The devastation wrought by COVID-19 has become all too clear at this point. The pandemic had claimed over 4.6 million lives as of September 14. A number of those deaths occurred in the Arab world. Egypt, the most populous country in the region, has lost over 16,000 of its residents to COVID-19, and outbreaks continue to ravage much of North Africa. Like the pandemic’s disastrous consequences for public health, efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 have a range of under-reported but seriously harmful side effects. These challenges include major obstacles in the fight against climate change.
At first glance, the relationship between COVID-19 and environmental degradation may seem far from obvious. In fact, the early days of the pandemic yielded benefits for the health of the natural environment. The slowdown in shipping and travel led to reductions in the consumption of fossil fuels and emission of greenhouse gases, improving air quality and decreasing pollution. A dip in tourism also relieved pressure on sensitive ecosystems near tourist destinations.
Some analysts even speculated that COVID-19 might deal a fatal blow to the petroleum industry, a goal long sought by environmentalists. The scientific consensus holds that the world will have to abandon fossil fuels in the near term to guarantee the future of the natural environment and slow climate change. The Organization of the Petroleum-Exporting Countries, better known as “OPEC,” opined in March 2020 that COVID-19 had “upended the oil market.” OPEC Secretary-General Mohammad Sanusi Barkindo noted, “There is no doubt that in the last four weeks all the indices have deteriorated.”
In the Arab world, government budgets behind eco-friendly policies often depend on revenue from oil reserves.
While this development represented a theoretical victory for the environmental movement, it marked a setback for the Arab world, where the government budgets behind eco-friendly policies often depend on revenue from oil reserves. Indeed, the countries of the Arabian Peninsula—among the world’s top exporters of fossil fuels—used their wealth to fund some of the 21st century’s most ambitious campaigns against climate change. But COVID-19 has jeopardized those initiatives’ finances.
The projects of the Arab world’s energy superpowers range far and wide. Saudi Arabia is building Neom, a city expected to run on renewable energy alone, and the United Arab Emirates has spent decades pioneering cloud seeding, a sophisticated form of weather modification. Oman, perhaps the most independent of the Middle Eastern monarchies, has long distinguished itself as a champion for environmental protection through the promotion of nature conservation and sustainable tourism. Fossil fuels bankrolled these efforts and the research behind them.
While these investments in environmental protection seem likely to go forward regardless of the pandemic’s ultimate trajectory, COVID-19 has nevertheless complicated the financial picture. In 2019, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Saudi Arabia were already running budget deficits; the drop in the price of oil that COVID-19 induced the following year did those countries no favors. The recent spike in oil prices may alleviate some of this economic damage.
Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and their neighbors have come under criticism for accelerating climate change through their sale of fossil fuels, feeding charges that the Arab energy superpowers are engaging in hypocrisy by advocating for environmental protection. Though legitimate, this argument misses a point of equal importance: few other states in the region can afford to lavish huge sums on the battle against climate change without foreign direct investment. Thus, the Arab countries that play the biggest role in global warming also have the strongest weapons to fight it.
The pandemic is sapping the coffers of Arab countries that already had limited resources to dedicate to environmental protection.
Even as COVID-19 depletes the financial firepower of the Middle East’s energy-rich nations, the pandemic is likewise sapping the coffers and political capital of Arab countries that already had limited resources to dedicate to environmental protection. Addressing environmental issues and switching to renewable energy requires substantial amounts of money, and governments sinking into debt over an ongoing health crisis have little bandwidth for a future ecological crisis.
A 2017 report drafted by the Jordan Investment Commission determined that tourism, one of the industries worst hit by the pandemic, accounted for 19.4 percent of Jordan’s gross domestic product. Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia have also drawn a significant portion of their government budgets from this sector, which, in turn, financed these countries’ pursuit of green development. Yet, after a global recession and a year of travel bans, the prospects of initiatives such as the Lebanese National Biodiversity and Strategy Action Plan appear less promising.
Countries across the globe must now debate how to balance public health with environmental protection, but the Arab world faces an acute threat. The region suffers unique challenges exacerbated by climate change. The World Economic Forum concluded in 2019 that 13 of the Arab League’s 22 member states were dealing with “severe water scarcity.” Around 60 percent of Middle Easterners and North Africans inhabited areas struggling with water stress in 2020.
COVID-19 therefore presents Arab governments with an impossible choice. They can hardly neglect the horrors of the pandemic to spend more money on environmental protection and green development, nor would any reasonable understanding of climate change adaptation demand such a cynical approach.
The recent wildfires that wreaked havoc across Algeria demonstrated how global warming is fueling humanitarian crises.
On the other hand, the Arab world has little time to lose. The recent wildfires that wreaked havoc across Algeria and its neighbors demonstrated how global warming is fueling humanitarian crises. Plenty more of these environmental disasters may be looming for the region.
An effective strategy to rebuild a regional capacity for climate change adaptation and environmental protection will likely have to involve the international community, which has so far neglected its responsibilities. In January, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned that member states were devoting more resources to helping the Global South recover from the effects of the pandemic than to preparing the region to navigate climate change.
At several points, and as recently as July, the U.N. has painted the battle against the pandemic as an opportunity to “recover better” and “rebuild together with inclusive, green plans.” Guterres himself has said, “We need to turn the recovery into a real opportunity to do things right for the future.”
If the international community can put these words into action, the Arab world’s campaigns against COVID-19 and climate change may begin to complement each other—rather than one proceeding at the other’s expense. The U.N.’s proposals to redevelop tourism as more eco-friendly in the wake of the pandemic have particular relevance for several Arab governments.
Whatever the international community decides to do, the urgency of environmental protection in the Arab world will only grow. The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly complicated matters, yet this parallel dilemma demands a resolution.