The following section of the report will focus on describing the main environmental challenges faced by MBS and Saudi Arabia, as well as provide a discussion of the leader’s stake in being a climate leader. It is crucial for our analysis to understand the underlying environmental issues of the country and the motivation of MBS to resolve them. Saudi Arabia encounters various environmental challenges influenced by the country’s geography and the rapid urbanisation rate of its population:
Environmental Challenge №1 – Rising temperatures and consequent desertification
As Saudi Arabia is characterised by almost non-existent arable lands (1.6%) and primarily desert landscapes, it suffers greatly from the negative impact of desertification. To start with, desertification is a process of the gradual disappearance of vegetation that occurs in arid and semi-arid lands for various reasons and implies non-desert ecosystems becoming such. The consequence is the fact that rural areas are becoming increasingly inhabitable.
Rising temperatures contribute to the process of desertification as well as increase the chances of extreme weather events. These can destroy civilian infrastructure and affect the population: Outcomes for Saudi Arabia include droughts, sand storms, and dust storms. Moreover, rising temperatures will also contribute to prolonged periods of unusually low rainfall that lead to a water shortage. Droughts are detrimental to the ecosystems of Saudi Arabia, as the production of food and sourcing of water are affected. Moreover, droughts bring about increased costs of living, reduced crop production, and water shortages.
Rural areas and agriculture are being negatively affected by rising temperatures and urban residential areas. Population living in cities can feel the consequences of elevated heat levels being manifested in the negative impact on citizens’ physical health. Furthermore, the significance of intensified warmth comes from it causing worsened living conditions, several regions becoming possibly unlivable for several months of the year, and human and animal deaths.
Environmental Challenge №2 – Air pollution
Currently, Saudi Arabia is the second country in the world after Qatar in the rankings of the highest levels of air pollution registered in 2021. Saudi Arabia’s primary type of terrain is desert, which explains why dust is the primary source of air pollution in Saudi Arabia. The higher the temperatures and the rates of desertification, the more frequent sand and dust storms are. Thus, exacerbated by the rising impact of rising temperatures, air pollution negatively affects citizens’ health. Climate change will only decrease the air quality further which will result in the worsening of the health of the Saudis, and environmental degradation is inevitable. Air pollution also implies several economic consequences, such as a reduction of economic growth in the long run. Indeed, air pollution results in lost working days because of air pollution-induced health problems, increased health expenditures, and an increase in welfare costs for the state as well as an overall reduction in the GDP. The above-mentioned trend is also intensified due to the rapid urbanisation rate, putting citizens’ health at risk.
Environmental Challenge №3 – Water scarcity and water resources management
Saudi Arabia has no permanent rivers or lakes on its territory. Without the ordinary low levels of rainfall and the continued temperature increase, the kingdom is at serious risk of water scarcity. Therefore, Saudi Arabia had to look for multiple ways of accessing water. Mainly, sources of water include desalination, surface water, and mining of non-renewable groundwater
As mentioned earlier, limited rainfall leads to scarce water availability in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is influenced by elevated temperatures: changed rainfall patterns and faster evapotranspiration only worsen the situation of availability of water resources. Evapotranspiration is a combined process of evaporation of liquid from the surface and transpiration happening simultaneously. The higher the surface temperature, the faster the process will be, contributing to droughts and desertification.
The issue of water scarcity is further deteriorated by the overconsumption and lack of renewable water sources in Saudi Arabia. It has been claimed that Saudi Arabia is determined to scale the groundwater supply, yet, rising temperatures pose a threat to this solution as well. This will happen due to higher temperatures leading to faster exhaustion of existing groundwater supplies unless alternative sources are available.
Overall, the decreased water availability and increased demand for clean water pose a severe risk for Saudi Arabia. Despite efforts being undertaken, the potential groundwater depletion in the long term is possible if Saudi Arabia doesn’t explore alternative solutions.
