“The most water-stressed region on Earth”. How the Arab League is pursuing a goal of environmental protection

    05 Oct 2021

    As the most prominent representative of the Arab world in the international community, can the Arab League yield major results for a region struggling with desertification, water scarcity, and other environmental issues?

    Let’s check the answer presented by Austin Bodett in the New Arab. The author is a writer specializing in the Arab world. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.


    ​As the primary representative of the Arab world in the international community, the Arab League enjoys a unique capacity to inform debates and set agendas throughout the region. Amid the geopolitical rivalries complicating diplomacy in the Middle East, the Arab League has struggled to speak with a unified voice at times. Nonetheless, the regional organisation’s 22 member states will likely agree on the importance of coming together to confront one challenge: climate change, whose associated environmental issues plague every corner of the Arab world.

     The Arab League has recognised the risks tied to global warming for some time. As early as 2007, a council of Arab environment ministers assembled at the Arab League’s headquarters in Cairo to declare “that dealing with the potential impacts of climate change requires international action and solidarity in the context of the goals of sustainable development, based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibility, that benefit all nations.”

    The regional organisation followed this lofty announcement with an even more ambitious series of resolutions and summits highlighting the importance of environmental protection.

    The first iteration of the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit, hosted by Kuwait in 2009, saw the passage of a resolution on climate change and the drafting of plans to fight water scarcity. The Arab Ministerial Water Council and the Arab Permanent Committee on Meteorology, both arms of the Arab League, issued another 14 resolutions between 2010 and 2017.

    The seriousness with which the Arab League has greeted environmental degradation reflects the severity of the threat to its member states. Of the 17 countries that the World Resources Institute, an independent research centre, described as facing “extremely high baseline water stress” in 2019, nine belong to the Arab League. That same year, the World Resources Institute called the Middle East and North Africa “the most water-stressed region on Earth.”

    Water scarcity represents just one threat to a region wrestling with a plethora of symptoms of climate change and environmental degradation, among them air pollution, biodiversity loss, desertification, soil erosion, and sea-level rise. Some analysts also view global warming as one of the catalysts for civil wars in Iraq, Sudan, and Syria, whose conflict continues to this day.

    Given the scale of this challenge, the Arab League has sought partnerships with international heavyweights in the battle against climate change, such as the World Bank. In 2012, the Arab League and the World Bank collaborated on “Adaptation to a Changing Climate in the Arab Countries“, a landmark book offering “information on climate change and its impact in the Arab Region” and “technical guidance on climate adaptation options for policymakers.”

    By far, the United Nations has become the Arab League’s most crucial, reliable ally in the fight against environmental degradation. The UN Environment Programme and the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia have launched a variety of projects in cooperation with the Arab League, including a “joint technical secretariat” incorporating all three international organisations. The UN also established the Arab Center for Climate Change Policies in response to the objectives articulated in the Arab League’s resolutions on the topic.

    Despite the ambition of the Arab League’s current efforts, its partners in the international community have shown an appetite for even greater engagement with the Arab world. In 2010 and 2011, the UN Development Programme invited Fatma El-Mallah, a top adviser on climate change to the Arab League at the time, to give presentations and speeches on environmental issues as part of the UN’s own project for the region, the Arab Climate Resilience Initiative.

    In addition to UN’s endeavours, the World Bank has expanded its programmes to combat environmental degradation in the Arab world. In 2016, the international financial institution announced that it would dedicate billions of dollars to the region to address water scarcity, curb emissions of greenhouse gases, and prepare Arab cities for climate change.

    With the UN and the World Bank making inroads in the Middle East, some observers have cast doubt on the Arab League’s performance. In a 2017 report, the Arab Forum for Environment and Development, a Lebanese think tank, praised the Arab League’s partnership with the UN for its “central role in addressing sustainable development issues in the region” but portrayed the regional organisation’s strategies to combat environmental degradation as “ineffective, as they have not significantly influenced national efforts to achieve sustainable development.”

    An article published last year by the Century Foundation, a liberal research institute, further faulted the Arab League for failing to implement its commitments to environmental protection.

    Like every other regional organization, the Arab League has little power beyond what its member states allow it. At the same time, however, the most influential countries in the Arab world – the energy superpowers of the Persian Gulf – have poured money into sustainable development in recent years, a signal that climate change has grown in importance for them. As Qatar and Saudi Arabia invest in renewable energy, they will find a partner in the Arab League.

    In the years and decades to come, the Arab world’s central governments will play the most significant role in slowing climate change. Even so, the Arab League’s reach from Morocco to Oman will lend greater legitimacy to any regional campaign for environmental protection. With climate change ravaging the Arab world, the Arab League has a unique capacity to turn the tide.

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