The Arab Gulf States: the development and environment nexus

Located on the west coast of the Arabian Gulf and sharing many socio-economic and cultural similarities, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, United Arab Emirates and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia established in 1981 a political and economic coalition called the Cooperation Council for the Arab Gulf States. Twenty years later, the AGS’ economy has become one of the fastest growing economies in the world mostly led and managed by governments. The AGS has witnessed unprecedented social and economic transformations manifested through the sole reliance on hydrocarbons to fuel their energy-intensive industries; a world-record population growth driven mainly by labour emigration- estimated at 42% of AGS population in 2010- and an unprecedented urbanization. Domestic demand for oil and gas has increased drastically to fuel the rapidly expanding infrastructure, transport, real estate and industrial development, transforming AGS from energy exporters to consumers. In fact, the demand for electricity has doubled over the last decade and is foreseen to keep growing with urbanization, given that the demand from the built urban environment currently accounts for more than 75% of total electricity demand in each state.

Their level of development has been reflected in the human development index (HDI) that suggests a correlation between the level of development and affluence, as well as the consumption and wasting patterns. In fact, four of the six AGS are exhibiting high HDI; two of them, namely Qatar and United Arab Emirates, ranked in the “very high” HDI category (HDR, 2012). HDI ranking resonates with the AGS progress in meeting the Millennium Development goals (MDGS), particularly on the first five goals. They are close to achieving gender parity in education, with almost close to universal enrolment; women’s political participation is increasing, but not fast enough, reaching an average of 18.6% (mainly driven by the increased women quota in the Saudi Shoura council in 2013). Besides, AGS have halved the maternal mortality ratio between 1990 and 2010 (reaching 15 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2010), and reduced the under-five mortality rate by 73% in the same period (from 29 to 8 deaths per 1,000 live births)

Yet from an environmental perspective, the picture is gloomy! The AGS development seems to be gained at a high cost producing unprecedented pressures on the regions’ natural resources and its management capabilities. Little attention has been paid to the environmental dimension of their development path. In fact, with less than 0.6% of the world’s population, the Arab Gulf States produce more than half of the global desalinated water; generate on average 1.5 kg per day per capita of solid waste (considered among the highest worldwide); and emit 19.9 tonnes of carbon per capita in 2010, the highest worldwide, accounting for around 2.4 % of global emissions. This is further reflected in the AGS ecological footprint, mostly associated with the consumption-based economy and lifestyles. Estimated at 5.7 global hectares per capita in 2008 (239 million gha in absolute terms), the AGS ecological footprint outpaced its bio-capacity by seven times- estimated at 0.8 gha per capita (33 million gha). Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have the second and third highest footprint per capita in the world, after Qatar (11.7 gha per capita). To put it in perspective, it is estimated that 6.6 planets would be required to satisfy the level of consumption and emissions of carbon dioxide if the world population lives like an average resident of Qatar.

Nevertheless and despite that most AG States have not yet adopted national sustainable development policies linking the environmental, social and economic priorities, the region has been investing recently on pioneering and internationally attractive environmental initiatives mostly in the energy sector, such as the solar energy powered cites. Besides, there has been some progress at the macro level illustrated in the trendy launches of various “green” based strategies and plans in the region. UAE has kicked off the implementation of its Green Growth Strategy 2014, Qatar initiated its national vision 2030 on advancing sustainable development, and the Saudi Arabia endorsed its sustainable environment and development strategy. In addition, the region has witnessed a significant improvement to strengthen the environmental and development data and statistical capabilities. This is illustrated in publishing the emissions registries in UAE and Qatar since 2007, the ecological footprint calculations and the environmental performance index replication in UAE – namely Abu Dhabi, among others. More interestingly, since the 2008 economic crisis, government officials in the region have overly used the term “sustainability” to qualify and market their projects and initiatives.

It is then legitimate to further explore the evolution of the sustainable development discourse in the AGS and unveil the political-environmental nexus with regard to the existing institutional frameworks for mainstreaming environment into decision-making.

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