Samer Kamal’s driver drops him off at our meeting point — an empty parking lot next to a garbage dump, just off a desert highway — in a custom-painted Smart car.
At first glance, Kamal looks like most other expats who have flocked to the Persian Gulf seeking their fortune. He is overdressed in designer sunglasses and a Dolce & Gabbana belt, and sweating in the 40-degree midsummer heat. While other people have been lured to the United Arab Emirates by dreams of turning profits in investment banking or land deals, Kamal’s gold mine is altogether different. It is garbage: the massive, stinking, 40-square-kilometre Al Saj’ah landfill on the edge of Sharjah, a sleepy, conservative emirate adjacent to glitzy Dubai.
“This is where the war begins,” says Kamal, the 35-year-old Canadian who is managing director of Bee’ah, a maverick environmental company that recently took control of the Middle East’s largest landfill and recycling facility.
Kamal’s dream is to introduce universal recycling of household waste to Sharjah, and eventually across the Middle East. It’s a daunting task for someone with no prior experience in waste management, and especially difficult in a region where the typical solution for dealing with garbage is to bury it in the desert. Still, in 2007, Kamal set up Bee’ah (the name means “environment” in Arabic) in partnership with the municipality of Sharjah, which made a $41-million capital investment in the company and retains a 50-per-cent stake, with the remainder owned by two private companies — one in Britain and one in Sharjah.
Bee’ah faces some staggering challenges: a culture that is not only notorious for its consumption but also suffers from a dearth of local waste-management experts, to say nothing of the extreme heat that hinders decomposition. It didn’t help that the company started operating in 2008 when, as Kamal says, the “bottom fell out of the post-consumer commodity market. But it is on the rise again and, in the coming months, we think it might go right back to where it was in 2006.”
While the UAE’s stunning growth has included such headline-grabbing developments as man-made islands, sky-busting towers, and miniature “cities” devoted to culture, the Internet and the media, the country also harbours a dirty secret: It is home to one of the highest per-capita carbon footprints in the world. According to a figure referenced by Kamal, if the rest of the world consumed resources at the same rate as the UAE, we would need 13.8 Earths to sustain us. It’s a depressing figure, but one that represents a huge opportunity for Kamal. “It sounds cliché, but one man’s trash really is another man’s treasure.”
Kamal’s eureka moment came in 2006, while he was visiting his mother in Sharjah. They were cooking dinner together and, when they were cleaning up, Kamal noticed that all of the garbage — food, cans, plastics and bottles — was tossed into the same trash bin. Having grown accustomed to recycling in Canada, he felt a wave of guilt. He also saw a golden opportunity, and began investigating recycling as a way of solving the emirate’s excess waste problems.
By coincidence, Sharjah’s rulers were just then looking at overhauling the emirate’s garbage policies. As Kamal tells it, the Emir, His Highness Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, “looked at the circumstances in Sharjah and said they must change. We must do something more than we’re doing now. … There was this point where the ruling family recognized that there’s a gap between what they were trying to accomplish as a family-friendly, cultural, educationally driven emirate and its environmental conditions.”
Before getting together with Sharjah’s ruling family (the meeting was arranged by Kamal’s mother), Kamal delivered a written summary of the benefits of recycling. That led to a phone conversation with Sharjah’s ruler, followed by meetings with government officials. Eventually, Kamal was invited to meet with the emir, who approved the project. In 2007, Bee’ah was incorporated, with Kamal as managing director. He does not own any shares, but he does sit on the board.