Northern Oman has just been battered by Cyclone Shaheen, the first tropical cyclone to make it that far west into the Gulf. Around Basra in southern Iraq this summer, pressure on the grid owing to 50C heat led to constant blackouts, with residents driving around in their cars to stay cool.
Kuwait broke the record for the hottest day ever in 2016 at 53.6, and its 10-day rolling average this summer was equally sweltering. Flash floods occurred in Jeddah, and more recently Mecca, while across Saudi Arabia average temperatures have increased by 2%, and the maximum temperatures by 2.5%, all just since the 1980s. In Qatar, the country with the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world and the biggest producer of liquid gas, the outdoors is already being air conditioned.
In Tehran, air pollution kills 4,000 people each year, while in the south-west province of Khuzestan citizens blocked roads and burned tyres to protest against droughts caused by a combination of mismanagement, western sanctions and killer heat. In the United Arab Emirates it is estimated that the climate crisis costs GBP6bn a year in higher health costs. The salinity of the Gulf, caused by proliferating desalination plants, has increased by 20%, with all the likely impact on marine life and biodiversity.
And it is, of course, going to get much worse, as temperatures, humidity and waters rise. The Middle East is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world. By the end of the century, if the more dire predictions prove true, Mecca may not be habitable, making the summer Haj a pilgrimage of peril, even catastrophe. Large tracts of the Middle East will resemble the desert in Ethiopia’s Afar, a vast expanse with no permanent human settlement pressed against the Red Sea. The gleaming Gulf coastal cities by the end of the century could find themselves inundated as waters rise. It is not quite Apocalypse Now, but Apocalypse Foreseeably Soon.
Jim Krane, an energy research analyst at Rice University Baker Institute in Houston, said: “It is a really tough issue because the interests of the ruling elites run contrary to the interests of citizens. The ruling elites are all dependent on oil rents for the survival of their regimes. They need the oil business to stay alive for them to stay in power. Their system is based on continued oil rent, but ultimately, the citizens’ long-term interests are with a liveable climate”.
Zeina Khalil Hajj, a founder of Greenpeace in the Middle East, says that the region is under a double squeeze. “As demand for energy changes, a region that has been fundamentally reliant on fossil fuel, oil and carbon for its economic survival cannot continue with this dependence. There will be no market for their oil. But as its climate changes, it has an extra duty to shift for its own survival. Extreme weather is changing the lives of the people at a daily level. There is no choice, but to go green.”
The west’s insatiable demand for fossil fuel has allowed this region to build car-dependent cities, full of shiny air-conditioned skyscrapers and malls. Now it has to find a way to avoid its self-destruction; this has to be, in Thomas Friedman’s phrase, the Middle East’s Promethean moment.
In truth, the region has been told for at least a decade that it needs to make the transition out of oil. The precise point oil demand will peak has been contested, and depends on a myriad of assumptions about regulation, technology and consumer behaviour. But many people say demand will peak in about 2040, and then decline.
But the International Energy Association’s report Net Zero by 2050, by contrast, proposed oil demand fall from 88m barrels a day (mb/d) in 2020, to 72 mb/d in 2030 and to 24 mb/d in 2050, a fall of almost 75% between 2020 and 2050. It argued that the Gulf has all three elements needed to switch to renewables: capital, sun and large tracts of vacant land.
Until recently there were few signs that the petro-states, including Iran, felt the need to get out of fossil fuels at that kind of pace.
Asked to comment on the IEA report, including its call for a cessation of new oil investments, the Saudi energy minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, famously described it as a sequel to La La Land. “If I had to be concerned with IEA projections,” Abdulaziz said in Abu Dhabi during a public forum at the 24th World Energy Congress in 2019, “I probably [would] be [on] Prozac all the time.”
The Qatari energy minister, Saad al-Kaabi, said cutting off oil and gas production would cause damaging supply crunches, and laughed at “the euphoria around energy transition”. Opec’s own projections suggest oil demand will rise in absolute terms through to 2045, and oil’s share of world wide energy demand will fall only from 30% to 28%. Hardly a green revolution.
The Gulf States are still highly reliant on oil and gas exports, which remain more than 70% of total goods exports in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman, and on oil revenues, which exceed 70% of total government revenues in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain. In Vision 2030, published in 2016, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, promised to turn the country into a diversified industrial power house. The reality is very different. The World Bank shows Saudi Arabia is still 75% dependent on oil exports for its budget.
