The climate crisis looms larger than ever before, and the younger generations are leading the fight against it. Across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the Arab Youth Climate Movement (AYCM) is rallying for climate justice, i.e., the framing of global warming as a political and ethical issue, not just environmental and physical.

Neeshad Shafi, Executive Director of the AYCM’S Qatar chapter, spoke with Inside Arabia over the phone from his home in Doha. “My journey has been very short, but very profound,” he said.

When Shafi moved from India to Qatar in 2015 to work as a young engineer, “there wasn’t anybody working on climate change.” He soon learned that the Arabian Gulf states are not very welcoming of “critical environmentalist groups like or Greenpeace,” who they view as “radical activists.”

“This region is unique, and you need to work with that,” Shafi told Inside Arabia. Even within the MENA region, “the moment you move out of the Gulf . . . civil society changes, government changes, peoples’ lifestyles change, economics change.”

climate justice Gulf

Climate change is affecting the availability of drinkable water in the region.

While youth-led climate justice groups like Extinction Rebellion are mobilizing in the UK, replicating their impassioned rhetoric and disruptive actions is hard in the Gulf.

While youth-led climate justice groups like Extinction Rebellion are mobilizing in the UK, replicating their impassioned rhetoric and disruptive actions is hard in the Gulf.

“Such an act would put us in jail,” he said. “Radical actions are needed, but [they] don’t work here. The word ‘radical’ itself is very offensive.” The region’s non-democratic leaders do not need to win votes to stay in power. “They’d push me out of the country if I call for a climate emergency.”

So Shafi plays the cards he is dealt. Viewing diplomacy as the only way to bring change within the Gulf context, he co-founded AYCM-Qatar in 2015, and insisted on maintaining regional ties. The AYCM umbrella organization was started at the 2012 COP 18 in Doha—the first global climate conference hosted in an Arab country.

When the delegates returned home, political divisions fractured the movement.

AYCM-Qatar is now the most active chapter in the Gulf, though they walk a tightrope around state suspicion. “They even have an issue with the name,” Shafi said. “They ask “Why ‘Movement?’ Are you fighting with us?” Like other governments in the region, Doha discourages activism out of fear of an uprising. Still, Qatar is warming up to the young environmentalists’ outreach.

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Flooding in Qatar

A climate justice movement is developing in the Gulf, though environmentalism still lags. “The biggest problem in the region was and still is awareness,” Shafi explained.

State-owned media don’t want to show the real stories from the region. Climate change would put people into panic, and [governments] don’t want people to be panicked,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of young people in Qatar are highly educated . . . but when you bring up the topic of climate change, they’re back to kindergarten.”

People see climate change as “wildfires in California and flooding in Bangladesh and India,” Shafi continued, but think Qatar faces “nothing.” Though aware that rising sea levels could wash out Shanghai and New York City, they ignore DubaiAbu DhabiDoha, and Muscat, he said. Government studies and academic papers detail predicted impacts, but they “don’t understand academics.” AYCM works to bring the reality of climate change front and center.

“I always say the people of the Arab world will wake up the day after a disaster breaks.”

“I always say the people of the Arab world will wake up the day after a disaster breaks,” Shafi added. In 2018 and 2019, two “once-in-a-lifetime” rainstorms in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait brought a kind of reckoning.

Still, other than Kuwaitno government in the region even dared to use the words ‘climate change,’” Shafi lamented. “They said, ‘Oh, we just received a whole year of rain in one day.’ That’s what we call an extreme weather event, habibi.”

The rains came through the roof of Qatar’s US$17 billion airport. Gulf cities and infrastructure are not well prepared for the severe consequences of climate change. Already ferociously hot, they will only become hotter—and possibly unlivable. Cities like Doha and Dubai were rapidly built in the last decades without much attention to sustainability.

“I wouldn’t say they’re ignoring [the issue],” Shafi clarified, “but they think it’s not going to happen now—that it’s something happening in a hundred years. They don’t feel that urgency. People don’t feel that there is a real solution to climate change, and they don’t feel that they can be part of the solution, they think] ‘It’s not my job, it’s the government’s job.”

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Disasters caused by climate change

Gulf governments, notably the UAE, have started environmental programs but “they don’t have answers to many questions,” Shafi said, and the foreign consulting firms that feed them ideas miss opportunities to enact real change.

It is no small feat for Gulf countries to drastically lower their greenhouse gas emissions and resource use. The region’s economy is based on fossil fuels, and it will take time and investment to move toward renewable energy and a circular, sustainable economy. “People need jobs, countries need energy. We need a balancing act . . . and an energy mix,” Shafi said.

The Gulf is regarded as a “dark horse” that pollutes the world, with Qatar as the top liquefied natural gas exporter in the world. But Shafi asks, “Why is Qatar pumping all the gas? Global demand.” Its local consumption accounts for a fraction of worldwide CO2 emissions, but exports make its emissions per capita the highest in the world. “That’s the gas you use in your home,” Shafi said. For many decades, the U.S. has emitted 52 times more than Qatar does now.

“What radical shift you can expect here is from the people,” rather than governments, Shafi continued. “These young people will be the government someday. If [climate justice] holds on to some of the brightest minds of the country, that changes our way forward.”

Still, young people in the region tend to list MENA’s biggest challenges as the Israel-Palestine conflict, unemployment, and war, Shafi laments. Even though UN reports give humanity only 11 years to prevent a catastrophic, irreversible climate crisis and predict the imminent extinction of one million species, many are focused elsewhere.

Shafi thinks leaders benefit by keeping people’s concerns materialistic. “But I want young people to not fall for that,” he said. The young generations of the Gulf need to demand green jobs—which are now limited to solar installation and wastewater treatment—and governments need to provide them.

The young generations of the Gulf need to demand green jobs and governments need to provide them.

But for most, “at the end of the day, it’s about getting paid,” Shafi said. “People don’t see green jobs as jobs.” Create conditions for green jobs to pay as well as oil and gas, and young people will flock to them, he suggests. The region is rich and young, so “there is a great opportunity . . . to be a champion.”

Shafi works a full-time day job as a design engineer for a company that builds wastewater treatment plants across the Gulf. “I have the greenest job in the region, to be frank. But my company doesn’t give a damn! They only care to make a profit. If not, khalas [it’s over]!”

The Gulf’s lavish lifestyles also will need to shift. “We try to tell people that . . . personal changes in this region have a drastic impact, more than elsewhere,” Shafi said. A cup of water in Morocco comes from rain-fed reservoirs, but in Qatar, it comes from a desalination plant, which is extremely energy-intensive and expensive.

Young people are becoming more aware of the environmental cost of their choices. “I always appreciate the small steps,” Shafi said. “But I hope the steps are coming with a real mission. I see a lot of cosmetic stories.” Veganism is becoming popular in Qatar, but “as a lifestyle for a very exclusive class of people.”

Zooming out, the Gulf is fractured by political rivalry. “Every day it’s a fight,” Shafi said. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and others have blockaded Qatar since 2017, and proxy wars are bringing death and destruction to the region.

But Shafi and others see the climate crisis as a potential unifier. Gulf countries could come together to build a shared solar grid, for example, making use of their abundant desert and blazing sunshine.

“Unity is the biggest strength here,” Shafi affirmed. If the region’s youth and leadership can rally behind a common cause and invest in climate justice, the Gulf could be a leader in the fight against climate change.