A Guide to Navigating the Green Transition in the Middle East   

Written by

Emilie Prattico Senior Strategy Director | Simona Koch Senior Strategist |

Apr 09, 2024 · 11-minute read

In an era where business landscapes are rapidly evolving, the most forward-thinking companies understand the importance of moving in unison with their workforce. Amidst a pivotal shift towards sustainability in the Middle East, BCG BrightHouse continues to support BCG’s work in the region as it relates to growth, transformation, and pressing issues such as climate change.  

In a world increasingly focused on environmental protection, the Middle East is stepping up as a key player in the global push towards sustainability. The recent COP28 conference, notably the first climate summit hosted in the region, was a defining moment. The Middle East, traditionally known for its oil reserves, faced a transformative shift at the conference, marked by an acknowledgment in the final decision text of the need to transition away from fossil fuels. Further emphasizing this commitment, the President of the UAE has recently extended the Year of Sustainability into 2024, building on the success of last year’s initiative. This development signals a pivotal change for the region and suggests the opportunity to move away and diversify into other sectors such as tourism, as the Middle East navigates its new role in a rapidly evolving global sustainability narrative.

A demographic comprising individuals under the age of 30, constituting 55% of the population, is notably driving the ongoing conversation with their commitment to embracing a sustainable future. This generational shift towards sustainability is further enriched by the region’s unique workforce composition, which features a dynamic mix of local and expatriate employees. The significance of this energetic and forward-thinking mix of individuals extends beyond the current workforce and into the future, as their collectively growing concern for environmental issues is growing louder. In fact, over 22% of young adults in the Middle East are urging companies to take the lead in addressing climate change. This collective push underscores a broader transformation, compelling businesses to rethink their sustainability strategies and align more closely with the values and expectations of this influential group. 

The true capacity for a company to transform lies in synchronizing the evolution of its workforce’s mindset with its sustainability goal. This post aims to provide a comprehensive guide for companies in the Middle East for navigating this new territory: how to ensure that their workforce is not only equipped with the necessary sustainability skills, but also integrating existing expectations on climate action into the core of their organizational culture.  

Indeed, a profound transformation is underway. 64% of companies in the region have integrated Climate and Sustainability strategies into their business models. The percentage of companies without a C&S strategy has nearly halved, dropping from 16% to 7% within two years. And in another notable development over the last year, 27% of these companies have taken a leap by appointing a Chief Sustainability Officer.

This deeper, more structured approach to sustainable business is born out of both necessity and opportunity. The Middle East faces unique environmental challenges: scarce water resources, a pressing need to transition from fossil fuels, and extensive shorelines susceptible to the impacts of climate change. In fact, a recent report by the World Bank elucidates how the region is one of the most water-stressed areas in the world, with climate change expected to exacerbate water scarcity and reduce groundwater resources by 50% by 2050. The urgency cannot be overlooked, making cases in this region especially impactful and distinct, setting them apart from those in other parts of the world. 

Within this context, BCG’s Beyond Zero initiative in the Middle East takes on a critical role with a focus on innovation and leadership, guided by the vision that “unlocking the potential here is at the heart of advancing the world.” The initiative goes beyond a commitment to net zero and circularity goals; it’s a proactive engagement to harness the potential of low-carbon hydrogen and its derivatives. The economic potential of renewable energy in the region is substantial, with estimates suggesting that the Middle East’s vast solar and wind resources could contribute significantly to the global renewable energy supply. Hence, BCG’s efforts address the sustainable energy needs of industries that are hard to abate. For instance, BCG’s recent work with large-scale urban regeneration projects has shown that 48% of emissions in the region’s infrastructure can be addressed with established technologies and design principles at zero to no cost.

As BCG paves the way through initiatives like Beyond Zero, it also becomes clear that the path towards sustainability is a multifaceted journey that involves not only technological and strategic innovations, but also a deep engagement with human elements.  

At the heart of the Middle East’s sustainability transformation lies an opportunity to connect ambition and authenticity, driven by a diverse and dynamic workforce. On one side, governments and companies are already acknowledging the imperative to enhance their sustainability efforts. This acknowledgment is reflected in the burgeoning demand for sustainability experts across various sectors, with notable increases in sustainability-related jobs—specifically, a 26% rise in climate and environmental compliance professionals in the UAE over the past 12 months. These figures highlight a proactive response while also broadening avenues for professional growth in sustainability in the region. 

On the other side, amidst this progressive backdrop, the younger generation, representing 55% of the population, is stepping into roles within legacy companies, bringing fresh perspectives to traditional industries. Tasked with assuming roles once held by generations of families within their respective legacy companies—foundational to the region’s economy—this generation brings a palpable urgency for change. And their thinking is justified. 58% of the region’s young workforce are calling for the translation of bold pledges into concrete actions, and nearly a quarter of the demographic believes that it is the responsibility of businesses to lead the charge against climate change—not as a mere suggestion but as a critical mandate. These young adults are poised to influence and drive genuine climate policy changes, and they are eager to blend the wisdom of the past with innovative solutions for the future. But their ideas and ways of working are constrained by limited avenues to effectuate influence. With 57% of this community feeling that their voices on climate change are not being adequately heard or acted upon by business and government leaders, there is a significant opportunity to bridge the gap between the aspirations of emerging adults and the realities of corporate and governmental initiatives.12 

The challenge then becomes how organizations can bridge this gap, leveraging the openness and willingness of a workforce that is both capable and eager for authentic change. A survey of C-level executives in the Middle East highlights a significant barrier: 41% acknowledge the lack of internal skills and expertise in sustainability as a primary obstacle to progress. This insight reveals a crucial opportunity for embedding climate and sustainability (C&S) thinking deeply within the corporate culture, transcending traditional skill transfer to cultivate a genuine, intrinsic commitment to sustainability. 

