AMMAN, Jordan — Ali Malhas is something of a hybrid car evangelist. Now on his second Toyota Prius, he was one of the first people in Jordan to buy one after they went on sale here in 2004. Since then he estimates that he’s convinced about 10 to 15 people to buy one for themselves and he sometimes thinks of possible advertising slogans for the Prius just for fun.
When you drive a Prius, “You become a better person overall,” contends Malhas, a freelance computer engineer who surprisingly does not work for Toyota or any of its affiliates.
As countries throughout the Middle East look for ways reduce their carbon footprint, Arab consumers like Malhas will play a critical role. Top-down environmental reform in the Middle East has often proven slow and ineffective, whereas soft government encouragement often gives individuals the push required to move things along at the grassroots level.
In Jordan, the growing popularity of hybrid vehicles — which still represent only a small fraction of vehicles here — has been fueled largely by a government-sponsored tax exemption that prices the Prius the same as comparable conventional cars. Consumers can also buy used hybrid vehicles in Jordan’s free zone, where they do not pay taxes on any vehicles, conventional or hybrid, but cars from the free zone do not come with a manufacturers’ warrantee.
“If you start with small initiatives and then allow them to grow, I believe it’s a better approach than having a policy that’s top to bottom. You want to encourage people, not to impose it on them,” said Mishkat al-Moumin, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute who specializes in environmental issues in the Middle East.
Policies such as the hybrid tax exemption allow consumers to see the benefits of environmentally friendly choices first hand, Moumin said. This results in people who are far more convinced of the benefits of their choice than they would be if they’d been forced into the technology by the government.
“In this region and in particular in Jordan, we are reactive rather than proactive. So we depend a lot on hearsay and people’s advice,” Malhas said.
While environmentalism remains a relatively foreign concept to many Arabs, the need for action is becoming ever more pressing. In Jordan, the fourth most water poor country in the world per capita, climate change threatens to reduce the water level of aquifers even further and cut into agricultural output.
Fearing the effects of global warming, Jordan and other Arab countries have called on industrialized nations to cut their emissions by 40 percent within the next 10 years and 80 percent by 2050. They also asked for assistance preparing the Arab region to adapt for climate change.
Though the Middle East’s carbon footprint is relatively small compared to developed nations (in 2007 Jordan produced about 19 million metric tons of carbon while the state of Rhode Island produced about 11 million metric tons), they are taking steps to cut their carbon output.
By 2020, for example, Jordan has pledged to get 10 percent of its energy from renewable resources. “We will be effective partners in implementing the recommendations and agreements that have international consensus,” said Jordan’s King Abdullah in a speech delivered by Prince Hamzah at the climate change conference in Copenhagen.
“There is more public awareness about clean energy and green technology,” said Suhil Kiwan, director of the Energy Center at the Jordan University of Science and Technology. “Now people are starting to realize the importance of green technology.”
Among academics and industry leaders, Kiwan says that green technology is becoming a much bigger part of the public discourse. For example, this year there were at least six or seven conferences on clean technology, whereas a year ago there was only one or two.
When it comes to the decision to buy a hybrid though, despite the tax-exemption, at about $38,000 a new Prius is more than the majority of Jordanians can afford. Still, the Central Trade and Auto Company, a Toyota dealer in Amman, has a month-long waiting list to buy one of the five or six Prius they receive every month, said Dalia el-Far, marketing coordinator.
Despite the current demand, Far said that if the government were to remove the tax incentive, which would raise the price of the Prius to almost $50,000, many customers would likely look for something less expensive.
“It would go back to the previous target audience [before the tax exemption]. The technology savvy and the environmentally friendly people, basically affluent families,” Far said.
Presently, the tax exemption is open-ended and there has been no official discussion of when or if it will be removed.