Global Migration & Politics
Analysis and commentary on the politics of the Middle East, of the power games that defines the region, and the economic, religious and ethnic problems the region is often facing.

The power of deserts – hope for the future comes from the desert

MIDDLE EAST // BOOK REVIEW – Dan Rabinowitz´book, The Power of Deserts, concerns the global climate crisis and what consequences it will have in the Middle East. It is a deeply worrying read, yet at the same time provides hope for our common future, because according to Rabinowitz’s book, because the Middle East is where the very solution to securing the climate in the future lies. The oil being one of the main causes of our current climate crisis, and yet the very same region may hold the key to a better future. That is, if the stakeholder of the region are set on securing not only stability but also their own very own power and position in the the post-oil era. Several steps of development seems to indicate that some of the main – and autocratic – stakeholders are aware of this. This could be a positive for the environment and the ongoing climate crisis.

First half of Rabinowitz’s book is about the soon-to-be consequences of our current energy consumption. If this consumption remains unchanged, the temperature limits of what is humanly possible to live in will be reached by 2060. As early as 2050, the Gulf states are believed to have temperatures 4.2 degrees higher than today. In other words, it will be impossible for people to live in more places in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Heat stress for both people and the environment

Rabinowitz introduces the new concept of “heat stress”, which affects both people and the environment. For humans, heat stress means that it is quite physically and mentally stressful to live in such high temperatures. For the environment, heath stress means lack of crops, diminished water resources in some places and floods elsewhere, elevated water levels at coastal cities, and an increase in storms and diseases and the spread of more insects in larger cities.

Climate changes will also have different outcomes for the north and south of the region, respectively. In the northern part of the region there will be lack of rain and rising rain in the south. However, as most of the region’s agricultural production is in the north, the lack of rain is deeply problematic, as it will have a major impact on food production.

With the current calculations, Saudi Arabia is already at risk of fighting both water scarcity and malnutrition by 2030.

With the temperature rises, the summer period itself will also be extended further, which will affect the living conditions of sheep, goats and camels; animals that are otherwise used to living under high temperatures but are dependent on rain also falling in periods.

A reduction in the amount of rain during the summer months combined with rising temperatures and extreme heat will result in an environment that is extremely unsuitable for humans to live in.

Risk of water shortage and malnutrition in Saudi Arabia in 8 years

Rabinowitz states that with the current calculations, within the next 8 years Saudi Arabia will be at risk of fighting both water scarcity and malnutrition. A scenario hard to imagine given this country is one of the richest in the region. However, it is a frightfully and realistic scenario in just very soon if no immediate changes are made.

The question is, however, where such large migration flows will have to migrate to if the entire region suffers from the same climatic conditions, elevated temperatures, drought and lack of food production?

Whereas Saudi Arabia will have to deal with water shortages; the United Arab Emirates will face the problem of rising water levels and more storms and the intensity of urban heat islands. The latter is a man-made phenomenon where higher temperatures in the cities than outside in the surrounding rural areas. Most often, the temperature in these urban areas will be higher at night than during the day. Rising water levels, increasing storms and urban heat islands all give rise to real concern. If current calculations hold, the Emirates are in danger of losing 5000 sqm of land by the year 2100. This corresponds to 6% of the country’s total area. Rising water levels in the sea could affect 85% of the country’s population and could potentially affect 90 % of the country’s infrastructure.

Wikimedia Commons, Florian Kriechbaumer

The preconditions of Syria’s civil war were drought and food shortages

Before Syria ascended into civil war in 2011, the country had already from suffered from acute food shortages since 2008. Over 3 million people were in acute need of food due to drought and thus lack of food production in 2008.

In his book, Rabinowitz points out that the preconditions of Syria’s civil war of 2011 had already been laid several years before with a serious drought, lack of food production, catastrophic lack of control over drained dams and water reservoirs and destroyed water supplies mixed with a corrupt and autocratic regime. Add some ethnic and religious tensions to that, and three years later, the situation had turned into an extremely toxic and dangerous cocktail that ultimately ended in the country’s devastating civil war.

The pattern from Syria should not be seen as a unique example of how a country can go from a drought-stricken situation to civil war. On the contrary, the UN emphasises that this can happen in any country vulnerable to climate change with existing political, ethnic, religious tensions. A number of countries in the region all contain the same components of religious, political and ethnical tensions combined with weak political structures. In other words, the Syria scenario can potentially occur in many of the region’s countries.

