Is the World Warming up to Syrian Leader Bashar al-Assad?
The recent invitation to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to COP 28 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) marks a great comeback for him. Assad ruthlessly prosecuted a civil war that is responsible for the deaths of more than 500,000 of his citizens, at least 5.5 million refugees—most of them in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan—and 6.8 million internally displaced persons.
After being a pariah for a long time, Assad was warmly welcomed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He is attending the summit of the Arab League. This is the first time Assad has participated in such a summit after the Arab League suspended Syria in 2011.
Assad Is Back
The state-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) made full play of Assad’s political and public relations coup. SANA published images of Assad reading the letter of invitation from Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the president of the UAE and the ruler of Abu Dhabi,i with a UAE diplomat looking on approvingly. A statement from Dubai’s COP 28 organizers spoke of an “inclusive process that produces transformational solutions (which) can only happen if we have everyone in the room.”
Over the years, the UAE has led the efforts to bring Syria in from the cold. This latest effort can be viewed as politically useful both to the Emiratis and Assad. Yet it makes sense in having Syria attend regional summits. In the battle to mitigate the impact of climate change globally, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is on the frontlines with temperatures warming at nearly twice the global average. It is a region already profoundly threatened by extreme water scarcity. So, the involvement of all actors, including Syria, is a good idea.
Indeed, many experts say drought conditions were a significant causational contributor to the war in Syria. From 2006 to 2010, the country experienced a catastrophic drought, the third in a little more than two decades. The drought led to the collapse of the agricultural economy, driving millions into urban centers seeking work. These desperate people rose in rebellion during the 2011 Arab Spring movement.
Sadly for them, the Assad regime was prepared to use any amount of force to suppress what began as a series of peaceful protests. This wanton use of violence proved to be the perfect storm for a civil war that began in March 2011 and continues to this day.
Water Scarcity Woes
Water scarcity is also at the heart of the growing conflict between countries in the region hosting Syrian refugees and local populations. This is particularly the case in Jordan, the second most water deprived country in the world, and Lebanon where water scarcity has been exacerbated by the ongoing political crisis.
The Gulf countries are better off. Their coffers are swollen because of surging oil prices. These countries are well placed to absorb the body blows inflicted upon them by climate change. Desalination projects in the Gulf continue apace. Saudi Arabia has doubled its desalinated water output over the past decade and Riyadh-based ACWA Power has just announced a $667 million (2.5 billion Saudi riyals) Red Sea desalination project.
The UAE derives nearly half of its water needs and almost all of its potable water requirements from 70 desalination plants. According to a UAE government website, the plants account for 14% of the world’s total production of desalinated water. Note that the UAE has less than 10 million people, suggesting that their water usage habits are wasteful in the extreme. Other Gulf countries are similarly wasteful.
Other Challenges Ahead and What Can be Done
Along with water scarcity, extreme climate events are dramatically increasing in MENA. The intensity and frequency of sand and dust storms (SDS) is wreaking havoc with food production and people’s health as well as damaging industrial equipment and vehicles. A report by the Washington-based Arab Center last year noted:
“For all the disruption caused by this force majeure, much about SDS, including how to mitigate the phenomenon’s effects, remains poorly understood and has received relatively little scientific or policy attention. Considering the growing prevalence of SDS across the Middle East and North Africa, the storms’ impact on health, society, and the economy must surely be addressed, and policies need to be instituted to alleviate their effects.”
COP 28 faces daunting challenges from water scarcity to SDS. Developing countries do not have the money to tackle them. Yet it is unclear if developed countries will fulfill commitments to assist developing states in transitioning to green alternatives. Developed countries were supposed to set up a $100 billion fund by 2020, which remains an unfulfilled obligation.
The world’s attempts to hold global warming to 1.5° Celsius is already slipping away in the MENA region. A recent report from the World Resources Institute noted:
“Every fraction of a degree of warming will intensify these threats, and even limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degree C is not safe for all. At this level of warming, for example, 950 million people across the world’s drylands will experience water stress, heat stress and desertification, while the share of the global population exposed to flooding will rise by 24%.”
Sultan al-Jaber was appointed the boss of COP 28 in January. Howls of protest broke out. Jaber is the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), the UAE state-owned giant energy conglomerate. Climate activists have not liked his appointment. Jaber has a delicate balancing act ahead of him. Skeptics say he should be the last person to head COP 28. Supporters point out that Jaber has a strong record as an advocate of renewable energy.
ADNOC and Saudi Aramco together could have a significant positive impact if they commit to renewables. Of course, they will want to protect their dominant fossil fuels market position while pursuing renewables. This is indeed a tricky balance. Yet if the Saudis and Emiratis buy into renewables, the $100 billion target might be achievable.
[Arab Digest first published this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.