An environmental and social movement called Extinction Rebellion (XR for short) sprang into existence in October 2018 in the United Kingdom (UK) driving forward the need for global change. With such a dramatic name, this global movement now seeks to force governments around the world to take action and save the planet from an imminent climate change crisis, a mass wildlife extinction, and a potential social and ecological collapse. 

Non-violent civil disobedience has been the movement’s modus operandi in the UK. Within one year of its existence, Extinction Rebellion has turned into an international movement, spreading to 70 countries across the globe. Thousands of protesters in the UK, U.S., Australia, Germany, Spain, and other countries have blocked streets, disrupted traffic, delayed flights, and held sit-ins and die-ins this year to force their respective governments, businesses, and the general public to pay attention to the threats of loss of biodiversity and the risk of social collapse. Protesters expected the inevitable mass arrests that followed from these actions; they consider them as an inescapable aspect of their activism. 

While XR has been primarily active in Western countries, it is slowly gaining a following in the Middle East.

While XR has been primarily active in Western countries, it is slowly gaining a following in the Middle East. At this juncture, only relatively small groups of activists in Lebanon, Qatar, and Israel have established local branches of XR. They are urging the governments of these countries to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. 

Extinction Rebellion climate change protesters stage an event against the fashion industry in Istanbul Nov. 29 2019. AP Photo Lefteris Pitarakis

Extinction Rebellion climate change protesters stage an event against the fashion industry in Istanbul, Turkey, Nov. 29, 2019. (AP Photo Lefteris Pitarakis)

Since public protests and civil disobedience in many Middle Eastern countries, including Qatar, are illegal and can lead to harsh crackdowns without necessarily being effective, activists in Qatar plan to employ other tactics than those that XR has used in the West. According to an XR spokesperson in Qatar, the movement will use public advertising campaigns and lobbying of people in power to push for sustainability and reducing carbon emission and waste. Although it has a population of less than 3 million, Qatar produces more carbon dioxide per capita than any other country in the world. 

XR’s moral crusade in places such as Qatar and other oil-rich Gulf nations is particularly difficult given the fact that these countries derive their wealth and power from exploitation of hydrocarbons. Thus, the entrenched monarchies in this region have less incentive to ditch oil and gas than other parts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Ironically, the Gulf countries are bound to suffer more than the rest of the world from climate change as extreme heat, drought, desertification, soil erosion, and water shortages get worse every year. 

XR in Lebanon kicked off its first event to introduce itself and its activism agenda this past August. Since then, it has joined the ongoing mass, political, non-sectarian protests across Lebanon that started in October against corruption, waste of public funds, planned taxes on fuel and phone apps such as WhatsApp, and the government’s failure to provide basic services, such as clean water and electricity. These protests partly take root in unprecedented large-scale forest fires in Lebanon that broke out right before the protests. Made worse by the rising heat levels, the fires have left close to 200 people injured and many houses destroyed. In addition, Lebanon’s garbage crisis still ongoing since 2015, which emerged as a result of the government’s inability to manage waste after the closure of dumps near Beirut, has contributed to the public outcry about the paralysis of the government. 

Witnessing the environmental, political, and social crisis in Lebanon and inspired by Greta Thunberg’s climate activism, 17-year old Joelle Zgheib founded XR Lebanon earlier this year to hold her government accountable and get more people involved in environmental activism.

Witnessing the environmental, political, and social crisis in Lebanon and inspired by Greta Thunberg’s climate activism, 17-year old Joelle Zgheib founded XR Lebanon earlier this year to hold her government accountable and get more people involved in environmental activism. Zgheib bemoans the inaction and apathy of grownups in her country, and she is driven by her anger to make a difference. With around 40 members, XR Lebanon translated climate change-related documents into Arabic and held its first protest in Beirut in September before joining the ongoing political protests that started a month later. 

Environmental activists in Palestine and Israel formed XR after the United Nations 2018 climate report issued dire warnings about an environmental catastrophe if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut by nearly half of current levels by 2030. The movement sees itself going beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lines, and it embraces everyone regardless of their background. 

According to XR Israel, Michael Raphael, “it doesn’t matter if you are Palestinian or Jewishyou are going to face the same difficulties under climate change. If we do not take this on together, we are going to die together.”

The MENA region is the second most carbon intensive region of the world after South Asia since 2016. 

All the governments in the Middle East signed the landmark 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. However, six of themLibya, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Yemenhave not yet ratified it, so they are not legally bound by its terms. Although the governments in the region regularly express their commitment to reducing emissions, they still heavily rely on hydrocarbons both as an income and fuel source. The MENA region is the second most carbon intensive region of the world after South Asia since 2016. 

Faced with rising temperatures, freshwater shortages, crop failures, and growing pollution rates, it would seem that the climate crisis would prompt more protests in the region that is most vulnerable to climate impact. But the level of environmental activism is subdued in MENA compared to the West. The emergence of XR in Lebanon, Qatar, Israel, and Palestine and of other youth environmental activists in the region is encouraging. 

By far the largest climate advocacy group in MENA with chapters in over 15 Arab nations, the Arab Youth Climate Movement (AYCM) has been quietly making inroads in the region. Since 2012, members of AYCM have been lobbying governments in their respective countries and holding public informational campaigns to raise awareness about pollution, the benefits of sustainability and energy efficiency, and threats of climate change. Using more educational approaches to advance its agenda, this organization has also been cautious to hold public protests and civil disobedience for fear of a violent crackdown. 

It is daunting to think about the effects of the climate crisis on the MENA region. But the seeds of environmental activism to compel decision-makers to minimize the impact are there. The question is how big and meaningful this activism will need to be to move the needle.