The impacts of climate change are becoming starkly visible in the Gulf. Already one of the driest, hottest parts of the world, the region is heating up at a rate twice as fast as the global average. Accordingly, Gulf governments are beginning to realize that ad hoc or unilateral strategies are not sufficient to tackle these escalating, cross-border environmental crises. Rather, they need concerted and cooperative efforts. However, such a shift requires overcoming deep geopolitical divisions.
The climate challenges are acute. Several countries in the region have set alarming temperature records in recent years, and regularly top 50°C (122° Fahrenheit) in the summer months. The mercury hit 54°C in Kuwait and Iraq in 2016. Last August on Iran’s Gulf coast, the heat index, which combines humidity and air temperature to reflect perceived temperature, reached 70 °C.
Water scarcity is as acute as the temperatures. The Gulf states all rank among the world’s most likely to experience severe water crises in the coming decades. Qatar is the most water-stressed country in the world, and Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates all come in the top 10. This scarcity has compounded disruptions in agriculture and food security across the region.
Moreover, coastal populations, which account for as many as 90% of residents in some Gulf countries, are particularly vulnerable to climate hazards, especially as extreme weather events such as tropical cyclones become stronger and more frequent. Wildlife and natural habitats in the region also risk being wiped out due to improper exploitation and climate change.
These problems have significant human and financial costs, as heat waves and other extreme weather events compel emergency measures such as factory shutdowns and disruptions to essential services. The ramifications of climate change also risk exacerbating existing vulnerabilities and fanning the flames of conflicts over vital resources like water and food. This could result in further human security challenges and cross-border displacement.
While the need to cooperate is clear, governments in the Gulf have struggled to do so, hobbled by tensions among them as well as by competition between global powers. However, as they become aware of the growing risks and costs, the region is witnessing a gradual shift and a nascent willingness to forge regional cooperation.
The Gulf states have established, or are members of, several regional institutions and initiatives on climate change and the environment. But to date, the Regional Organization for the Protection of the Marine Environment (ROPME) is the only regional platform that includes all eight littoral states of the Gulf, including Iraq and Iran, which are not members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Various other GCC-led initiatives remain fragmented, and do not include other countries in the region – by design. The slow pace of regional integration and the lack of a focal point or working group has meant these initiatives remain peripheral and are used only on an ad hoc basis. There is an urgent need for an inclusive and cooperative approach towards mitigating shared challenges.
Today, however, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Over the past few years, diplomatic breakthroughs such as the resolution of the blockade on Qatar, which had divided the GCC, and the rapprochement with Iran by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE, signal a potential shift in the geopolitical landscape in ways that could facilitate more cooperation on climate change mitigation. Moreover, initiatives like the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership demonstrate the growing realization that collective action is imperative for climate resilience and continued prosperity.
Key players in the Gulf are also keen to test these new diplomatic openings to further their respective national interests. A flurry of recent agreements on environmental cooperation, such as bilateral deals between Iran and the UAE, Iran and Kuwait, and Kuwait and Iraq, all indicate that states realize that finding solutions to shared environmental challenges is integral to their national security. Moreover, the growing participation of key regional players in environmental meetings, such as the United Nations-backed conference on Combatting Sand and Dust Storms in Tehran in September, indicates that environmental issues are an entry point for closer cooperation, both bilaterally and multilaterally.
The relative alignment between the Gulf states on the war in Gaza and the increased pace and frequency of diplomatic engagements on bilateral and multilateral fronts also suggest that regional actors are not seeking to return to the tensions that divided the Gulf before 2021. New and recurring conflicts might affect the pace of cooperation and engagements, but not the importance of cooperation in the region, especially on shared environmental challenges.
Urgent Need for Cooperation
States must explore the critical environmental issues gripping their region and seek ways to cooperate on tackling them. There is a dire need for collective action and cooperation to tackle these shared challenges. Enhanced regional cooperation could tackle issues such as escalating temperatures, sand and dust storms, water scarcity, marine pollution, and overreliance on fossil fuels, to name a few.
Other steps could include boosting regional scientific cooperation to foster trust and political will, enhancing early warning systems to prevent catastrophic damage, integrating coastal zone management to protect the Gulf’s marine ecosystem, creating a regional resource pool to facilitate information sharing on sustainable practices for resource extraction, usage, and management, and establishing funding mechanism to support climate efforts locally and regionally. Existing platforms could be strengthened by broadening their mandates, while regional and GCC-led initiatives could be expanded to include Iran and Iraq.
Capacity-building, knowledge exchange, joint research, policy coordination, and raising public awareness are also paramount. So, too, is the importance of leveraging external cooperation, particularly with Europe, as well as learning from other regions and blocs, such as Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
By transcending historical tensions and fostering a united front against shared environmental challenges, the Gulf states have an opportunity to safeguard their future and set a global precedent for effective regional cooperation.
The authors are editors of a volume on “Pathways for Regional Environmental Cooperation in the Gulf”, providing a set of initiatory steps and policy recommendations for cooperation between the Gulf states in their shared fight against climate change.