To adapt to the post-October 7 environment, Qatar may need to abandon some long-standing policies and reemerge as a truly neutral broker and mediator.
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Over the past few years, climate activists have been making front-page news around the world. Whether Extinction Rebellion in the United Kingdom, Les Soulèvements de la Terre in France, or Fridays for Future globally, civil society activists – particularly youth – have grown tired of waiting for political leaders to tackle climate change. As a result, they have taken it upon themselves to pressure leaders to implement policies that aim at protecting future generations. Climate activists demand immediate policy changes on a variety of topics to address the climate crisis, from climate justice to plant-based food, from marine life protection to indigenous forest management, from sustainable agriculture to the end of fossil fuels. They organize conferences and climate marches, increasing the visibility and awareness of climate issues. They sometimes resort to high-impact actions to get the attention of the media and create public debates. Over the past decade, climate activism has become a crucial driver of climate action, both at the aggregate and individual levels.
With a majority of the Gulf population under the age of 35 and the region’s harsh climate getting harsher by the year – and as the cradle of cheap fossil fuel production – Gulf countries would seem to be an obvious target for climate-focused civil societies to demand an energy transition. However, climate activism and advocacy are constrained by formal and informal institutional structures. In the Western context, institutions have arguably both directly and indirectly eased the development of the climate movement. In the Gulf, climate-focused social movements are developing in a very different political landscape, where a top-down approach to policy changes is the standard.
Pre-2011, civil societies in the Gulf had not played a significant role in driving societal and policy changes, however the 2011 Arab Spring protests sparked dramatic changes across the Middle East and North Africa. Activists started voicing their demands for increased political inclusion, personal freedom, and government accountability and transparency, especially around public spending. The advent of social media and the birth of what came to be called “hashtag activism” reinforced these changes. In this new landscape, Gulf countries were still considered a different animal: rentier state theories posited that civil societies in oil-rich countries were weaker than their oil-poor Arab counterparts because oil revenue allowed governments to trade rents for political acquiescence, thus stiffening any attempt to push for political changes and blocking the development of any independent grassroots movement.
However, lumping together countries as diverse in their political systems as Oman, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia on the premise that their economies are similarly dependent on oil does not allow for a fine-grained understanding of climate advocacy and activism in the region. In fact, the nature and focus of environmental initiatives vary across Gulf countries. They are shaped by historical and economic factors, such as war, past policies or international sanctions, civil society’s relations with political authorities, and the extent to which the climate crisis is understood by the general population and prioritized by the leadership.
Like the rest of the Gulf countries, Iran’s weather and environment have been dreadfully affected by the climate crisis. A three-year drought has brought its underground water reserves to an all-time low, threatening agricultural production, while government repression is trying to shut down climate-related civil society. This was not always the case. In fact, Iran is an interesting example in the Gulf of long-standing pro-climate social movements. Its thriving environmental activist scene was a topic of research back in 2003. With the concept of environmental protection written in Article 50 of the Iranian Constitution, climate movements were born in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, a combination of “environmentalism ‘from below’” and government actions gave rise to the most developed environmental movement of the region. While the state cracked down on climate movements from time to time, it was only in 2018 that activists and conservationists witnessed systematic attacks on their environmental work. Today, many conservationists are being charged with espionage and jailed in Evin Prison, so climate activists, particularly youth, have been forced to pursue their work covertly.
While Iran’s grassroots climate movement was taking off in the 1990s and 2000s, Iraq’s environmental scene was nonexistent before 2003. Iraq’s climate crisis has been one of the most hard felt in the region. According to the United States Institute of Peace, the combination of rapidly rising temperatures — on average seven times faster than the rest of the world — and dwindling water reserves is shrinking the size of arable land by approximately 60 thousand acres per year. Those weather and geological conditions are worsened by the strategic decision by successive regimes to drain the southern marshes, upstream damming practices in neighboring countries, and the continuous political instability that makes designing a long-term strategy to address the climate crisis nearly impossible. Iraqi activists first started advocating for the environment around water issues. Today, environmental projects are mostly small-scale water and sanitation programs and lack the breadth needed to design and implement impactful pro-climate policies. In addition, Iraqi youth, the group most likely to care about the devastating effects of climate change in the upcoming decades, tend to focus their political demands on more transparent oil rent management, not a phasing out of fossil fuels.
The climate advocacy scene in the richer, less-populated Gulf countries looks quite different: Governments have taken full control over their country’s green agendas. Oman, for example, developed its first environmental policy as early as 1982 and established the Ministry of the Environment in 1984. All Gulf Cooperation Council states are publishing national studies, setting up large-scale programs for energy transition, land conservation, and even desert greening while investing in oil exploration and development. In this crowded panorama, is there room for grassroots initiatives or for nongovernmental organizations and nonprofit associations to influence climate policies?
Candidates in the latest national elections in Kuwait were called upon by activists to put environmental issues at the forefront of their political agenda. Even though Kuwait possesses a culture of civic participation, both by citizens and foreign workers, and has witnessed civic actions around climate-related issues, activists’ efforts remain isolated and lack the level of coordination required to help Kuwait achieve its 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
In Saudi Arabia, the Green Initiative, launched in 2021, relies exclusively on a top-down approach and lacks the space for civil society to engage or challenge the state around crucial topics, such as green energy transition, preservation, or adaption.
When Qatar hosted the Middle East’s first-ever U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP18, in 2012, the government created the Arab Youth Climate Movement Qatar and organized some youth protests. Still, today, online access to the composition of its executive board is password restricted.
The United Arab Emirates stands apart from its neighbors by the breadth and depth of the climate initiatives it is launching. However, they are still mainly state led. In the same fashion as Qatar did in 2012, the COP28 presidency kick-started several youth initiatives, such as the International Youth Climate Delegates, the UAE Youth Climate Delegates, and the UAE Youth Climate Champion. Interviews with six of those delegates from various fields and origins indicated that government-led initiatives are giving a specific, controlled framework within which climate-minded youth can act, speak, work, or conduct academic research. The official and ubiquitous use of the words “actionism” and “actionists” that were displayed all over the COP28 Green Zone, as opposed to “activism” and “activists,” suggested that climate change should not be a source of political contestation but rather an issue for which actionable, consensual, noncontroversial solutions can be found.
However, many analysts, advocating for a polycentric approach to the climate crisis, insist that bottom-up initiatives are crucial to address the multifaceted challenges brought about by climate change, from water and food security to biodiversity and health. It remains to be seen how much actionists, operating in specific, controlled frameworks, will be able to achieve in shaping GCC governments’ environmental and energy transition agendas. Analysts also make the point that the role of civil society in these Gulf countries on the front lines of climate change will be shaped by the degree to which they get more buy-in from the public for sustainability concerns. In the broader Gulf context, tracking the efforts and successes of civil society elements in underscoring the urgency of these issues will remain a key bellwether for progress.
is a visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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Through its careful examination of the forces shaping the evolution of Gulf societies and the new generation of emerging leaders, AGSIW facilitates a richer understanding of the role the countries in this key geostrategic region can be expected to play in the 21st century.Learn More