This report examines water management policies and the political ramifications of water scarcity in Iran, Iraq, and the six states of the GCC: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar. It explores how Gulf regimes leverage water to make their citizens acquiesce to political disempowerment—the “social contract” that, in one way or another, defines the political systems throughout the region. The increasing scarcity of water in these countries will likely impact this relationship between governments and their citizens.
All eight countries analyzed in this study face the strong possibility of severe water shortage in the immediate future. Still, their water consumption per capita is significantly higher than the world average. All of the mentioned countries have naturally low water availability, a problem exacerbated by population growth, modernization, and questionable water management.
The countries’ water policies, which typically include generous subsidies for water use, have led to wasteful water consumption in all sectors of society. However, these subsidies form an integral part of these nations’ social contracts. In exchange for the provision of free or low-priced water, among other necessities, the citizens avoid challenging the ruling regimes.
Developments in recent years indicate that the cheap water policies that help sustain the social contract for GCC states must change. The region’s governments will find it difficult to continue to provide cheap water without raising taxes or prices. This has been amply illustrated by the history of recent attempts to introduce subsidy and water tariff reforms to reduce wasteful water consumption in the GCC countries. In Iran and Iraq, on the other hand, the governments have failed to meet their obligation to provide their citizens with water and face growing discontent and protests from their citizens.
An analysis of national case studies shows that all the GCC states have similar water availability trends, management, tariffs, and subsidies. Rising water consumption has led all GCC states to increasingly rely on desalination to meet their rapidly growing water needs. Though desalination is an important part of GCC states’ current and future water production, its adverse environmental impact, high energy intensity, and high production costs threaten the technology’s future viability. All the GCC countries have introduced, or attempted to introduce, some type of water subsidy or tariff reform, with differing responses from citizens. In cases where reforms have been introduced unexpectedly, discontent among that country’s citizens has often followed.
Even in states that have passed limited reforms, water prices remain very low, leading to continued wasteful consumption. Iran and Iraq show how inadequate water management leads to widespread water shortages and threatens to strain the social contract more than any reactions to water reform policies in the GCC states. When Iran and Iraq have failed to provide their citizens with water, widespread protests have often followed, leading to calls to overthrow or change the current regimes.
The analysis in this report suggests that the GCC states, Iran, and Iraq should swiftly implement suitable water management and policy reforms. Although countries have been hesitant to change course due to the strains it might cause to state-society relations, failure to do so will likely lead to even worse consequences. This report suggests five major recommendations for the GCC states, Iran and Iraq:
• Limit water usage in all parts of the economy,
• Make desalination more environmentally friendly and efficient while ensuring access to water through other sources.
• Monitor, regulate, and in many cases restrict the extraction and use of groundwater.
• Embrace and further develop wastewater treatment technologies.
• Upgrade existing water infrastructure to avoid leakage, seepage, and unfair access.