Between ‘Suffering’ and ‘Surfing’: Environmental Sustainability Management and its Transnational Dynamics on the Arabian Peninsula

Tobias Zumbrägel, CARPO – Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient

 Over the past years, the Arabian Peninsula has experienced increasing and extraordinary environmental and climate-related threats (see Alahmed and Sharp in this collection). These environmental stressors include unprecedented heatwaves in Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, flash floods in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and cyclones in Oman. In light of these risks and challenges, the concept of ‘sustainability’ (ʾistidāma) has received broader attention. Although the concept is widely used and accepted, there is much disagreement masked behind that seeming consensus (Scoones 2016; Mensah 2019). Claiming that we need a clearer idea of what this means and a better understanding of its transnational dynamics, this paper investigates sustainability management across the Arabian Peninsula.

It takes the conceptual springboard of “surfing” and “suffering” sustainability that denotes ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of environmental sustainability (Brinkmann 2020, 6). While the oil- and gas-rich Gulf monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), might be considered ‘winners’ of a sustainable transformation, Yemen is broadly considered an example of ‘suffering sustainability’ (see also: Brinkmann 2020). However, it shows the limitations of such a nation-centered and dichotomous approach by emphasizing the regional entanglements. At its core, this article argues that such a perspective misses significant aspects of environmental justice and ecological responsibilities since Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been involved in the military conflict in Yemen, which adds to the country’s environmental vulnerability and climate crisis.

The concept of environmental sustainability

Sustainability has become a popular buzzword, but it is also a vague and challenging concept. Various terms such as sustainable development, economic sustainability, social sustainability, and environmental sustainability exist simultaneously, raising ambiguities about sustainability’s meaning. The classic understanding refers to the UN-led approach to three canonic dimensions of environment, economics, and social equity. In this regard, sustainability refers to social equity and progress (i.e. improving cultural, health, and educational systems), sustainable economic growth (i.e. capital accumulation in line with the planet’s regenerative capacity), and environmental protection (i.e. conserving and safeguarding ecosystem integrity and climate systems) (Mensah 2019).

In practice, however, the two pillars of social and especially economic sustainability received greater attention and priority. Until recently, a common perception among policy makers and experts was “to grow first and clean up later” (Elder & Olsen 2019, 70). It has only been recently that the environmental pillar gained a revitalized public interest. This was particularly apparent in the articulation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (2016-2030). In order to delimit the idea of environmental sustainability, this study applies a practical approach and relies on the environmental-related goals of the SDGs. Out of the overall 16 goals, the following have an explicit reference to environmental sustainability: (6) Clean Water and Sanitation, (7) Affordable and Clean Energy, (11) Sustainable Cities and Communities place special indirect emphasis on environmental sustainability and goals, (12) Responsible Consumption and Production, (13) Climate Action, (14) Life below Water, and (15) Life on Land (Elder & Oleon 2019).

The different ‘roles’ of sustainability on the Arabian Peninsula

Surfing sustainability: The case of the rich Gulf monarchies

The Arabian Peninsula’s arid and hyper-arid climate has always been a harsh environment for human settlement. Its water-scarce and prevailing hot and dry climate impeded large-scale agricultural activity. Frequent sand and dust storms acted as further strains on human health (see Sharp and Alahmad in this collection). The exploration of oil during the first half of the 20th century was a game-changer. The oil boom brought prosperity, development, and modernization that helped the state-building processes among the Arab Gulf monarchies. However, the countries’ extremely rapid and hypermodern development course created an ecologically questionable lifestyle of unprecedented overconsumption. Today, oil- and gas-exporting Gulf monarchies have the largest ecological footprints on earth and face an “era of natural unsustainability” (Luomi 2012). In an increasing climate- and carbon-constrained world, they have to undertake a fundamental energy transition and adapt to climate change and its existential threats such as unprecedented temperature increase, sea-level rise, and more frequent natural disasters (e.g. sand/dust storms and flash floods).

