The Middle East in recent years has seen an unprecedented number of sand and dust storms (SDS) that have not only impacted human health but also undermined the economic prosperity and security of the region’s various countries. Almost every country across the region has been affected by SDS. Among the worst affected states were Iraq, Iran, and Kuwait, because the sand and dust blowing in from Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, is spread over a great distance by prevailing winds. Sandstorms are not a new phenomenon, but their frequency over the past months has caused alarm.
Climate change’s effect on the prevalence and severity of SDS has pushed Gulf states to prioritize climate action and engage bilaterally and multilaterally with their neighbors to tackle these challenges. It appears that a growing awareness has gripped the region’s leaders—that tackling climate change-related challenges requires diplomatic effort. As rightly mentioned by Iraqi President Barham Salih, “we need common actions against climate change.” Without such endeavors, remedying the threat posed by SDS is nearly impossible.
Iran Sets the Diplomatic Tone
For Iran, dust storms that were once limited to its western areas have, over the past couple of years, spread to the country’s central and northern regions. Combined with alarming levels of air pollution, these storms have been disastrous for cities—disrupting daily life and sending hundreds of people to hospitals. The government’s response to these events, which the Iranian public largely regards as inadequate, has sparked widespread outrage and criticism. To halt these storms and address their effect on everyday life, different governments in Iran have resorted to local adaptation and mitigation measures to stabilize soil surfaces through mulching, shrub and tree plantation, and supplying water to wetlands, among others. Still, given the growing nature of the problem over the years, these measures have become inadequate and ineffective. SDS merely compound the difficulties facing the leadership in Tehran, which has struggled to deal with numerous social and economic challenges.
The causes of the dust storms appear to be manifold. The construction of dams, widespread drought, dwindling underground water levels, and government mismanagement of water resources have exacerbated climate change and contributed to the increase in SDS. In addition, U.S. sanctions have had an adverse impact on Iran’s environment. Restrictions on international economic activity with Iran have affected its access to technology, service, and know-how, forcing the government to considerably cut the budget annually allocated to combating SDS.
To address this recurring problem and ease some of the public pressure and criticism, the government has embarked on a regional diplomacy, and Iran’s foreign ministry and environment organization initiated contacts and a series of measures in coordination with neighboring countries, particularly Iraq and Syria which are the major source and hotspot for sand storms. As Jalil Badamfirooz, an associate professor at Iran’s Center for Environment and Research Studies told the author, “…dust storms in Iran, for the most part, have a cross-border origin, entering Iran from neighboring Arab countries. And unless our neighbors don’t pay sufficient attention to this destructive environmental phenomenon, Iran alone won’t be able to bear the brunt of these storms and achieve significant success in combating them.”
In July 2022 Tehran hosted a conference entitled “Environmental Cooperation for a Better Future” that brought together environment ministers from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, as well as representatives of the UN Environment Program, various NGOs, and academics. Participants discussed joint regional responses and ways to collectively help reduce the severity of SDS.
On the sidelines of the conference, Iraq, Syria, and Kuwait signed bilateral memoranda of understanding with Iran to enhance cooperation to combat dust storms. But perhaps the most significant of all was the United Arab Emirates’ willingness to work with Iran to fight worsening dust storms in the region. UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment Mariam Almheiri attended the ministerial meeting in Tehran and signed an MoU with the Iranian side to initiate bilateral collaboration and coordination mechanisms.
“Dust Diplomacy” and Signaling De-escalatory Intentions
The meeting in Tehran took place amid encouraging signs of a general diplomatic thaw in the Gulf. The diplomatic rift between certain GCC countries has appeared to heal. Likewise, Saudi Arabia and the UAE—along with other Arab states namely Egypt and Jordan—have entered into negotiations with Iran. Since 2019, the UAE and Iran have sought to “rebuild bridges,” find ways to manage the friction between the two countries, and work to exploit policy areas where there is common ground. Abu Dhabi has tried, with some success, to balance its relationship with its long-term partner the United States and develop new connections to Israel. Though Tel Aviv has long been an adversary of Iran, the UAE probably believes these efforts will lessen regional tension.
