The first UAE minister to visit Israel got her start on climate change while scuba diving

Mariam AlMheiri, the Emirati minister of climate change and the environment, wants to spur faster innovation in sustainable technology — and sees Israel as a guide and partner

When Mariam bint Mohammed AlMheiri landed in Tel Aviv last year, she didn’t know what to expect. A serial startup founder and environmentalist, AlMheiri is used to experimenting and exploring. But as the first United Arab Emirates minister to visit Israel after the Abraham Accords normalized ties between the countries in 2020, she was taking a new — and particularly noticeable — leap of faith. 

“I remember at the hotel I was staying at, they put a label on the water bottle and the chocolate, saying, ‘Thank you to the first minister of the UAE,’ with my name on it,” recalled AlMheiri, the UAE’s minister of climate change and the environment. “When I was at restaurants or cafes, they wanted me to sign a book, because they said it’s the first time we have someone from the UAE and a minister.” People asked for selfies everywhere she went. 

“For us, the Abraham Accords is a historic moment for both countries,” AlMheiri told The Circuit in an interview earlier this month in Los Angeles, where she was speaking at the Milken Institute Global Conference about energy and food technology. 

AlMheiri’s approach to her posting has been characterized by a drive to innovate and an attention to detail that she has cultivated since before launching her first business, when she lived in Germany after college and engineered steel bearings for race cars. Last year, when she visited Israel, AlMheiri was serving as minister of state for food and water security. Now, after a promotion, she is responsible for helping the UAE reach ambitious clean energy and sustainability goals. For a major oil-producing nation in a region that is especially susceptible to the ravages of climate change, this is a task both improbable and of paramount importance. 

“Things have to move faster. Our government wants to be very agile, very focused on game-changing initiatives,” AlMheiri said. 

Asher Fredman, a founder member of the UAE-Israel Business Council, said the UAE is “investing in building the infrastructure to realize the vision of the UAE’s leadership of moving away from fossil fuels and reducing their emissions,” he said, and the Abraham Accords allow for collaboration on this goal. 

There is potential in “integrating Israeli startups, or Israeli research, into these major projects that the UAE is developing, both in the UAE and also in other countries around the world,” said Fredman, who also serves as Israel director for the Abraham Accords Peace Institute, an NGO founded by former President Donald Trump’s senior advisor Jared Kushner to advance the Accords. 

“Our government wants to be very agile, very focused on game-changing initiatives.”

Mariam AlMheiri, Emirati minister of climate change and the environment

During AlMheiri’s visit to Israel last July, she and Israel’s environmental protection minister, Tamar Zandberg, signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on preservation efforts and environmental protection. 

“Israel and the United Arab Emirates have common environmental challenges, and the right way to deal with them is regional cooperation in finding and implementing solutions,” Zandberg told The Circuit in a statement. The MOU represents “an extraordinary opportunity to advance the capabilities of both countries in the fields of the environment and the fight against the climate crisis.”

AlMheiri has spearheaded the development of the UAE’s “FoodTech Valley,” a play on Silicon Valley, that is meant to drive the discovery of the next big ideas in food technology. Aside from its geopolitical significance, her trip to Israel last year was also intended as a way to connect with Israeli entrepreneurs and urge them to take part in the FoodTech Challenge, a tech competition that will award up to $2 million to companies on the cutting edge of food and agriculture technology.

“Here you have two countries that really think of innovation and technology in the heart of everything they do,” AlMheiri said of Israel and the UAE. “We have similar challenges. And having our mindsets put together and using our strengths for mutual benefit, it’s just going to help for regional security, and for the people in our region as well.”

Convincing Israeli entrepreneurs to come to the UAE is easy, AlMheiri said, but getting Emirati businesses interested in Israel is more challenging. “I’ve seen more interest in Israel working in the UAE, but I think that’s because they are further down the line in their business mindset,” she noted. “The UAE is still coming along to this idea of being also a kind of ‘startup nation’ as well.” 

The Abraham Accords provided Israeli businesses with an unexpected and lucrative opportunity: access to one of the most dynamic business hubs in the world. And the new relationship gave the UAE a model of how to build a collaborative, interconnected tech ecosystem.

“The UAE being a new market for them is suddenly really attractive, because they want to be the first,” AlMheiri said of Israeli businesses. “You’re seeing that they’re jumping on that ship a lot faster than the UAE companies, because the UAE companies already have access to, let’s say, India or China.” What Emirati companies are looking for, she explained, is “technology partners more than looking at market access.” Israel has the tech know-how; the UAE has the market opportunities. It’s a pairing that makes sense, she said. 

