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From black to green

November 20, 2011

For decades, oil was the engine of development in the Arab world. But the oil era is drawing to a close and Arab societies are poorly prepared for this change, according to the Arab Forum for Environment and Development.

oil pumpjack
The Arab world cannot continue its dependence on oilImage: picture alliance/dpa

Oil has a high price: year in and year out, the costs for the damage caused to the environment in the Arab region grow. Environmental protection plays a very marginal role in production and distribution in these economies, said Murad Ahmad Al-Fakih from the Organization for Environmental Protection in Yemen. Soon, Al-Fakih fears, products manufactured in the Arab region will no longer be competitive.

"Arab countries no longer have a choice," he said. "This isn't about wanting to convert to a green economy or not. They have to do it! We urgently need growth on the one hand and, on the other hand, we have to protect the environment."

Experts from the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) share Al-Fakih's opinion. The non-governmental organization brings together environmental experts, organizations and representatives from the private and public sector from various Arab countries. The Beirut-based AFED focused in depth on sustainable development in the Arab world in this year's annual report.

The results are shattering. If no far-reaching rethinking takes place, Arab economies will not be in a position to tackle the challenges they face in the coming decades, AFED said. On the one hand, the countries, whose populations have a large proportion of children and young adults, urgently need growth and jobs. But on the other hand, the environment needs to be protected.

The costs of environmental damage due to the oil industry have in the meantime reached an annual $95 billion (70.5 billion euros) - or five percent of the combined gross national products (GNP) in the entire Arab region last year, according to Al-Fakih.

Rethinking energy

The problem is that Arab countries depended solely on oil for too long. The latest report by the United Nations Development Program also named poverty, unemployment and environmental damage as the main problems in the Arab world. Among young Arabs, around 27 percent are unemployed. By 2020, some 51 million new jobs need to be created.

There are, however, several positive examples of environmentally friendly economies. Masdar, a project in Abu Dhabi, will be the site of a carbon dioxide neutral hi-tech city. There are also projects for using geothermal energy in Jordan or biologically-organic agriculture in Egypt or Lebanon. But these initiatives do not mark the beginning of a new trend. Overall, sustainable development is still a foreign word in the Arab world.

building signs at construction site for masdar city in abu dhabi
Arab oil monarchies are financing the construction of Masdar City in Abu Dhabi as the home of cutting-edge environmental technologyImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The energy sector is one example of where incorrect policies have led. Crude oil and natural gas still make up the strongest sector of the economy in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait. According to the AFED report, oil and gas make up for 60 percent of Qatar's GNP, close to 55 percent in Saudi Arabia and nearly 40 percent in the UAE.

These countries also show the highest per capita power consumption in the Arab world. In terms of per capita carbon dioxide emissions, Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain are the absolute world champions. This is also due to the lack of incentives for energy-saving measures, said Ibrahim Abdel Gelil, director of the Environmental Management Program at the Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain. Countries heavily subsidize the rates of electricity, he said. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the state subsidizes 79 percent of electricity prices.

"That means consumers only have to carry 20 percent of the price," Gelil said. "But curbing these subsidies would, of course, be a very unpopular decision. So it's shied away from." In addition, the leading industries in the GCC member states are made up of very energy-intense sectors, for example aluminum or cement production.

"A shift in attitude has not taken place yet," he said.

More research needed

Gelil, who contributed to the AFED report, criticized decision makers in the oil-exporting countries which still act on the basis of old models.

Ibrahim Abdel Gelil
Gelil says subsidies for the fossil fuel sector have to stopImage: DW

"The demand for energy is steadily growing, so power plants are being built which are operated with fossil fuels instead of breaking new ground," Gelil said. "Lawmakers are not creating any basic conditions to promote alternative energy. In addition, much more needs to be invested in the research of alternative energy."

Gelil said oil production was a key example. In the past 150 years, crude oil and natural gas have been extracted with technology imported from the West.

"This can't continue in the future, however," he said. "In our region we have immense resources in renewable energy, which are certainly not less significant than the fossil fuels we have. We must urgently invest in researching these renewable energies."

Not enough recycling

There is also the need to catch up in other sectors, such as water or waste management. According to the AFED report, 80 percent of solid waste in Arab countries could be recycled. But only five percent of it is. The rest is burned or buried. Rami Sharbini, a waste specialist from the University of Cairo, said the region is at least 20 years behind in this area. Clear legal standards are urgently needed and lawmakers have neglected to deal with the issue, he said.

"The first step is to impose taxes on products that have to be disposed of in a cost-intensive manner, and also on packaging that could be recycled," Sharbini said. "Producers and consumers have to be made accountable."

In addition, there needed to be an intensive education campaign among the population, he added. In recycling, for example, there were very affordable technologies available, such as composting.

"But it is unfortunately not being implemented efficiently across the Arab region yet," he said.

For the Arab Forum for Environment and Development, the first and most important step on the path to a green economy would be lifting the subsidies for fuel, electricity and water. The money saved should then be earmarked for the creation of "green" jobs and research.

Author: Mona Naggar / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge