The Arab Awakening and the Environment

As the Arab Awakening slowly but surely advances, social scientists and Middle East experts have been struggling to comprehend the changing rules of the game in this new, evolving situation, and where it is taking the region. Among them are environmentalists and students of environmental policymaking in the region. The big question for these people is: where is the Arab Spring taking the environmental agenda?

It's easy for scholars and experts studying environmental trends in the region to get frustrated, as the topic continues to be sidelined by "more urgent" issues relating to human and state security and socioeconomic development. Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs is a good point of reference: physiological necessities and the need for safety come before self-actualisation and focus on problems outside ourselves. So people in free Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt or Libya can't exactly be faulted for low environmental awareness. In these countries, the state still isn't able to guarantee basic safety and/or economic stability for its people, and the political reform processes remain tenuous. Welfare and stability should come first, followed by environmental issues. Right?

In the Gulf monarchies, revolutions have so far been effectively countered, but most citizens and middle class expatriates have much more than their basic needs covered. So they don't really have any excuse for complacency. Even if governments still don’t care enough, arguably people here should be demanding that their employers and social networks pay more attention to the environment. They're not. So what's wrong?

The case of Lebanon offers an answer, suggesting that material welfare alone doesn't necessarily lead to heightened levels of environmental awareness. Quite the contrary. War-torn and politically unstable, Lebanon has one of the most active environmental civil societies in the region: conservation, biodiversity, human health, climate change, waste, you name it. The short explanation for this is democracy. As Odeh al-Jayyousi, a regional director for the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), diplomatically noted in a July opinion piece, the six Gulf Cooperation Council states do not have an "adequate legal and institutional enabling environment for civil society engagement." The role of democracy is pretty straightforward, as environmental NGOs in places like the UAE, Syria and Lebanon will attest. In Lebanon, environmental NGOs have never been constrained by state sponsorship or fear. Still, despite a long history of broader liberties and rights than in most other Arab countries, the environmental movement in Lebanon remains far from the mainstream.

Environmental problems, and water-related issues in particular (scarcity, the water-agriculture nexus, and water-related conflicts and tensions) have long been at the heart of Middle Eastern instability. Domestically, persistent mismanagement, lack of public accountability, and bad governance of natural resources -- including water, ecosystems, land, air and energy -- is being made even worse by population growth and recent droughts. Business-as-usual policies and practices are bound to run into increasing trouble, as populations without water, clean air and a healthy environment become politically conscious.

In a June 2011 Middle East Institute briefing paper, Mohamed Raouf examines the presence of environmental themes during the Egyptian revolution. He believes that these "hibernating phenomena" were among the causes that lead to the uprisings. While protesters addressed some environmental problems, such as carcinogenic pesticides, water pollution, and pollution in general, the main issue was directly linked to the political sphere. A core problem, according to Raouf, was what people perceived government sales of natural gas to to neighbouring Israel -- for "unusually favourable terms" (namely, a third of 'the international price' under a long-term agreement signed in 2004) and despite rising domestic consumption -- to have been a waste of the country's natural resources.

The sociologically iconic street clean-up that ensued after the ousting of president Mubarak, however, was perhaps the most important sign of times to come: 'It’s our country so we are the ones who have to clean up, and it’s just the beginning', declared one participant. As Raouf too alludes in his article, a sense of participation also brings a sense of accountability. If people feel they have the power to make a change, a feeling of responsibility towards a desired outcome naturally follows. If our policies pollute, then we should strive towards better practices and push for better policies, both as individuals and interest-based groups.

Something to look for in this "new" Middle East and North Africa: the development of a notion of environmental stewardship, mentioned in both al-Jayyousi’s and Raouf’s articles. As the Gulf monarchies and Lebanon suggest, ongoing and future political reforms in the Arab world are much more likely to lead to rising environmental awareness than are high levels of material welfare and stability alone.

As al-Jayyousi writes, it is probable that a "genuine reform in governance and human rights will contribute to a new discourse" relating to environmental sustainability. Civil society organisations with environmental agendas will be key drivers in this change. Whether they will succeed in this massive task, and whether the framing of this new environmental agenda will happen through religious "greening" (see also Laura Wickström's piece on water and Islam), or a Westernised sustainable development discourse, is still not clear. For Middle Eastern NGOs, companies and governments alike, the road from annual beach clean-ups to genuine environmental agendas will be a long one. But at least the dynamism of change, brought by the Arab Spring, is here.