Journal Essay

Saudi Arabia: The Strategic Dimensions of Environmental Insecurity

James A. Russell

Summer 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 2

Dr. Russell is an associate professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. The author wishes to thank Robert Springborg for comments on an earlier draft. The views expressed here are his own.

Saudi Arabia sits in the middle of the world's climate furnace. There are fewer hotter, drier places on the planet, and it's only going to get worse as the world continues to dump carbon into the atmosphere. Since 1995, the world's atmosphere has seen carbon amounts increase from 360 parts per million (ppm) to an estimated record-crushing 400 in 2015.1 Some researchers predict an increase in temperature of around 3 degrees Celsius throughout the Middle East by 2050. According to climate-change researchers, the Arabian Peninsula eventually will become too hot for people to remain outdoors for more than six hours at one time. Writing in the journal Nature Climate Change, Jeremy Pal and Elfatih Elfatir categorically state, "by the end of the century certain population centres in the same region are likely to experience temperature levels that are intolerable to humans owing to the consequences of increasing concentrations of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs)."2 Quite simply, these temperatures will overwhelm the human body's capacity to cool itself through ventilation and sweating.3

Other indicators have emerged pointing to inexorable climate-change trends in Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East. The summer of 2015 saw a "heat dome" settle over the region, sending temperatures skyward — a harbinger of what is to come.4 As noted by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, a heat index of 163 degrees Fahrenheit was reported in the Iranian city of Bandhar Mahshar on July 31, 2015, described by a weatherman at the time as "one of the most extreme readings ever in the world."5 Meanwhile, in the midst of their war with the Islamic State, Iraqi citizens in Baghdad rose up in spontaneous protest at the inability of the government to deliver enough electricity to keep the city's air conditioners running. As noted in a poignant report describing everyday life in Baghdad during the summer of 2015, "The lucky ones drive around in their cars with the air conditioning on, visit shopping malls, or wait for the air coolers to switch on and huddle around them in a single room. Those without that wherewithal find cool where they can, sometimes swimming in dirty, sewage-tainted pools and canals."6

Israel in September 2015 experienced its worst sandstorm since record keeping began, a storm almost certainly made worse by abandoned farmland in drought-stricken and war-torn Syria.7 During the storm, air pollution in Jerusalem reached 173 times the national average, and power usage broke all national records.8 The same storm produced high winds and torrential rains in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and undoubtedly played a role in the collapse of a crane that killed 107 and injured 238.9 Elsewhere in the Gulf, Iran remained in the grip of a seven-year drought as reservoir levels throughout the country sank to new lows.10

These extreme cases will become future norms, regardless of the December 2015 Paris Agreement. The tidal wave of looming environmental stresses adds yet another systemic factor to a region already torn asunder by civil wars, failed states, regional balance-of-power conflicts, militant Islamic extremism, massive refugee populations, foreign military interventions, and oppressive governments seeking to rein in their citizens' demands for change. The world is seeing only the opening phase of a multidimensional crisis that promises to get progressively worse. While changes in the weather and further deterioration of the environment may not appear as serious as civil wars and terrorist bombings, the long-term impact of these changes may be just as serious. As noted by Haaretz contributor David Rosenberg, "It's easy to imagine the sudden emergence of a Mad Max world where environmental disaster has plunged humanity into war, famine and financial chaos. More likely, we'll experience climate change as a creeping process with heat waves and droughts that disrupt normal life for short periods, or whose economic and political impact is so gradual that it's difficult to make a direct connection to the weather."11 This perfect storm indeed will break over Saudi Arabia and the Middle East during the rest of the century — and we have almost certainly only witnessed the first cloudburst.

This essay is only available in the print edition of Middle East Policy.

Click below to subscribe to the online or print edition of Middle East Policy and gain access to all journal articles.

Subscribe Today