As everyone knows, there is plenty of sun in the Middle East. Through solar panels, extracted solar energy will not only be able to supply renewable energy to whole region, but to the entire planet

The many years of war and crisis in Darfur, Sudan, is a textbook example of this. Drought and water scarcity, lack of food production combined with ethnic tensions are all sub-components of a conflict.

I have previously written about the very subject, including how access to natural resources can at any time be placed in a conflict-ridden context; how Islamist organizations can easily profit from a lack of access to natural resources. In other words, any latent ethnic, religious or political conflict can very conveniently be used for one’s own political interests and put into a context of lack of natural resources.

With such major impacts on food production, water shortages, floods, disappearing land masses, the natural consequence will be mass migration in the area. The question is, however, where will such migration flows migrate to, if the entire region suffers from the same climatic conditions, elevated temperatures, drought and lack of food production?

Can 200 Arabs save the world with solar energy?

This is Rabinowitz’s question in the last chapter of the book. There are many indications that the almost 200 men in power in the Gulf states can do just that. They can do so especially if they are keen to secure the status quo. And they can have many good reasons for wanting to ensure that. For none of them can afford to lose, for example, 5,000 square kilometers of land, or suffer from water and food shortages. And none of them have any interest in laying their own backyard at all for ethnic, religious or political conflicts as a result.

As Rabinowitz argues in his book, these autocratic rulers can secure their own power by being environmentally conscious. By replacing the oil with renewable energy, they also ensure stability in their region

In other words, there is a great deal at stake for these rulers, not in the distant, undefinable future, but in the near future. Thus, their own, current domination is also exposed to a real risk of food shortages, water shortages, political unrest and conflicts in the region.

Cover of the book

Saving the world whilst retaining political power apparently feasible using solar energy. Everyone knows there is plenty of sun in the Middle East. And through solar energy, it is actually possible to supply renewable energy to not just the whole region, but to the entire world.

If these autocratic rulers understands the huge potentiel in investing in renewable energy, there is hope ahead for the earth’s climate. Because renewable energy is really good business. From a monetary perspective, it is certainly intriguing that the turnover within renewable energy between 2011-2019 increased to 2.18 trillion US dollars.

So these are sums that seem recognizable to people in the oil industry. In other words, if there is as good money in renewable energy as there is in the soon-to be- post oil industry, that is an incentive to invest in renewable energy and specifically in solar panels.

The book is not only deeply concerning in its description of an upcoming future scenario, but gives rise to optimism and hope for a better future

From an economic point of view, there is money to be made in renewable energy, which is why Rabinowitz’s theory is not just scattered thoughts from a super-optimistic professor sitting in his ivory tower. On the contrary, the theory seems quite realistic for several reasons: The Gulf states have serious environmental disasters to deal with in the very near future. Oil as an energy source will soon have a strong competitor in renewable energy with great economic opportunities. Especially if stakeholders get ahead of the game. The Gulf states have every reason to want to.

As Rabinowitz argues in his book, these rulers can secure their continued power by being environmentally conscious. By replacing the oil with renewable energy, not only will they ensure their future income, save the climate but also ensure some political stability in their region.

In this particular context, stability is good – because it reduces the risk of major ethnic, political and religious conflicts. If Rabinowitz’s scenario holds true – and it is not unrealistic – the world will face a potentially interesting phenomenon, namely that a bunch of autocratic oil-rich Arab sheikhs have helped to slow down the global environmental crisis, and put renewable energy at the top of the agenda.

A book and an eye opener

Rabinowitz’s book exudes knowledge, capacity and in easy-to-understand language he delivers one eyeopener after another. Stories that draw threads back to our common past up to our present. One example being the world’s occupation of salt until the refrigerator was invented, upon which the need for salt was drastically reduced on global basis.

Rabinowitz convincingly explains that if the rulers of the Gulf states can see the light in renewable energy, today’s oil will soon become a thing of the past – just like salt before the refrigerator entered the world stage. Rabinowitz also provides fine examples of the inequality that lies in the blatant over-consumption of the world’s richest 10 % being responsible for 50 % of exhaust gases worldwide.

This book is not only deeply concerning in its description of an upcoming future scenario, but gives rise to optimism and hope for a better future. That’s not a bad thing.

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