How are Middle East countries coping with climate change?

Tobias Zumbraegel is an Islamic scholar, political scientist and a staff member of the Centre for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO). He recently published the study "The Looming Climate Peril, Sustainable Strategies and Environmental Activism in the Middle East and North Africa"
Tobias Zumbraegel is an Islamic scholar, political scientist and a staff member of the Centre for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO). He recently published the study "The Looming Climate Peril, Sustainable Strategies and Environmental Activism in the Middle East and North Africa"

Climate change, water scarcity and declining oil revenues: the Middle East and North Africa face huge environmental challenges. Political scientist Tobias Zumbraegel has published a study on how the region is dealing with these pressing issues. Interview by Christopher Resch

By Christopher Resch

Mr Zumbraegel, many experts believe that the Middle East and North Africa will be among the regions most affected by climate change. At the same time, according to your study, governments in the region are still failing to address the issue. Why is this?

Tobias Zumbraegel: There are many reasons. Countries such as Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen are engaged in military conflicts, some are embroiled in civil war. Soft policy simply has no priority here. Moreover, climate change touches on core political questions of power and legitimacy and reinforces the power structures of the autocratic status quo. In the Arab Gulf monarchies, for example, we can see how political and economic elites in particular are benefitting from large-scale environmental projects. On the whole, however, environmental awareness is generally pretty low at a political level and among the population. Message reinforcement in the form of information campaigns or education is practically non-existent.

According to your study, most of the positive examples come from North Africa. What is happening there?

Zumbraegel: In Morocco and Tunisia we have two countries that in recent years have driven forward a number of initiatives on environmental policy and sustainability. In Tunisia, environmental issues have also played a role in the fundamental political transformation since 2011. The government has been very keen to get activists on side because of their popular political influence.

And Morocco?

Zumbraegel: The example of Morocco is a good illustration of how to build a positive green reputation. As early as 2016, for example, the government decided to ban plastic bags. By hosting the UN Climate Change Conference in Marrakesh in the same year, King Mohammed VI sought to further cement his country's green image.

Green image in the Gulf

How do things look in the Gulf States?

Zumbraegel: Here, too, the rulers are trying to build a green image. Qatar, for example, had the idea long before Morocco to boost its international image by hosting the 2012 UN Climate Change Conference in Doha. It was a vital move: at the time the rich emirate had the worst environmental footprint per capita in the world. The hosting of the World Cup is also being used to promote its green image. 

For the Gulf States, however, the main issue is energy sustainability. It may sound paradoxical, but this global centre of energy production is precisely where an energy shortage could occur in the next few years. It is already becoming apparent during the hot summer months, when air conditioning systems are going full blast.

How come?

Zumbraegel: It is due to demographic change, but also to immense consumption and a blatant waste of resources and natural capital – just think of Dubai's indoor ski slopes. Many of these countries have begun importing gas from Qatar, for example, in order to secure national energy consumption. Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia are experimenting with nuclear energy, Dubai has built a coal-fired power station, even though coal is the only fossil fuel that does not occur there naturally. These examples alone demonstrate that it is less a question of authentic environmental policy and more one of energy security and the region's reputation as a global energy hub.

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Ethiopia (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/G.Forster)
Nil-Staudamm Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: Aktuell kocht der Konflikt um den Staudamm in Äthiopien hoch, sagt Tobias Zumbrägel, und der Streit zwischen Ägypten und Äthiopien um das Nilwasser könnte zu einer regionalen Krise heranwachsen. Zumbrägel glaubt, dass Umweltzerstörung und Klimawandel in Zukunft solche Konstellationen noch verstärken werden.

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Water scarcity feeds conflict

Other countries in the region are plagued by very elementary concerns.

Zumbraegel: In the Levant, the fertile Crescent and also in Egypt, water shortage is the main problem. The region is actually rich in water reserves, as a result there is a strong agricultural tradition. But due to factors such as global warming, rising sea levels, salinisation and soil pollution, the area is now also facing water security concerns.

Disputes over water have been a source of conflict in the past.

Zumbraegel: Indeed, the region boasts a number of ongoing conflicts over water resources. Tensions over the construction of the GERD dam in Ethiopia, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, are currently coming to a head and the conflict is boiling up in the media.

Back in the 1970s, Boutros Boutros Ghali, who would subsequentyl become UN Secretary-General, said that the next war in the Middle East would be ignited by water. Now the rhetorical sabre-rattling from Cairo and Addis Ababa is growing louder and the dispute could trigger a regional crisis. I believe that environmental destruction and climate change is only likely to intensify such situations in future.

Skyscrapers in Doha, Qatar (photo: Brigitte Osterath)
Die Skyline von Doha: Katar wollte bereits mit der Ausrichtung der UN-Klimakonferenz 2012 in Doha sein internationales Image aufpolieren. Was auch sehr notwendig war, denn damals hatte das reiche Emirat den höchsten ökologischen Fußabdruck pro Kopf weltweit. Auch heute noch ist es ein Symbol für immensen Konsum und krasse Verschwendung von Ressourcen und Naturkapital.

