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Middle East economies feel the heat from climate change

Climate change middle east Reuters/David Swanson
Industries such as construction that require people to work outside will be the most challenged by extreme heat
  • ‘Global boiling’ has begun, says UN chief
  • Saudi Arabia most impacted by extreme heat
  • More must be done to mitigate climate change

Iraq’s Tigris and Euphrates rivers famously gave birth to some of the world’s first civilisations thousands of years ago. Now, climate change advocates warn that drought means they are now too weak to sustain agriculture and feed the communities who depend on them.

At a press conference in Baghdad on Wednesday, United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk described the extreme summer heat he experienced on a visit during his trip to Basra.

“It was clear to me that the era of global boiling has indeed begun,” Turk said.

In Europe, scientists from the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service said 2023 is set to be the third-warmest year on record.

A global study by independent scientists also found that Gulf nations were among the “most impacted” by climate change-influenced temperatures in July, especially in Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom, the study said, experienced 23 days of heat made at least five times more likely by carbon pollution.

The Climate Shift Index (CSI) system from US-based non-profit Climate Central quantifies the local influence of climate change on daily temperatures around the world. The CSI scale is currently capped at level 5.

Climate Central said the Gulf region was exposed to multiple days of heat scoring level 5 on the CSI scale, meaning temperatures that would be extremely unlikely without climate change.

Climate change Middle EastReuters/Abdel Hadi Ramahi
Floods following heavy rain in the UAE could become more regular with climate change

The global analysis of 200 countries and 4,700 cities said that Jeddah, the second-largest city in Saudi Arabia after its capital Riyadh, topped the list of cities with “the strongest fingerprints of climate change” during July 2023 with a CSI of 4.9.

Heat events with CSI levels 1 through 5 will continue to become more frequent and intense as long as humans continue to burn coal, oil and natural gas, the study said.

Impact on local economies

The increase in temperature has a direct impact on local economies.

A report published last year by the International Monetary Fund claimed that “climate disasters” in the Middle East and Central Asia are reducing annual economic growth on a per-capita basis by 1-2 percentage points. 

The report gave the example of Tunisia, where it claimed that 90 percent of coastal tourism infrastructure is threatened by erosion caused by seawater flooding. 

In the UAE, severe flooding has become a regular issue. July 2022 was the wettest in the Emirates for over 40 years, resulting in the deaths of seven people and nearly 4,000 people being placed in temporary shelter.

The Dubai government is spending billions on drainage projects to address this.

“We’ve observed strong warming in the Middle East,” said Andrew Pershing, vice president of science at Climate Central. 

“Nothing about this is normal. This year eventually will start to look like an average year.” 

Middle East climate changeReuters/Alaa Al-Marjani
Climate change advocates warn that droughts in the Middle East mean insufficient water to sustain agriculture and feed communities

From futuristic cities to Red Sea tourism resorts and theme parks, Saudi Arabia has been described as the biggest construction site in the world, with projects valued at over a trillion dollars underway in the kingdom.

“Industries like construction that require people to work outside will be the most challenged,” Pershing said.

“Extreme heat is a pressure that will be felt throughout society. It will impose additional energy costs and costs from lost productivity that will be growing stressors for any company operating in the region.”

Accelerating Gulf energy transition agendas

Mohammed Mahmoud, director of the Climate and Water Program and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in the US, said Gulf countries have an important role to play.

“But what we are clearly realising now, with how accelerated climate impacts have become, even these ambitious mitigation goals may not be enough to slow the pace of future global warming,” he told AGBI

Saudi Arabia has pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 278 million tonnes per year, cut methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2060. 

It is also investing $5 billion in low-carbon hydrogen and implementing large-scale tree planting and improved waste management. 

The UAE, host of the UN’s Cop28 climate summit later this year, was the first in the GCC to sign the Paris Agreement, first to commit to an economy-wide reduction in emissions by 2030, and the first to announce a net zero by 2050 strategy. 

It says it has invested more than $150 billion in climate action and aims to double that over the next decade. 

Joseph McMonigle, secretary general of Riyadh thinktank International Energy Forum said earlier this month that Gulf oil producers will play a crucial role in the global transition to a lower carbon future – if they can help bridge the historic divide between a dependency on hydrocarbons and clean energy.

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