AlMheiri easily alternates between savvy business language, scientific jargon and casual conversation. She was educated as a mechanical engineer, but it was a passion for scuba diving that led her, almost by accident, to work for the Emirati government. 

She took up deep-sea diving as a hobby while trying to find work in aeronautical engineering when she returned to the UAE, where she grew up, from Germany. 

“Going diving, it’s just a different world because you can’t talk to each other. And you’ve got the silence, but you’re just observing and enjoying,” she said. “I think that was when I first started to also see what we’re doing to the environment.”

She noticed fishing traps that had been left behind in the Persian Gulf waters off the country’s coast. Once the big nets get lost at sea, “​​a fish goes in, gets trapped inside, becomes bait and then attracts other fish to come in,” she explained. So all those fish get trapped, which is bad for marine life and for the ocean. She flagged the issue for the climate change ministry and ultimately got it to prohibit that type of fishing equipment in some areas. 

“I was observing a lot of things underwater, which kind of was an eye-opener for me,” AlMheiri recalled. “It started to get me thinking about things like aquaculture. Like, why are we not thinking of growing local fish in a more sustainable way?”

“Israel and the United Arab Emirates have common environmental challenges, and the right way to deal with them is regional cooperation in finding and implementing solutions.”

— Tamar Zandberg, Israeli environmental protection minister,

At a sustainability event, she approached the minister of environment and water to speak about marine research, and suggested she could help.

“The minister said, ‘Why don’t you come and join the ministry?’” said AlMheiri. So she did — first as an expert advising the minister, and then as the director of the Sheikh Khalifa Marine Research Centre, where she created a hatchery for the country to produce fish domestically and launched a marine innovation park in conjunction with an Australian university. She has since risen through the ranks to her current position overseeing the nation’s efforts to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change.

She argues that food safety and security are closely connected to questions around climate change. Making the UAE “food secure” is a priority, referring to “when a country ensures that the people in my country have access to safe, nutritious, affordable food at all times,” AlMheiri explained. 

She spearheaded a research project to understand the UAE’s “food basket,” meaning the two dozen food items that make up 80% of the country’s diet. “​​Then you look at those 24 items [and ask], what makes sense to grow in the UAE sustainably where innovation is available, and what makes more sense to store?” she asked. A lot of vegetables can be grown year-round in the UAE, despite its desert climate, due to innovations in agricultural technology. Other food will still be imported, but it must come from a variety of places, so a major natural disaster or other catastrophic event doesn’t cut the UAE off from its food sources.

The rest of the world has learned this lesson in the nearly three months since Russia invaded Ukraine, which is a major exporter of wheat. “We’re in a very good situation, because now that there’s nothing coming from Russia and Ukraine, we’re OK, because we’ve already built that kind of diversification,” said AlMheiri. Delegations from other countries in the region have been making pilgrimages to the UAE to learn what they need to do to catch up. 

Her position requires big-picture strategizing and an awareness that it takes many years of incremental steps to reach those long-term goals — a realization that any nation hoping to adapt to climate change will have to come to on their own. Take, for instance, the UAE’s goal to get to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, which it announced last fall

“We started from being just oil and gas. By 2050, we want to have 50% clean and renewable,” explained AlMheiri. “We’re working now on a detailed plan with interim targets of 2030, 2035, 2040, so that things become more real. Because 2050 sounds like a long way away, but there’s so many steps we need to do.” 

But any nation that hopes to limit the effects of climate change knows it cannot do so alone. “We need to put all hands on deck to solve the climate crisis,” said AlMheiri. 

“One of the projects that we’re really proud of now is the Project Prosperity,” a UAE-brokered deal that will see Israel and Jordan trade Israeli desalinated water for Jordanian solar energy, she explained. “It’s a beautiful idea because it’s about regional stability and energy security and water security.” U.S. climate envoy John Kerry traveled to Dubai in November to be present for the signing of a letter of intent from the three countries. 

“We want to be the mediator, to try and build those bridges,” said AlMheiri. She noted that the UAE will host the COP28 international climate conference next year. Could the country use its desire to lead on climate as a way to advance the Abraham Accords? 

“I don’t work so much in the ministry of foreign affairs,” she said, when asked whether climate change cooperation can bring other Emirati allies like Saudi Arabia into the Abraham Accords. “All I can say is that the climate agenda touches us. Each of us has a role to play.”

AlMheiri has not gone scuba diving in years. Who has the time, when the world is on fire?

“When you’re driven by passion, you sometimes feel guilty to take a few days off,” she said. “There’s so much to do and so little time.”

Subscribe now to
The Daily Circuit

The Daily Circuit newsletter (coming soon!) connects doers and dealmakers in the Middle East and those who care about the region from afar. Sign up today to be among the first in the know.