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EVs can drive zero emissions. But what are the speedbumps in MENA?

On World EV Day, we ask key mobility players about the future of sustainable transportation in line with the region's net-zero ambitions

EVs can drive zero emissions. But what are the speedbumps in MENA?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Maryam, a senior partner at one of the top law firms in Dubai, has been contemplating replacing her fuel-guzzling SUV with an EV. Weeks of research and a few test drives later, she is still unsure and decides to wait a bit. 

If you live in the MENA region and haven’t considered buying an EV because an advertisement told you it’s the future of mobility—we don’t blame you. 

It’s no stretch to say that the region’s limited network of charging stations and range anxiety probably discourages many prospective buyers.

How about a waiver on road tolls as an incentive? Or no VAT for EV owners. Would you still pass the option? 

While EV adoption still has a long way to go in the region, Norway tested both options, following which it topped the charts of EV adoption globally. There are lessons to be learned from Norway, the third largest exporter of natural gas and one of the biggest oil-producing Western European nations. 

“In recent years, we have seen more and more cities in the MENA region looking for ways to make their transport networks safer and more environmentally friendly. This is mainly enabled through a suitable infrastructure and regulation,” says Amir Melad, the Managing Director of Tier, a leading micro-mobility company.

In retrospect, Norway’s EV incentives teach a few golden rules: first, for mass adoption, there must be enough perks for buying, owning, and using EVs. Secondly, measures need to scale in stages as the uptick in adoption increases. Lastly, EV-positive tax schemes are an effective tool to direct monetary grants relating to EV purchases. 

“There is still some work to be done to make EVs a more lucrative investment,” says Norhen Ali, Head of Communications for Uber MENA.

Switching to EV is a mindset, says Adam Ridgway, founder and CEO of One Moto, a sustainable vehicle company, “The challenge of mass adoption is a journey of education and demonstration.”

“The Middle East is ready for the electric future, I have absolutely no doubt. We’ve seen interest in EVs jump by nearly 70% this year alone,” says Luay Al Shurafa, President and Managing Director of GM Africa and the Middle East.

BETTER INFRASTRUCTURE AND REGULATIONS

While adoption in MENA still lags behind China, the EU, and the US, governmental targets for creating sustainable, knowledge-based economies can encourage the market to grow.  

For mass adoption and green mobility transformation, industry experts say there needs to be more infrastructure development. 

The right policies, legal framework, and initiatives on charging infrastructure will set the MENA region on the right path to mass-scale adoption.

“​​The key to driving EV adoption is a collaborative effort with all stakeholders, and we are seeing this take place across the Middle East through infrastructure and policy development,” Al Shurafa says. 

“In the UAE, GM has over 600 charging points, with an aggressive growth plan to be achieved by 2050. Infrastructure is critical, along with affordable EV entries, which is why we are launching the broadest EV portfolio in the region – an EV for every wallet,” he adds. 

“But the key to mass adoption is education and experience. People need to appreciate that EVs elevate motoring; they do not mean compromise with the range, performance and technology of GM’s EVs.” 

Sustainability considerations are also helping drive adoption. “Our region has one of the largest youth populations in the world and better looking after our planet ranks highly on many young people’s socio-economic agenda. Management consultants West Monroe found that millennials and younger generations are more environmentally aware than previous generations,” Al Shurafa adds.

“Drivers consistently tell us that having reliable, accessible charging stations is key when deciding if they should switch to electric. This would make the transition to EVs easier and more affordable, such as bringing down the costs of EVs with subsidies and strategic charging deployment across the city,” says Norhen. 

Even in the world of micro-mobility solutions, there need to be substantial efforts by the public and private sectors. 

“Many cities still lack the infrastructure for micro-mobility. We hope that soon, more and more cities in the MENA region will invest in dedicated lanes and space to promote alternative modes of transport and pave the way to a zero-emission future,” says Melad. 

Some cities in the region have already introduced regulations that include electric micro-mobility. He says, “We hope that all local authorities will put smart regulations that allow operators to expand business areas, expanding everyone’s access to sustainable, easily accessible and multimodal mobility solutions.” 

For a fundamental transformation in the number of electric cars, Norhen says the private sector should play a much more active role “not just in product innovation, but also think more carefully about partnerships that can help scale innovative solutions.”

The partnership of Uber with the Egyptian Ministry of the Public Business Sector has led to the EVs being trialed by drivers on the Uber platform. 

“Following this test, the government is looking for a local manufacturing partner to make EVs more widely accessible and affordable, and we aim to work with them to test the new EVs,” she adds.

Citing examples of how European cities like Paris, Barcelona, Vienna, and Brussels are making big strides by banning private transport from their city centers and redesigning urban space to create more people-centric cities as best practices to be followed, Melad hopes cities in the MENA region will follow their examples and “create a more sustainable environment, too.”