In navigating the path towards sustainability, this pivotal question emerges: How can companies harness the vibrancy and diversity of their workforce to transform readiness and willingness into active and meaningful participation in sustainability initiatives? The answer lies in authentically engaging with the concerns and aspirations of employees, translating pledges into action, and fostering an organizational culture where sustainability is not just a strategy but a shared mission. 

The Middle East’s diverse cultural landscape makes it challenging to pinpoint a one-size-fits-all management style, as it significantly varies based on industry specifics, organizational culture, and national context. In this guide, we outline the foundational steps necessary to authentically embed practices into the core of organizational operations and mindset—and it starts by embarking on a 3-step journey inward.  

Understanding your “why” is the bedrock of any meaningful transformation, especially when navigating the shift towards sustainability. Embarking on this journey without genuine understanding and authenticity can lead organizations astray and quickly land them in the dangerous greenwashing zone. For leaders, it’s imperative to deeply comprehend why this move towards sustainability is not just important but essential, and to communicate this understanding in a manner that resonates with employees. This foundational “why” serves as the soul of the transformation, articulating the organization’s commitment to not just a greener future but a more responsible stewardship of our planet. 

Articulating this understanding into a rallying cry becomes a powerful tool for leaders to address these challenges head-on. Whether it’s a Purpose that speaks to the core values of sustainability or a Vision that inspires action, it’s crucial that this message is crafted to build bridges across the organization. It lays the foundational principles for behavior and strategy, acting as a unifying beacon that draws together the diverse strands of the organization towards a shared sustainability goal. 

Step 2: Getting the narrative right 

Once the “why” is firmly understood and articulated, the next critical step is getting the narrative right. The narrative communicates the rallying cry across the organization, ensuring it resonates with every employee across every age and cultural background. It connects the daily actions and decisions of the workforce with the organization’s broader sustainability goals. This story should elucidate the importance of each team member’s contribution to the sustainability journey, showing how intergenerational and intercultural collaboration strengthens the organization’s ability to meet its sustainability targets. 

Through a compelling narrative, leaders can inspire and motivate their teams, driving home the message that every individual plays a crucial role in achieving the sustainability vision. Thus, employees feel like they are being heard and recognized. This shared understanding and commitment are the catalysts that ultimately transform the aspiration of sustainability into concrete actions and measurable outcomes, paving the way for a truly sustainable transformation. 

Step 3: Cultivating conviction and motivating action 

Engagement strategies need to be finely tuned to the region’s diverse workforce, acknowledging the varying levels of motivation and conviction among employees. Younger employees may already be eager and ready to champion sustainability initiatives, drawing on their passion for environmental causes. In contrast, more seasoned employees might require additional motivation, needing to see the tangible benefits and alignment with personal and organizational values before fully committing. Similarly, the international contingent of the workforce might already carry strong convictions about sustainability from previous experiences, whereas local employees may require more context and encouragement to embrace these changes wholeheartedly. 

Targeted tools for a diverse workforce:  

  • Clear behavioral principles: Establish behavioral guidelines that are specifically designed to address the diverse motivations within the workforce. For younger or inherently motivated employees, consider offering opportunities in advanced sustainability ventures or leadership positions within green initiatives. Conversely, for individuals requiring additional encouragement, focus on straightforward, attainable sustainability tasks showcasing the immediate effects of their involvement, like decreasing water consumption or engaging in recycling initiatives. 
  • Engaging and participatory formats: Implement engagement strategies that cater to the different demographics of the workforce. Use digital platforms and social media to engage the tech-savvy and younger employees, while opting for workshops and in-person sessions to effectively involve older employees or those less acquainted with sustainability principles. Adapting the delivery method to suit the audience ensures inclusivity and empowers all employees to participate and contribute effectively. 
  • Balanced approach to action and discussion: Ensure there’s a healthy mix of actionable sustainability initiatives and open forums for discussion, with the rule of thumb being 70% action and 30% communication. This balance allows for the younger, action-oriented employees to see their ideas come to life quickly, while also providing a platform for more seasoned employees to voice concerns, ask questions, and get involved at their own pace. 
  • Visible, highly significant Bold Commitments: Demonstrate bold commitments to sustainability that resonate across the cultural and generational spectrum of the workforce. Initiatives like adopting renewable energy sources, making substantial investments in local environmental projects, or attaining recognized sustainability certifications can powerfully and visibly symbolize the company’s commitment to sustainability. These actions help bridge the gap between words and actions, reinforcing the authenticity of the company’s sustainability efforts. 
  • Upskilling, upskilling, upskilling: Make continuous learning about sustainability a corporate and cultural priority. Provide employees the platform and time to participate in C&S accelerator courses that will enable and empower their articulation on environmental challenges. Make room for employees to step forward with innovative thinking regarding sustainability initiatives as part of the upskilling program.  

As we explore the nuances of the Middle East’s green transformation, what’s at stake in this critical shift becomes increasingly apparent. The journey for this region cannot simply mirror global sustainability models; it demands a bold reimagining. Given the region’s historical reliance on oil, the numbers alone don’t fully capture the urgency and magnitude of this transformation.  

The Middle East’s unique environmental, cultural, and economic landscape calls for tailored strategies that go beyond standard approaches. And the workforce’s innate drive and energy present a significant opportunity; if properly engaged, this generation of workers could revolutionize how organizations accomplish their sustainability goals. 


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