In a pivotal announcement at a recent G20 ministerial meeting, Sultan Al Jaber, UAE industry and advanced technology minister, the chair of the Emirates Development Bank, and soon-to-be president of the UN Climate Change Conference – COP28, revealed a bold strategy to confront the imminent threat of climate change.
As we approach COP28 in Dubai, following the recent COP27 held in Egypt, global apprehension regarding climate change – especially its implications on the Middle East – has escalated to unprecedented levels. Al Jaber stressed the criticality of a “mid-century” timeframe to methodically decrease our reliance on unfettered fossil fuels, wisely noting, “transition takes time.”
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is grappling with substantial difficulties due to climate change repercussions. This largely arid and semi-arid region is acutely susceptible to climate change, exacerbating existing governance, socio-economic inequality, and chronic instability issues.
Consequences such as water scarcity, food insecurity, rising temperatures, desertification, and population displacement will adversely impact rural communities, migrant populations, and informal labor forces. Both developing and unstable countries in the region are particularly at risk, given their heavy dependence on agriculture and the sizable vulnerable populations they support.
Nevertheless, these formidable challenges do not overshadow the potential opportunities for advancement and collaboration. Underlining the power of regional cooperation, especially in the context of COP28, and the potential collaborations with technologically advanced nations like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, significant economic gains can be derived from joint ventures in water management, agriculture, and renewable energy.
Escalating temperatures present a significant peril to the Middle East. Even if the global warming objective of capping temperature increase at 2 degrees Celsius is accomplished (a goal increasingly viewed as improbable), the MENA region is expected to endure far greater temperature spikes due to the feedback loop instigated by desert warming.
Rising temperatures surpass the limits of human adaptability
Consequently, this will result in a doubling of “extremely hot” days, with heatwaves anticipated to occur for 80 days annually by 2050, and 118 days annually by 2100. These projected temperatures will surpass the limits of human adaptability, resulting in extensive fatalities among sensitive populations.
Water scarcity, already a critical issue in the MENA region, is set to intensify under the weight of climate change. This region is home to 12 out of the 17 most water-stressed countries globally, underlining the severity of the shortages faced. Climate change compounds this issue, as rapid population growth and a heightened frequency of droughts put additional strain on already stretched water resources.
Agriculture, a sector heavily reliant on irrigation systems, is particularly vulnerable, leading to diminished crop yields and escalating food insecurity. The region’s reliance on precipitation for agricultural practices, a vital facet of the local economy, exposes it to the detrimental impacts of declining rainfall patterns. The increasing pressure on water resources, exacerbated by swift population growth, has driven aggressive usage of river and aquifer water, exceeding the natural replenishment capacity.
The agricultural sector, which consumes about 85% of the region’s freshwater resources, is further imperiled. With the uptick in the frequency and severity of droughts, coupled with increased evaporation rates, the region’s agricultural productivity suffers. This has far-reaching implications, ultimately affecting the food security of the area’s residents.
Sea-levels rising: A significant threat to MENA region
Sea-level rise emerges as another significant threat to the MENA region. With around 60 million individuals residing in coastal regions, this rise imperils coastal cities, leading to persistent flooding, saltwater intrusion into aquifers, and agricultural damage. Coastal wetlands, which act as natural defenses against storms and contribute to carbon sequestration, are also set to suffer detrimental effects.
Additionally, the escalation in desertification in the MENA region – exacerbated by soaring temperatures and depletion of water resources – presents further challenges. Increased aridity results in a decrease in arable land, thereby negatively impacting agriculture and food production. Moreover, the build-up of desert dust in the atmosphere leads to more potent and frequent sandstorms, bringing about health risks and environmental complications.
These emerging trends pose a significant risk to food security. Given that agriculture commands a substantial fraction of the region’s water resources, increasingly hotter and drier conditions will result in diminished crop yields, lowered productivity, and loss of grazing land for livestock. The decline in wheat production – a staple crop in the region – due to heatwaves and droughts, will necessitate increased food imports and escalate food prices, thereby aggravating inequality and food insecurity.