Aramco, the Saudi company with the largest carbon footprint in the world, is not trying to diversify at the rate of Shell or BP. Indeed, it has just announced an investment to increase crude capacity from 12m barrels a day to 13m barrels by 2027.
Hajj says it may require a rapid psychological shift away from consumerism. “The Gulf is not even close to that kind of conversation. If you see the lifestyle in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, it is based on endless consumption. My fear is that we are so far away from it both in terms of policy and willingness”.
Iran is now the seventh-largest carbon emitter per capita, the UAE the second largest and Saudi Arabia the 13th.
Of course, the Gulf rulers at events such as Cop26 can fend off some criticism by arguing that the Gulf region is not itself collectively one of the great emitters, either now or historically. The region is responsible for only 4.7 % of worldwide carbon emissions, dwarfed by the pollution from Europe, America and China. The oil that the Middle East exports is logged against the carbon emissions of the users, not the producers.
Yet the region’s leaders now appear to be responding to pressure to act not only from the west, but their own population. The goose has finally realised the golden egg – oil – is turning brown. Frank Wouters, director of the EU-GCC Clean Energy Network, says that although even a year ago preaching about the green deal was not exactly rewarding (“It felt a bit like going to the butcher shop and telling them you want to become a vegetarian”), attitudes are changing.
The Gulf’s self-proclaimed first mover, the UAE, was the first country in the region to ratify the Paris agreement and is now the least dependent on oil for government revenues. Last week it announced a “net zero initiative by 2050” to be begun with $163bn (GBP118bn) of investments and a new minister for climate change and the environment, Mariam Almheiri. The announcement came after the UAE ordered an 80-day brainstorming session in every government department from June. It was the first petro-state to embrace net zero in domestic consumption.
The plan is still in its infancy, and some of it is ill defined, but the direction is clear. It has promised to be 50% reliant on renewables and nuclear for its electricity by 2050. The Abu Dhabi national oil company has said it will source 100% of its grid power from nuclear and solar. Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum solar park is expected to be the largest lowest-cost single-site solar park in the world, with a planned production capacity of up to 5000MW. The price of solar coming out of the Middle East is also incredibly low.
Gulf states are deeply competitive, so a flurry of news is emerging. Qatar has appointed a climate minister; Bahrain is targeting net zero by 2050; Kuwait has a new emissions plan.
Saudi Arabia, which rarely likes to be outdone by the UAE, had already said it would increase its share of renewables in electricity generation from a trivial 0.3% to 50% by 2030, as well as plant 10bn trees in the coming decades. At the weekend the world’s largest oil producer staged an unprecedented Middle East Green Initiative Summit in Riyadh, an event that attracted broadly approving speeches from Prince Charles and John Kerry. It promised it would reach net zero carbon emissions within its borders by 2060, less ambitious than the request by Prince Charles to reach the target by 2050 with clear baselines. It also said it would reduce carbon emissions by 278m tonnes a year by 2030, more than double its previous target.
Senior Saudis say they have been maestros at summits, websites and visions, but true credibility stems from turning PR concepts such as a circular carbon economy into a reality. Many in the west are sceptical. Fossil fuels shipped abroad are not on the Saudi’s carbon ledger, owing to UN accounting rules, and the promised internal reduction in emissions is dependent on a heavy bet that unproven blue hydrogen and carbon capture technology will work. Greenpeace Middle East suggested the summit was a fraud to please the US, as the Saudis’ plan included increasing oil production. Others say at least Saudi has felt the need to join – rather than stall – the climate debate.
One reason the Gulf monarchies have been able to be so slow in weaning themselves off the commodity that made them rich is that the wealth has been used to numb public opinion. Citizens have been bought off through a mixture of no taxes, along with water, petrol and energy subsidies. The dynamic is different in Lebanon, Iraq and to a lesser extent Iran. But that is changing, and small green civil society groups are starting to emerge, such as Kesk, Nature Iraq and Greenpeace Middle East.
The issue, according to Israel’s leftist vegan environment minister Tamar Zandberg, could transform some of the frozen inter-state politics of the Middle East for the better. Zandberg, who is working to get her own government to adopt net zero, says countries in the region have been very good at looking at the past. Climate change makes it essential they instead talk about a shared future. “We share the same problems, the same sun, the same lack of water, and the same collapse of our ecosystem. We need to share the solutions.”
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