Building Qatar Green: An interview with Issa Al Mohannadi

by  — 10 October 2013

Issa Al Mohannadi, founder and chair of Qatar Green Building Council and chairman of Qatar Tourism Authority shares with The Edge his insights on the scope of green buildings and sustainability in Qatar.

Founder and chair of Qatar Green Building Council and chairman of Qatar Tourism Authority, Issa Al Mohannadi believes that social elements and human development also need to be taken into consideration for truly sustainable development in Qatar.

In the wake of increasing industrial development across the world, the preservation of natural habitats has emerged as a major concern of environmentalists. Of late, the construction industry has been a focus of criticism for the heavy toll it takes on natural resources. This global concern has simultaneously led to the rise of sustainability and green buildings in the real estate and construction industry. 

Ahead of the 2022 World Cup and the National Vision 2030, Qatar faces an added challenge. Amid the rapid growth in construction, the country needs to ensure sustainability for a wide range of projects being developed simultaneously. 

Simplifying the concept of sustainability founder and chair of Qatar Green Building Council (QGBC) , Issa Al Mohannadi, who is also chairman of Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA), tells The Edge, “The ground-breaking report, Our Common Future, published by the Brundtland Commission, defined the concept of sustainability as a ‘development that meets the needs of the present without comprising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

While many countries have adopted this definition, Mohannadi explains its specific significance for Qatar. In the process of modernising and expanding its economy, Qatar National Vision 2030 pays considerable attention to the “needs of this generation and the needs of future generations”. The core principle of sustainability, which is to save the environmental resources for future generations, hence, aligns with Qatar’s charter of progress, he explains.

“The challenge is changing the way the industry thinks. Going green may require developers to move outside their comfort zone.” 

In preparation for the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP 18) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), QGBC launched the Green Hotel Interest Group (GHIG) last year. GHIG is a joint initiative of QGBC with QTA, which brings together representatives and interested parties from the hotel, hospitality and tourism sectors to discuss and identify opportunities to improve the sustainable landscape in Qatar. Offering the rationale behind GHIG’s establishment, Mohannadi stresses the significance of the hotel industry’s role in leading the country towards sustainability. As an industry regulator, he explains, QTA urges the implementation of green technology into all developments and hotel operations. 

“Our overall tourism development strategy is not only aimed at lowering Qatar’s carbon footprint and its energy and water consumption, but also looks at protecting Qatar’s natural habitats, its wildlife and its marine reserves,” he says. In doing so, Mohannadi believes the country has an advantage, “As a destination, we have very few old hotels, and the very best cost-, energy- and water-saving technology can be implemented from the start.”

Formidable challenges

In a country such as Qatar where adding green credentials to real estate development is still an emerging concept, sustainability comes with a fair share of challenges. The country’s climate conditions make it prone to specific problems, says Mohannadi. Qatar’s high temperatures and water scarcity have been key environmental concerns for sustainability scientists here. Exacerbating the situation further is the inadequate number of qualified professionals and green services in the country. Because of Qatar’s self-sufficiency in oil and gas resources, which have led to low energy costs, a general concern for energy preservation has become a lower priority.

Qatar’s first passivhaus is a part of the Baytna project, which will analyse the performance of a green villa against a conventional villa.

This, however, is not the only attitude problem in the way of sustainability in Qatar. Developers, too, are resistant to encouraging green construction. “The fundamental challenge is changing the way the industry thinks about development. Going green may require developers to move outside their comfort zone, from traditional means and methods, and conventional cost considerations,” says Mohannadi, who believes the growth of sustainability in other parts of the world is supported by both an informed construction industry and government incentives. 

Qatar’s government has been keen to promote the concept and practice of green buildings through projects such as Global Sustainability Assessment System (GSAS) – a performance-based sustainability rating system in the MENA region, developed by Gulf Organisation for Research and Development (GORD) in collaboration with T C Chan Center at the University of Pennsylvania. However, “the construction industry culture still looks for the fastest and easiest ways”, says Mohannadi.

“Holding hotels accountable and creating incentives will help the sector become more sustainable.”

The resistance from these developers is also due to the lack of information about financial viability of sustainable buildings and developments. Analysis of the life cycle cost of a project is critical for an accurate assessment of any investment in green building. A green project may cost more initially, but its long-term impact is what makes it more cost-efficient and environmentally-friendly. Addressing this fact, Mohannadi thinks, is another challenge. That said, he also believes that “Qatar should be recognised for taking the decision to embrace green options despite these challenges.” 

With the phenomenon of green buildings and sustainability still new in the region, Qatar also faces a shortage of sustainability experts, with expatriates being hired to fill the gap. “As green development gains momentum in Qatar, so will the demand for industry experts who can steer the real estate industry into this new direction of sustainable design and construction,” says Mohannadi, adding, “these experts will need to provide insight into green building policies, standards, legislation, and programmes at various levels of the industry.”

Speaking particularly about the area of his professional expertise in the tourism industry, Mohannadi addresses some of these challenges facing the hospitality sector in Qatar, “Holding hotels accountable for their environmental performance, and creating market and incentive programmes for ‘going green’ are some of the initiatives that will help the sector become more sustainable.” 

“As green development gains momentum in Qatar, so will the demand for industry experts.”

The significance of sustainability for Qatar’s future generations, Mohannadi explains, should work as a primary motivator in expanding the scope of sustainability beyond a few sectors. “This should force us to think about sustainability in everything we do, especially when it comes to development. This includes the quality of air we breathe, the processing of solid waste, implementing a smart and efficient transportation system, and of course, green and intelligent buildings,” he says, further adding that “social elements and human development also need to be taken into consideration for truly sustainable development.”

Qatar’s progress

Rich in hydrocarbon resources, recent developments in the GCC countries reflect their primary concern to preserve their natural environment. All the GCC members have their own green building councils and foundations. For instance, the MUSTADAM Initiative in Kuwait launched by Kuwait Green Building Council involves government authorities, private sectors, academia, media and individuals collectively endorsing the green-related projects in the country. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Green Key Program is the counterpart of Qatar’s Green Hotel Interest Group (GHIG). However, the Green Key Program takes the lead for being the largest global eco-label related to accommodation.

Qatari students at LAS building in the Education City, which, according to green building experts, is one of the recent developments committed to sustainable design practices. (Image Corbis)

As a developing country, Mohannadi believes that Qatar has an edge to ensure sustainability from the design stage for major projects in the country. “As a developing country, we have an opportunity to outperform our developed economy peers by embracing sustainability as we grow,” he says. Behind the competitive role that Qatar is playing in the sustainability sector, Mohannadi credits the factors otherwise considered as a hindrance in the way of green construction, “The real estate industry in Qatar is a disparate sector that comprises developers and maintenance professionals as well as residential and commercial property managers and investors. This diversity of people and ideas in a select industry is bringing a new wave of competition, and resulting in a sector that is fast embracing sustainability as its guiding force.” As a result, he says, an increasing number of sophisticated buildings in Doha are meeting energy and water-efficiency regulations while integrating innovative technologies such as solar cells.

In the last few years, Qatar has welcomed sustainable developments such as Qatar Foundation’s Education City and Msherib Downtown Doha. The Marina District and Energy City at Lusail are current examples of developments committed to sustainable design practices in Qatar. 

Speaking about the regional progress and Qatar’s performance in sustainability sectors, Mohannadi says, “Many countries are tackling sustainability with innovative programmes and Qatar is certainly at the forefront of regional efforts. By continuing with aggressive policies, Qatar can maintain its position as an emerging leader in sustainability planning and can further serve as a world-class model.”

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