Our 104th Capitol Hill Conference
Friday, April 23rd - 10am - noon ET
Following Earth Day 2021, this panel explored the energy transition, environmental and market dynamics associated with climate change in the Middle East and what these mean for U.S. foreign policy in the region.
Non-Resident Fellow, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Non-Resident Fellow, Arab Center Washington DC
Creator, Global Green Economy Index
Consultant, Middle East Policy Council
Senior Policy Advisor, Nelson Mullins
Former Congressman (VA-8)
Board Member, Middle East Policy Council
Chairman of the Board and President, Middle East Policy Council
Former Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman
Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
The Middle East Policy Council held its 104th Capitol Hill Conference virtually on Friday, April 23rd: “The Impact of Climate Change on the Middle East.” The panelists addressed the shape of the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy; the social and humanitarian impacts of environmental stress in the region; the market dynamics to anticipate around these issues; and how the U.S. Congress and American government can better support allies in the region with these multi-dimensional impacts from climate change in the 2020s.
Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Bassima Alghussein (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists were Aisha al-Sahiri (Non-Resident Fellow, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington); Yara Asi (Non-Resident Fellow, Arab Center Washington DC); Jeremy Tamanini (Consultant, Middle East Policy Council); and Jim Moran (Former Congressman D-VA-8 and Council Board Member).
Ms. Al-Sahiri framed her remarks around the extent to which the energy landscape has changed over the past six years in the Middle East. The main dynamics to this change have been the declining price of oil, the increase in demand for energy, and the stress this has placed on state budgets. Thus, independent of climate change related policy interventions, governments in the GCC have been forced to optimize these budgets through fiscal reforms linked to energy pricing, with Saudi Arabia raising its electricity tariffs and the UAE and Oman greatly reducing subsidies for fossil fuels. In parallel, Ms. Al-Sahiri emphasized the focus on energy efficiency programs and increased ambition around climate action, with Saudi Arabia raising its 2030 target for renewable energy production and the United Arab Emirates submitting a more aggressive nationally determined contribution (NDC) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). She also highlighted tangible progress made around developing green hydrogen in partnership with European countries like Germany.
Ms. Asi emphasized how the existing political and social fragility in the Middle East risks being amplified by the “force multiplier” of climate change. Rising temperatures, water scarcity and interruptions to electricity all risk contributing to instability in the region. Agriculture degradation and decreased yields from crops in the Middle East can often be exploited by extremist groups to gain support, according to Ms. Asi. Notably, she highlighted how “climate refugees” currently have no status under international law, amplifying the vulnerability of these growing segments of the population displaced by climate-induced conditions. Further, unlike refugees displaced by conflict, these climate refugees are unlikely to be able to return to their communities, adding additional pressure on the international community to craft an integrated response. Ms. Asi concluded with a note of optimism, encouraging policy makers from the region and beyond to coordinate policy interventions around water and food insecurity, helping to modernize farming practices in the Middle East through more efficient water use.
Mr. Tamanini discussed the market dynamics emerging from both the energy transition and these environmental issues in the Middle East. He stressed the importance of improving resource efficiency, particularly in the GCC where the GDP emissions intensities are some of the highest in the world. Recent efficiency improvements around water desalination and carbon capture and sequestration could help to improve efficiency, particularly in the GCC. Around the environment, he emphasized the importance of both innovation in green technologies and cross-border investment and cooperation. As one example, Israel’s leadership around innovation in water technology could be enhanced by financing from the UAE following the recent Abraham Accords, or exported to countries like Egypt dealing with growing water scarcity and stress on its agriculture sector. Given the history of policy inconsistency around climate change, Mr. Tamanini concluded by highlighting how commercial ties and market incentives can further climate action in ways that government action may not always be counted on to do.
Mr. Moran opened his remarks by highlighting how the combination of weak governance and the rising clout of youth populations makes the current configuration of the Middle East unsustainable. He stressed the same theme with regards to the approach of the U.S. Congress towards the region which emphasizes weapons sales that ferment armed conflict in the region, as opposed to strategically addressing critical issues like climate change. Above all else, Mr. Moran explained that the twin issues of water scarcity and food insecurity will need to be urgently addressed. The social and humanitarian impacts of these twin issues will only get more complicated, leading to increased refugee flows, as happened in Europe during the Syrian civil war. Mr. Moran advised the U.S. Congress to “get ahead of the problem” and foster better regional cooperation, expansion of relations between states around green innovation like battery storage for renewable energy and leading by example by seriously meeting many of the emission reduction targets being set at the Leaders Climate Summit in Washington in April 2021.
The discussion was enriched by participation from Ciarán Ó Cuinn, director of the Middle East Desalination Research Center (MEDRC) and an expert in water desalination technologies. He explained the primacy of public policy capacity in addressing many of the issues linked to climate change in the Middle East. In many countries in the MENA region, the civil service does not have the capacity to select and roll out new technologies matched to many of the climate-linked challenges in the region. With regards to the energy intensity and environmental impact of desalination technology, Mr. Ó Cuinn stressed the centrality of these systems to livelihoods in the region as research continues to evolve around how the efficiency of these processes can be improved over time.
The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. A full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at www.mepc.org and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email Press at mepc.org.