emiratis and university students to engage with academia in the run-up to COP28.

Climate change, the hydrogen economy, urban modernity in the contemporary Gulf states and a focus on why COP28 matters are among the topics that will shape the UAE universities’ pursuit of green campuses in the run-up to COP28 and beyond.

Gulf university successes and the rankings

GCC universities vie for prestigious positions in the international university rankings, creating opportunities to ascend the ranking ladder. There is currently a shift in focus from teaching and learning to scientific research.

According to new strategies, tertiary level institutions in the Gulf will prioritise publishing in top-tier peer-reviewed journals in addition to activities, events and curricula designed to respond to the performance indicators of world rankings.

Strict adherence to principles such as those of the Universities Climate Network has helped them attain coveted places in global rankings.

There has been a steep rise in scientific output in the Arab world. Figures from the Scimago Journal Rankings, an indicator measuring and assessing articles published in scientific journals, shows a 120% hike in peer-reviewed science published by Arab universities in 2022 when compared with 2019.

The Scimago data reveal that Arab universities published 211,000 research papers in 2022 compared to nearly 96,000 papers in 2019.

Gulf countries have also become a magnet for major United States, Canadian and European universities looking to set up franchises in which all the study programmes are in English.

Some countries, like Qatar and the UAE, have built state-of-the-art hubs specifically to attract foreign universities. In Qatar’s Education City, where some of the most prestigious US universities are stationed, these institutions – despite charging exorbitant fees – are highly subsidised by the government.

Comparisons with peers in terms of ranking is discernible on university websites across the Gulf, and competition to move higher up global rankings is fierce, with different institutions adopting policies to improve their performance in the next cycles of global ranking assessments.

Sustainability circles

Meanwhile, the idea of establishing sustainability circles in which academics and students will work together is gaining traction in the Gulf, and particularly in the UAE – all with the aim of meeting sustainability ranking indicators.

The University of Sharjah, for instance, is forming 36 sustainability circles in which, besides academics and students, members of local communities are to be involved. They cover some of the major climate change issues facing the world, including mitigation, transparency, adaptation, just transition, technology transfer, indigenous rights and gender equality, and climate finance.

“In line with these major COP28 policies, the University of Sharjah aspires to lead the way in ecologically friendly policies and procedures, not just in the UAE, but across the entire Gulf,” said Professor Chaouki Ghenai, leader of energy and climate change in the University of Sharjah’s Sustainability Office. “The comprehensive commitment of the university to sustainability in all its forms is shown in the wide range of programmes, activities and projects now underway.”

The university’s Sustainability Office – one of the few such offices in universities in the GCC – aims “to become a regional and global benchmark for sustainability excellence in higher education”, according to the office’s director, Professor Imad Alsyouf.

The University of Sharjah’s chancellor, Professor Hamid Al-Naimiy, is keen to see it becoming a pioneer in sustainability within the region and beyond. He said the idea behind “sustainability circles is to become internationally recognised as a local and regional leader in sustainability excellence in higher education within the next five years”. He said the policies should see the university raise its position in the UI GreenMetric ranking.

Al-Naimiy said he hoped the university’s sustainability circles, which are to be kicked off with the opening of COP28, will promote and develop sustainability measures and activities in which students, faculty and the community come together to assist in sustainability areas like energy and climate change, water technology and management, awareness in the field of equality, the circular economy, sustainable education, sustainable studies, waste management, green pharmacies, smart campuses, green libraries and recycled arts activities.

The concept of sustainability circles is to engage volunteer members from the University of Sharjah and the local community to develop a culture of sustainability and incorporate sustainability into every aspect of campus life. According to the chancellor, the circles will meet regularly to identify, analyse and suggest solutions to climate issues and campus sustainability. Approved solutions will then be applied across the university campus.

Leon Barkho is professor of media and communication sciences at the University of Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates. Previously, he held positions at Reuters News Agency as bureau chief and the Associated Press as staff writer. He is the founding editor of the Journal of Applied Journalism and Media Studies. He is also the author of News from the BBC, CNN and Aljazeera (Hampton Press, 2010) and editor of From Theory to Practice: How to assess and apply impartiality in news and current affairs (Intellect, 2013) and Towards a Praxis-Based Media and Journalism Research (Intellect, 2017). His most recent book, A Critique of Arab Media Discourse (2020), was published in Arabic by Arab Scientific Publishers Inc.