Although some pundits remain skeptical that the UAE-Iran MoU represents an additional sign of improved ties between the two countries, others have tried to remain optimistic. This was “a positive step” in the right direction, said Adnan Tabatabai, Co-founder and CEO of the Germany-based Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO). “I am absolutely convinced that there is this realization of urgent region-wide challenges. But after decades of exclusive zero-sum regional conduct, it will take the leadership in the Persian Gulf region some time to develop a mindset for joint endeavors… and I see trends moving in the right direction,” Tabatabai told the author.
Saudi Arabia was notably absent from the gathering of regional environmental ministers in Tehran. Nonetheless, Tehran and Riyadh have already discussed environmental coordination on various occasions, and the Iranian Vice-President told reporters in July that the Islamic Republic has discussed SDS with the Saudis through the assistance of third parties—most probably Iraq—that played host to direct talks between officials from the two states since March 2021.
Emergent signs of political détente between Iran and its Arab neighbors and renewed diplomatic efforts, namely “dust diplomacy,” has the potential to turn rivals into partners and address shared environmental concerns in the long term.
The Necessity of, and Obstacles to, Collective Action
Thus far, various negotiations and climate change conferences have taken place region-wide. Many of the Gulf states have initiated ambitious national plans and mega projects, and almost all have stood up their own environment research centers. Nonetheless, these heretofore parochial efforts have had mixed results and have failed to address the phenomenon of SDS region-wide.
For instance, resource-rich Arab states like Saudi Arabia have announced the investment of several billion dollars in the “Middle East Green Initiative,” which aims to plant 10 billion trees in the country and another 40 billion across the region. The UAE has also invested heavily in eco-friendly policies at home. It has also established a real-time dust storm forecasting system that extends beyond its own borders.
However, the challenge posed by SDS is such that individual efforts will likely prove futile. International coordination and a division of labor across regional states, as well as support for the region’s conflict-stricken countries that lack adequate resources like Iraq and Syria is necessary. Thus, scholars in all Gulf countries continue to call for collective action to tackle environmental challenges. “As an expert in sand and dust storms, I can say that this kind of phenomenon is a typical example of how one thing happening initially at one limited area can impact a much larger region and population,” says Dr. Diana Francis, the head of the Environmental and Geophysical Sciences Lab at Khalifa University in the UAE.
“Coordination at different levels and on different topics such as desertification, water resource management, preservation of marine life in the Gulf, reforestation (mangrove, Ghaf, and other types of trees adapted to the subtropical climate), urban planning and infrastructure to face rising sea levels and extreme weather events (flooding, heatwaves, etc.) is essential,” Francis reiterated.
However, such coordination and comprehensive action on regional environmental cooperation has so far been rare. The complexities of the region’s security environment, fed by continuing rivalry and mistrust, defeated past efforts. As Jalil Badamfirouz remarks, “in Iran, we have carried out comprehensive studies on SDS, their causes, their origin, hotspots as well as other relevant areas over the past decades. Also strategies and measures to combat the lingering situation have been prepared. No doubt, if countries including our Arab neighbors decide to follow programs in this respect, they are welcomed to use these studies and our experiences for free. In addition, Iranian experts in the fields of forestry, environment, and health could also share their knowledge and best practices with our neighbors. However, I have not seen any steps to be taken by our Arab neighboring countries towards exchanging knowledge and experiences.”
The renaissance of region-wide diplomatic efforts aimed at combatting SDS are likely to create and enhance the environment in which regional players can engage in constructive dialogue about their common interests. In fact, working jointly on climate change could be considered key trust-building exercises to prepare the region for collective action on a broader range of issues.
While it is too early to be optimistic, if the current window of opportunity is exploited appropriately, the Gulf states may build sufficient trust and generate the political will to combat SDS and climate change together. To this end, the region’s countries must pool their scientific research and employ effective mitigation and adaptation strategies—an objective that is impossible to realize without cooperation. Still, it is important to remember that the road to detente and collaboration is often laden with obstacles and pitfalls, and that the process of rapprochement could be easily derailed by a number of unrelated factors.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.