Countries in North Africa are particularly vulnerable to reductions in precipitation, as nearly 90% of their agriculture depends on rainfall rather than artificial irrigation. Rural communities, which rely on agriculture for income and sustenance, are expected to be profoundly impacted by these changes.
As droughts become more commonplace, water resources dwindle, and extreme heat conditions persist, rural inhabitants are likely to gravitate toward urban centers in search of improved living conditions. Residents of coastal regions involved in agriculture and tourism will also confront displacement due to the rising sea level. This surge in migration will intensify the pressure on urban infrastructures, exacerbating challenges related to sanitation, healthcare, and housing access.
Moreover, climate change could act as a catalyst for conflicts within and between countries. While debates persist regarding the direct causative link between climate change and armed conflicts, there exists evidence associating climate change with conflicts in the region.
Factors such as water scarcity and competition over resources can magnify existing tensions, rendering societies more susceptible to climate-related adversities. Disputes over water resources, such as those involving the Nile River and dams, could potentially act as catalysts for conflict.
DESPITE THE formidable challenges, the MENA region also holds potential for advancement and collaboration. Technologically advanced nations such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have the capacity to emerge as global frontrunners in devising climate solutions. Partnerships with international organizations, cities, and corporations could yield economic and diplomatic advantages. Regional cooperation in fields like water management, agriculture, and renewable energy can bolster stability and spawn new opportunities for business, academia, and humanitarian initiatives.
Regional cooperative efforts, albeit currently limited in scope and facing several substantial hurdles, are unfolding on both bilateral and multilateral levels. Efforts to sustain and broaden these initiatives are in progress. A new report published by the Middle East Institute, under the auspices of the Israel Climate Forum, underscores the significance of regional environmental cooperation in the Middle East and Mediterranean, and scrutinizes the extent of such collaboration between Israel and its neighboring countries.
Various Israeli ministries and governmental bodies, some experienced and some new to the field, have contributed to these endeavors in recent years. They recognize a wide array of opportunities for improved regional collaboration, as well as a diverse set of challenges that must be surmounted.
These issues are being investigated and addressed by the Israeli Climate Forum, established in 2021 by President Isaac Herzog as part of his vision for a “Renewable Middle East.”
The international community, too, has a vested interest in cultivating regional environmental cooperation between Israel and its neighbors, with a diplomatic focus on promoting Israel-Arab normalization and Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives. The US and Europe are ideally placed to promote these efforts by offering third-party support to countries willing to cooperate, highlighting the tangible benefits of environmental cooperation, incorporating the Palestinians in relevant regional initiatives, promoting multilateralism and inclusivity, and investing in civil society.
THE HORIZON for the Middle East, and indeed the world, appears daunting. The rate at which we are addressing climate change is far from satisfactory. It’s a race against the clock, and currently, it seems as though we’re lagging behind. Despite the potential for progress and cooperation, the stakes are alarmingly high.
The Middle East, home to a mere 6% of the global population, bore responsibility for nearly 9% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, largely attributable to its energy sector. The countries in this region will face escalating pressure to curtail their carbon footprint.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that significant parts of the region may descend into uninhabitability before the century’s end if global emissions do not decrease substantially.
Yet, within this somber outlook, an opportunity arises. Climate change, an adversary that respects no borders or human-made divisions, is a shared enemy. In its menacing universality, it presents a chance for the region to unite, to pool resources, knowledge, and efforts in a collective fight against a common threat.
Therefore, it is time to seize this moment, to join forces in confronting the climate challenge. In doing so, the collective response may not only curtail the climate crisis but also, perhaps, bring some semblance of resolution to this troubled neighborhood. The path ahead is undoubtedly steep and fraught with hurdles, but in unity and cooperation, there is hope – hope for a more sustainable, more stable, and more peaceful Middle East.
The writer is a distinguished executive business leader, specializing in AI and climate technology, a recognized domain expert in national security, climate change, and emerging technologies. He holds positions at Virginia Tech, the International Studies Association (ISA), and the Intelligence Methodology Research Center (IMRC). He is also author of The Future of National Intelligence: How Emerging Technologies Reshape Intelligence Communities.