30 jun 09 | The National

UAE to house Irena headquarters

by Christopher Stanton and Mahmoud Habboush

Abu Dhabi triumphed yesterday in its hard-fought bid to host the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena).

At a summit of the body's 136 members, Germany and Austria, the UAE's rivals to host the headquarters, agreed to withdraw their bids just moments before a vote was due to take place. Bonn and Vienna will instead each house a satellite center for the agency.

The headquarters, which will be housed in rent-free offices in Masdar City, on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, will make Irena the first international organization to be based in a developing country.

After the victory, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, pledged the Government's full support to the agency. "I would start by thanking Germany and Austria for their support for the UAE today, it certainly shows a lot of interest in our bid," he said. "Because of the very fair, frank competition, we had very strong bids from all three countries."

The Government had aggressively pursued its bid, believing success would raise the country's global profile. It has also said that the agency would help the development of Masdar, which is planned to be the world's first carbon-neutral city.

As delegates gathered yesterday for an afternoon vote in this Egyptian resort town, Irena officials announced that the three rivals had reached a compromise. Austria will host a liaison office to help Irena co-ordinate policy with other international organizations in Europe, while Germany will host an "innovation center" to help the body's work in developing countries. The German government pledged €4 million (Dh21m) to set up the center, and €2m-€3 million annually to cover its operating costs.

Roy Lee, a professor of environmental law at Yale University in the US, said the win represented an important moment. "That is a very big victory for the UAE and that's very important particularly for the developing countries," he said. "It's the first time I have observed that developing countries were able to defeat the Western European countries."

Michael Schrören, a spokesman for the German environment ministry, said his country had first proposed the compromise on Sunday night to avoid a contentious vote. "Irena doesn't need friction, it needs common sense and common efforts," he said. "We knew that the south/north split would be like a sword over everyone, which we wanted to avoid."

As the decision was announced, the 55 UAE delegates leapt to their feet with cheers and embraces. The win followed a long diplomatic campaign by senior ministers.

Sheikh Abdullah said that in the past two months he and other ministers had visited 90 countries to garner support. He said that as the vote approached, Austria and Germany had recognized that the UAE bid would have the support of between 92 and 101 member countries. "The UAE's hosting of Irena is an indicator and a clear evidence of [our] continuing investment in renewable energy," he said. He said that in the past two months he and other government ministers have visited 90 countries for the purpose of garnering support for the UAE's bid. "This will boost this network of countries to enhance our relationship with them in other levels."

Sultan al Jaber, the chief executive of Masdar, said: "This is a historic agreement, we're very proud." He said the decision was made in the few hours before the announcement was made. "There was pressure by all of the participant countries that there was no need for voting, because it is very clear the UAE deserves it. There was a consensus and agreement among them that the UAE is most qualified." The next step would be executing the project, he said.

The agency will be housed in temporary buildings in the capital for two and a half years until the Masdar City HQ is completed. Officials have said it will be the first "energy positive" office building, with rooftop solar panels that produce more electricity than it consumes. The new director general of Irena was expected to be named late last night.