THE ROAD TO NET-ZERO MOBILITY 

According to a report, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and UAE will dominate the EV market development in the MENA region. With the latest developments, Egypt will most likely have the largest public charging stations, followed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Other MENA countries that show promising progress are Jordan, Oman, and Kuwait.

However, the road to net-zero for a region highly dependent on petroleum seems arduous. 

“Innovators must double down on new business models powered by a new energy rethinking of transport, tech, and urban mobility. But more importantly, businesses must integrate an innovation mindset,” says Norhen. 

“To reach our global goals to become a zero-emission platform by 2040, we have set a target of one in four trips requested via the Uber app to be emission-free by 2030 in the UAE, and similar goals in many other parts of the world,” she adds.

Electric micro-mobility has the power to transform cities, says Melad, as cities around the world look for ways to make their transport networks “safer and more environmentally friendly” as well as facilitate the movement of the first and last mile, increase accessibility and affordability to reduce their dependence on gas-powered cars.

According to Ridgway, many innovators in this sector are looking at the “cash opportunity” without addressing the trilogy of industry issues; environment, profitability, and safety/welfare. “Unless these are addressed directly, many of these companies will not see a profit and certainly not longevity as a ‘product offering’ which has been widely reported with the last-mile aggregators, 3PLs, micro-mobility companies laying off staff, pulling out of markets, and vastly depreciated share prices.”

FUTURE OF GREEN MOBILITY 

The mobility world is evolving. People are becoming more accepting of shared transportation and demanding alternative and sustainable mobility modes. “Electric micro-mobility has the power to transform cities, as cities worldwide look for ways to make their transport networks safer and more environmentally friendly,” Melad says.

“The governments of the region have a shared vision when it comes to sustainability and electrification, as seen by various net zero commitments showing that driving towards the future of mobility is a key priority for the Middle East,” says Al Shurafa. The UAE, for example, has set targets outlining that 10% of all newly purchased cars will be electric or hybrid by 2030, whilst Saudi’s Vision 2030 has stipulated that 30% of the cars on the road in Riyadh must be electric by the close of the decade which has led to an increase in the interest in and demand for electric vehicles in 2022 and beyond.

“As an EV mobility startup, we were positioned to commit to climate change and sustainability from our core foundations,” says Ridgway. 

He claims one Moto is developing an EV ecosystem, from the vehicles to leasing options, battery-as-a-service to fintech SaaS solutions. “One of the issues many innovators face is the education of customers and governments when it comes to an EV mobility transition,” he adds. 

Micro-mobility in the region can aid people’s movement and complement public transportation by encouraging people to use a mixture of on-demand mobility services rather than owning cars. 

“Through this combination, we can steer the mobility sector to a more sustainable future by providing integrated solutions for connected journeys, closing the gap between travel, and facilitating the first and last mile,” says Melad. 

In recent years, shared e-scooters, e-bikes, and other micro-mobility modes have won a place in urban transport and become an increasingly important part of local transit in the region. 

“Our e-scooter services were first launched in cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Riyadh, and due to increased demand, we have expanded into other cities across the Middle East,” Melad adds.

For a future with seamless mobility that is more efficient and convenient —a system that blurs the lines between public, private, and shared transport—Norhen says the key is replacing private cars with better access to shared, electric mobility built around public transport.

Uber’s partnership with Saudi Rail is an example of a hyperlocal solution bringing about seamless mobility. A dedicated pick-up and drop-off point at SAR stations has reduced long parking at train stations and allows parking spaces to be transformed into places for community use like schools or parks. 

The Uber Shuttle in Egypt is another great example. It allows people to reserve their seats on a bus through the Uber app, and because it’s a shared ride, the price is affordable for everyday use. It has also recently expanded to include a B2B service as another global-first from Egypt, offering companies tailored solutions to facilitate their employees’ daily commute. In effect, it addresses Cairo’s congestion challenge by reducing the number of cars on the streets.

“We need cities to set a vision for the tech and travel ecosystem. Envision each mode’s role, including public transit like metro, local buses, trams, private cars, and future modes such as driverless transit. Then, the private sector can step in to foster partnerships that make public transport more attractive and competitive, and private transport more connected and affordable,” Norhen says. 

“It is now the role of the public and private sector to work hand-in-hand to ensure infrastructure development, education, and adoption of electric vehicles,” adds Al Shurafa.

With the right regulations and incentives for people across the macro and micro EV sectors, the MENA region won’t be too far behind a Norwegian dream.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Clare McGrath Dawson is a Correspondent at Fast Company Middle East who writes on tech, design, and culture. More

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