Let's switch from geopolitics to the social level: have there been any mass demonstrations relating to environmental issues?

Zumbraegel: In recent years, environmental considerations have played a subsidiary role in many protest movements. The primary focus has been on social injustice, the fight against autocratic leadership and corruption. But of course, there is also popular concern about environmental pollution and the exploitation and distribution of natural resources.

Like where?

Zumbraegel: In Morocco, for example, people have demonstrated for better access to water, in Lebanon against corrupt waste management, and in Tunisia against the effects of environmental pollution from industrial plants. There have also been protests that were directly triggered by the impact of climate change, but which public debate chose to interpret differently. Take the recent and repeated flooding in Jeddah on Saudi Arabia's west coast. Following particularly severe floods in 2009, Saudi Arabia saw significant protests on social media.

The public outcry was great owing to the number of casualties that resulted from ignorance of the dangers. Yet the flood was presented less in terms of climate change, however, and more as a reflection of administrative mismanagement and corruption. While the governor of Jeddah resigned, criticism of the Saudi royal house and its non-existent environmental policy remained very muted.

Situation for NGOs challenging

Why is there such little respect across the region for environmental organisations founded by citizens?

Zumbraegel: There are two aspects to this. Firstly, the state always regards such non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as a challenge, as competitors threatening the stability and legitimacy of the government. After all, people might ultimately get the impression that the state was not fulfilling its core tasks. Autocrats are extremely fearful of this triggering popular unrest. On the other hand, the general public doesn't tend to give such organisations an easy time either. People simply do not see any great need for non-governmental involvement. Both these factors mean that the legal and institutional hurdles for an NGO are very, very high.

Could you give me an example?

Zumbraegel: Many environmental NGOs have emerged in Iran over the past decade. From 2013 onwards, the Rouhani administration even supported them, because it was recognised that they could tackle local environmental problems far more effectively. But in recent years, repression has once again increased. At the beginning of this year, for example, several members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation were arrested for alleged espionage.

In your study you mention the idea that resource wealth exacerbates authoritarian practices. What do you mean by this?

Zumbraegel: It is often claimed that the proceeds from fossil fuel sales can be used to bestow generous welfare gifts on the population, such as free medical care. It is a common autocratic practice to say: as long as you do not have to pay taxes, you cannot claim representation. But welfare gifts can also be applied specifically to calm protests, as in the Gulf monarchies in 2011. The role of rentier state theory should not be overstated, however. After all, even the rich Gulf monarchies have begun introducing taxes – sales tax, for instance.

Masdar Institute in Masdar City (photo: Deutsche Welle)
Masdar City in Abu Dhabi sollte die erste Stadt der Welt sein, die ganz ohne Emissionen auskommt. Davon ist man mittlerweile abgerückt. Mittlerweile spricht man nur noch davon, anfallende Treibhausgase zu kompensieren, beziehungsweise sogar lediglich kohlenstoffarm zu wirtschaften. Trotzdem meint der Politikwissenschaftler Tobias Zumbrägel, hier werde schon etwas für die globale Reduzierung von Emissionen getan.

Does the threat of coronavirus make the move towards more sustainability a luxury? Or does the crisis offer a historic opportunity?

Zumbraegel: All around the world, people are trying to revive their reeling economies. As a result I fear they will slip back all the more comfortably into their old habits. Some countries in the region are experiencing a double whammy: they hadn't recovered from the last oil crisis in 2014 and now the next oil price slump is coming.

So it's unrealistic to hope that the crisis will force people to invest in green technologies?

Zumbraegel: There are certainly initiatives to move away from fossil energy production and become more energy efficient, but only at a national level. After all, the resource-rich countries in the region still want to extract, produce and, above all, sell oil, not least to maintain their economic and – by extension, therefore – their political stability. Despite green initiatives that sound promising on paper, people repeatedly ignore the fact that all these countries are still working very hard on their oil and gas infrastructure, even expanding it. The Saudis are determined that the last drop of oil should be extracted in their oilfields and not elsewhere.

So in the end it's all just greenwashing?

Zumbraegel: In some respects this accusation is quite true. Many governments are concerned with securing their nation's economic prosperity and the welfare state, not to mention cultivating a positive image, both at home and abroad. The top priority, however, is serving their clientelistic networks. Still, it is probably more accurate to speak of "greening" than "greenwashing". Abu Dhabi, for instance, promised to establish Masdar City, the first city to be completely emission-free. This ambitious plan has since been abandoned. Nowadays, people are merely talking about compensating for the greenhouse gases produced or even simply operating with low carbon emissions. Despite this, I do believe that something is being done here to reduce emissions globally. It is certainly much better than these countries disengaging from the issue altogether.

Christopher Resch

© 2020

Tobias Zumbraegel is an Islamic and political scientist and staff member of the Centre for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO). He recently published the study "The Looming Climate Peril, Sustainable Strategies and Environmental Activism in the Middle East and North Africa".