Nevertheless, the oil- and gas-exporting Gulf monarchies have been able to weather these challenges quite successfully so far, in part due to their exceptional financial resources. In fact, some leaderships, especially in Doha, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh, were able to turn constraints into opportunities and thus, depict an interesting case of ‘surfing sustainability’. By integrating environmental sustainability in their strategic development papers (visions), they were able to embark on an ecological modernization course that is both economically and politically beneficial at several levels.

In the mid-2000s, countries in the Gulf started to develop cutting-edge sustainable or greening already existing grand projects. A very early example is the Masdar Initiative or simply ‘Masdar’. Especially, the creation of Masdar City as the region’s first-of-its-kind eco-city (see Sharp in this collection) turned into the key steering instrument in promoting Abu Dhabi’s green image (Cugurullo 2013; al-Sulayman 2021). Several years later, Qatar received attention by promising to carry out the first carbon-neutral Soccer World Cup in 2022. Since then, large-scale sustainable urbanization projects such as a public transport system, green stadia, and a number of eco residential areas have been constructed. Lately, Saudi Arabia has also announced the development of its futuristic US$500 billion NEOM project, which will include a ‘zero-carbon’ city called ‘The Line’. All these eye-catching announcements and projects help to increase the country’s popularity inside and outside. Frequently, they are portrayed as the brainchild of a leader’s wisdom and vision (Koch 2014). One very common and apparent practice is name recognition, whereby environmental-friendly vanity projects are closely linked to the respective ruler at the top of the state. Examples include Dubai’s biggest solar-generated power plant, the Muhammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park or Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Renewable Energy Initiative, the Salman Environmental Awareness and Sustainable Development Program, and the creation of the Mohammed bin Salman Natural Reserve.

At the same time, the countries have developed their own national companies specializing in renewable energy. Backed with political and financial power, Saudi Arabia’s Acwa Power, Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Power, and to a lesser extent, Qatar’s Nebras Power, have established themselves as leaders in developing clean energy projects worldwide. They are not only responsible for developing many of the national renewable energy projects but are also key investors across the globe with a special focus on the Arab region. The strong presence of these companies in close partner countries indicates that these investments in alternative energy are also strategic (al-Sulayman 2021; Sim 2022). This is particularly apparent in Jordan, where all companies account for an impressive share (Acwa Power: 40%, Masdar Power: 18% and Nebras Power: 14%) of the country’s installed renewable energy capacity (Sim 2022). Hence the strategic promotion of renewable energy through national champions is both a form of new business opportunities and soft power considerations.

The Gulf countries have further aligned their national sustainable transformation plans with their foreign policy. Over the last decade, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and especially the UAE made some constructive contributions during the last UN Climate Change Conferences and also comply with internationally agreed climate commitments like submitting and updating their NDCs on a regular basis. They all have also engaged in numerous climate and environmental international networks and, in the case of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, also proposed their own regional climate plans and initiatives. In 2011, Qatar was also the host of the climate summit and Abu Dhabi has been awarded lately to host the event in 2023. This new form of climate diplomacy can be seen as a further way to bolster the countries’ international reputations and partially revise their previous image as climate laggards. At the same time, it may also strengthen their influence in the global community.

Suffering sustainability: The case of Yemen

At the same time as these advances, resource poor and less developed Yemen, situated on the same peninsula, is on the brink of a humanitarian and environmental catastrophe. Climatic stress and environmental degradation considerably impact the country’s agriculture and rural life causing food insecurity and extreme water scarcity. Against this backdrop, access and distribution of resource management is a serious problem. Dwindling resources due to climate change and environmental degradation increase the suffering of millions of Yemenis.  Yemen’s ‘endemic’ water scarcity and the competition over access and distribution of water resources have received some attention (Weiss 2015; Ward 2015). At the same time, conflicting parties are engaging in military action over the control of Yemen’s natural resources (Sowers & Weinthal 2021). Especially the Southern and Eastern parts of the country, including Hadhramaut, Shabwah, and Marib, have experienced fighting over the economically viable oilfields (Al-Mowafak 2022). More recently, practices of illegal and excessive wood cutting are becoming more common. Due to the lack of diesel, there is an increase in cooking gas prices and flourishing black market activity in fuel derivatives of all kinds (diesel, petrol, cooking gas) (Bilkis & Zumbrägel 2022).

