COP28 has placed climate change and environmental challenges at the forefront of the minds of Gulf leaders. The region as a whole stands to gain from collaboration born at COP28 that may extend beyond pure environmentalism. Because of the unique circumstances surrounding the Gulf states, collaboration is not only desirable—it is vital. The Middle East is warming twice as fast as the global average, which will exacerbate existing environmental problems which the GCC states, Iran, and Iraq, have long been experiencing. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have emerged as the green leaders among the Gulf countries through significant economic diversification, green energy and environmental initiatives. However, instead of focusing on a region-wide collaborative approach to addressing the climate crisis, both focus on individual, even seemingly competitive, lines of effort.
Collaborative Green Leadership
While state-led efforts are certainly needed to combat climate change, the intrinsic transnational nature of climate and environmental challenges underscores the need for robust collaboration among all Gulf countries, including Iran and Iraq. Historically, fostering collaboration within the Gulf has been fraught with political complexities, but the shared adversity of climate change presents an opportunity—indeed, a requirement—for a strong regional approach to shared challenges.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have long positioned themselves as the green energy leaders in the Gulf, though they have more often worked parallel to one another than in conjunction. The economic competition between Saudi Arabia and the UAE extends into the realm of climate action and green energy. This competition manifests in a race to ascend global rankings in green energy and to attract foreign investments, as both countries strive to diversify their economies and establish themselves as leaders in sustainable development. Saudi Arabia, for example, has its sights firmly set on becoming a global hydrogen exporter. At the heart of this vision lies the ambitious NEOM megaproject, designed to house the world’s largest green hydrogen production facility. Complementing this vision, the kingdom also plans to inaugurate the Middle East’s most expansive solar plant in Al Shuaibah by 2025, aiming to derive half of its energy requirements via solar and wind energy by 2030. The UAE also places great emphasis on investments in solar, exemplified by the joint collaborative venture between the UAE state-owned renewable energy developer Masdar and Emirates Water and Electricity Company (EWEC) to build the Al-Dhafra solar power plant, which may be the largest of its kind in world. Furthermore, Abu Dhabi’s role as the host of COP28 summit symbolizes its intent to emerge as a green leader.
The competition between Saudi Arabia and the UAE for regional climate leadership could be counterproductive. Collaboration is essential to tackle climate change and its challenges and would provide an avenue for both countries to take a dual role in leading the Gulf towards more cohesive sustainable practices and lead the other GCC states in their respective efforts. In June this year, during a virtual ministerial meeting, the GCC states reaffirmed their full support for the UAE’s hosting of COP 28, highlighting the importance of the climate conference if the world seeks to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Regional support for COP28 should be leveraged to foster and improve collaboration amongst the Gulf instead of continuing to focus on national-level initiatives. This is especially the case for environmental and climate change challenges, cross border impacts, making unilateral actions by any single state inadequate to address them.
Broader Regional Environmental Collaboration
Both Iran and Iraq have also expressed support for the UAE hosting COP28. Iranian Department of Environment Chief Ali Salajeqeh stated that “we hope that holding this summit will have good results for the challenge of climate change” while Iraq have been preparing for its participation in collaboration with UNDP. The renewed dialogue between Iran, Iraq and the GCC states, and their support for COP28, presents an important opportunity. Environmental issues are often seen as less politically sensitive and should therefore be leveraged to create a platform for collaboration between the Gulf countries that could eventually extend beyond solely focusing on environmental collaboration.
Gulf countries, united by their struggle with water security, are likely to face intensifying challenges in the near future. A collaborative approach, starting with joint environmental research initiatives, could be an important move. By focusing on technologies like desalination, these countries can address the critical issue of water scarcity. Further, capacity building and educational programs aimed at raising awareness about the environmental impacts on the Gulf’s unique water bodies could be an effective cross-border research and education initiative.
Moreover, environmental challenges such as dust storms are increasingly affecting the Gulf region, leading to school closures in Iraq, flight delays in Kuwait, and health alerts in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran. Collaborative regional initiatives to combat these dust storms would not only address a shared concern but also foster cooperation in the face of a common challenge posed by external, less politically-sensitive forces. This approach could pave the way for more comprehensive and effective solutions to regional environmental issues.
The Gulf nations are all facing similar climate and environmental challenges. Efforts to combat climate change has thus far primarily been described as a competition between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. However, with COP28 concluded in the UAE, and with the support from the GCC states, the Gulf should seize the opportunity and embrace a collaborative regional approach to climate change. The GCC states have, to varying degrees, improved relations with Iran and Iraq in recent years, and the latter have expressed their willingness to address environmental issues. Thus, environmental diplomacy should serve as a uniting force, transcending traditional political divides. Acknowledging shared environmental challenges and initiating multilateral projects to address those issues will allow Gulf nations to foster trust, collaborate, and collectively address the challenges of climate change.
The GCC states are already initiating trade pledges and committing to economic collaboration with Iran and Iraq respectively. Environmental collaboration could be even “softer” as added in the end of the paragraph below – just to initiate and create a platform for collaboration.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.