Saudi Arabia faces numerous severe environmental challenges that require policymaking and solutions immediately. Otherwise, they will result in detrimental effects on Saudi Arabia. As the Kingdom is an authoritarian government, those detrimental consequences will be blamed upon the government and MBS as the de-facto ruler by the population. Therefore, having understood the environmental problems Saudi Arabia is faced with, it is key to discuss the persona of Mohammed bin Salman and how he addresses those issues before the population blames him. An omnipresent example for the al-Saud family is the so-called Arab Spring when populations across the Middle East took to the streets protesting against their leaders.
- Why does Mohammed bin Salman care?
To understand the motives behind Mohammed bin Salman’s pushing for climate policies, it is important to mention the al-Saud dynasty’s role and its continued strive for power. It is crucial to know that al-Saud control is based on oil revenues in and outside Saudi Arabia. These revenues allow MBS to retain Saudi Arabia’s domestic hegemony due to the unique nature of the Saudi Arabian social contract – “No taxation, no representation.” An illustration of this idea is the events of the Arab Spring. In 2011 Saudi Arabia directed US$150 billion to its citizens and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbours in social spending to lower the social tensions in the country. This reinforced the role of oil money as a tool for establishing domestic hegemony.
Moreover, youth plays an important role in the transformation of Saudi Arabia. MBS is aiming through his policies to increase youth employment, especially since youth unemployment was a big driving force behind the Arab Spring. A high percentage of the young population combined with the pressing risk of diversifying the economy and creating jobs for this young population puts the country’s stability at risk as well as pressure on its leader.
Furthermore, MBS has also been using oil revenues to sustain the regional hegemony of Saudi Arabia based on oil money. The first important factor is that Saudi Arabia is regarded as a Custodian of Islam foundation – the King has the title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. Second, Saudi Arabia uses oil revenues to carry out its petrodollar diplomacy. As an illustration, Saudi Arabia sent US$46 billion from 2013 to 2020 to Egypt, $3bn to Sudan and $5bn to Turkey to channel its leadership role in the region. If Saudi Arabia does not give money anymore, the importance of rivals will grow. Indeed, “considering regional power shifts after 2011 and domestic changes after 2015, the conditions of Saudi Arabian foreign policy have altered dramatically and provided the country an unprecedented window of opportunity to establish hegemony within the Arab world.”
At the same time, Iran, Qatar, UAE, and Turkey are becoming important actors in this battle for power. This is done through, for instance, Iran inciting rivalry with Saudi Arabia through proxy wars in the region. Iran is also trying to achieve power through geostrategic cooperation with Russia in Syria and developing economic ties with China, while smaller Gulf states are also rising. UAE, for instance, is a crucial factor in an anti-Iran coalition. Similar to Turkey, which is seeking “a more independent foreign policy from the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)” to establish itself as a leader in the Middle East. Thus, rivals have the potential and motivation to become the next regional hegemon, so oil money revenues as a tool to support itself as a regional power are vital for MBS.
Most importantly, the oil price crisis made Saudi Arabia understand the possible threat to the oil money used to sustain domestic and regional hegemonies. When oil inevitably becomes a less reliable source of the al-Saud’s power, the alternative way out of this situation is diversifying the economy. Like “the stone age did not end because the world ran out of stones, and the oil age will not end because we run out of oil.” These words have been credited to Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the Minister of Oil for Saudi Arabia, for more than twenty years. Still, to transform the nation, support the economy and end the oil age, heavy international investment is needed. However, diversification of the economy through international investment is complex because of the negative image MBS is associated with. This is why MBS has been so outspoken on the environment, to make Saudi Arabia more attractive to international investors and use this as an opportunity to transform the nation and maintain al-Saud’s power.
Therefore, the primary motivation behind MBS pushing for climate policies is adopting internationally-approved sustainability measures because of the desire to stay in power. Climate policies are internationally attractive, and they can specifically help convince foreign investors to choose Saudi Arabia to invest despite the controversies surrounding MBS.
IExRAIA Summer Research Program:
This article is an excerpt from a report on Mohammed bin Salman produced as part of a research program RAIA on climate leaders. For a full picture of MBS’s climate leadership read the full report. This project was fully financed by IE University’s School of Politics, Economics and Global Affairs.
Authors: Sonia Platonova & Alisa Lazurenko
Editor: Roxane de Bergevin
Project Lead: Joshua Dario Hasenstab
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