Middle East becomes controversial protagonist of the next UN climate conference


The tide has brought the global climate conversation to the Middle East. This year’s summit, COP27, takes place in Egypt. Next year’s COP28 will be held in the United Arab Emirates.

This wave makes sense. The Middle East is one of the regions of the world most threatened by climate change, according to the UN (United Nations.

On the other hand, the role that these governments want to play in the debate is uncomfortable. Populations in countries like Egypt and the United Arab Emirates live under authoritarian regimes that persecute and punish activists, including environmental defenders.

The climate crisis is even evident in the region. The temperature in Iraq, for example, can rise two to seven times faster than the global average. This summer, Baghdad reached close to 50 degrees. Of the 17 countries most at risk in terms of access to water, 12 are in the Middle East, says the World Resources Institute.

“The region has experienced frequent and extreme sandstorms, flooding, rising sea levels and wildfires,” says Mohamed Mahmoud, director of the climate and water program at the Middle East Institute.

The message from Egypt, the host of this year’s COP, is that the African continent contributes little to carbon emissions but suffers the consequences disproportionately. His suggestion is that the richest countries, which had the greatest share in global warming, now help the poorest.

The wealthy United Arab Emirates, on the other hand, should focus next year on its environmental projects, which are among the most ambitious in the world.

By hosting COP28, the Emirates want to show that the country is at the forefront in the fight against climate change, says Mahmoud. At least on paper, since many of his projects have yet to be implemented.

The emirate of Abu Dhabi, for example, is building a city called Masdar, powered by the sun and other renewable energies.

The government of neighboring Saudi Arabia has invested in the futuristic conglomerate Neom, also powered by clean energy. These movements, of course, are also related to the fact that the countries of the Gulf want to seek alternatives to oil, the source of energy that is at the base of their economy—and which, in addition to harming the environment, will run out.

“Holding the two summits in the Middle East is a great opportunity”, says Hassan Aboelnga, a researcher specialized in water management and professor at the German university TH Köln. “These editions of the COP take place in places that face great climatic challenges.”

Like Mahmoud, Aboelnga lists some of the effects of global warming on the region. Among them are hunger and even armed conflicts. “Climate change is a risk multiplier for political instability,” he says.

A drought, for example, can jeopardize access to water and crops in a given region. Competition for resources, in turn, can result in conflicts and waves of refugees.

Without denying the importance of this debate, human rights organizations have accused local governments of “greenwashing”, that is, using the climate as a smokescreen to hide violations.

Not by chance, the first press conferences at COP27 were marked by politics, not by conversations about the climate. On Tuesday (9), activists demanded the release of Egyptian-British activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah, who spent months on hunger strike. The protest ended last week.

“Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power, Egypt has witnessed widespread repression that stifles civil society, and this has severely impacted the environmental movement,” says Allison McManus. She is director of research at the Freedom Initiative, which advocates for political prisoners.
in the Middle East.

“Activists have been arrested for opposing government projects, and even public debate is treated with arrests and violence,” he says.

The very fact that the Egyptian government decided to hold COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh is controversial, as this coastal city is isolated from the rest of the country. Activists had more difficulty getting to the event and, once there, they were watched and controlled by the regime.

“Funding restrictions and surveillance of non-governmental organizations mean that the only climate we really hear about in Egypt is the climate of fear,” says McManus.

She expresses similar concerns about next year’s event in the Emirates. “It is a country that invested to present a modern face to the world, but that also controls and represses freedom of expression and mobilization.”

In these two editions of the COP, “leaders have the opportunity to dictate the tone of the conversation, insisting that it is not possible to have climate justice without open debate and respect for rights and freedoms”, says McManus.

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