The growing threat of climate change only accelerates the bad situation. Torrential rain and floods affected almost half a million people in 2020, many of whom were already displaced due to the conflict. Flash floods, especially in the Hadhramawt governorate, damaged agricultural lands, public infrastructure, and private property. At the same time, the rainwater mixes with sewage water, wastewater, and byproducts from oil refining, which are transported over long distances, causing cancer cases and further public health problems (Al-Akwa & Zumbrägel 2021). In addition to occasional natural hazards, the country is also suffering from long-term climate effects such as sea-level rise in the densely populated coastal areas. Climate-induced migration flows constitute another source of growing environmental vulnerability and social tension. Oftentimes, internally displaced people (IDPs) suffer the most from already poor hygiene and sanitation situations. In areas such as Ta’iz, there are increasing reports about conflicts over dwindling freshwater reserves between host communities and IDPs (Bilkis & Zumbrägel 2022).

While Yemen has suffered from many of these threats prior to the war, the outbreak of the civil war in 2014 followed by a Saudi-led intervention has amplified many of the problems. Amid the disastrous humanitarian crisis that resulted from the ongoing war, sustainability has no priority at all. In clear contrast to other countries on the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is suffering from sustainability. The decentralized and powerless government fails to adequately address the ecological challenges: there is no coordination and cooperation among the various national and local governmental institutions and authorities. Many of them have ceased work, mostly because of a lack of financial, human, and technical resources. One of the visible results of this non-existent sustainability management is the widespread pollution problems in Yemen. The politics of waste which Baker describes in her contribution to this collection can also be extended to the Yemen case: urban centres in the country suffer from solid waste, sewage, and garbage accumulation since existing waste management stations stopped working or are highly overloaded.

The external parties to the conflict such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE also have an impact on Yemen’s environmental suffering. Since 2015, both countries have been involved in large-scale damage of the natural environment and destruction of civilian infrastructure that is crucial for Yemen’s human security (Sowers & Weinthal 2021). In fact, the UAE has benefitted from the war economy by strategically occupying critical seaports and oilfields along the Southern area of Yemen. This is particularly apparent on the island of Socotra, as Hadil Al-Mowafak from the Yemen Policy Center notes, the creation of military bases and major urban planning projects have not only caused “severe damage to the island’s unique ecosystem,” but the Emirati government has also illegally sold large parts of protected areas of the island, especially on the Dixam plateau (al-Mowafak 2022). In its occupied territories, the Emirati government has also issued a ban on fishing in some areas, leading to the loss of livelihoods for many Yemenis that work as fishermen (al-Mowafak 2022). At the same time, Saudi Arabia and the UAE provide large-scale humanitarian aid and development assistance to Yemen (Sowers & Weinthal 2021). However, they do so with their own terms and conditions. During the flash floods in 2020 and 2021 help was exclusively channeled to their allied partners in Yemen (Al-Akwa & Zumbrägel 2021).

Additionally, the above-mentioned strategic deployment of clean energy for economic and political gains is also part of the Gulf monarchies’ involvement in Yemen. During the last climate summit, the UAE’s special climate envoy and former CEO of Masdar, Sultan al-Jaber, declared that his country “views development aid and climate action as powerful catalysts for economic growth” (Permanent Mission of the UAE to the UN, 2021, November 11). In this vein, the UAE has made large-scale investments in solar power plants in Socotra over the last two years (Emirates News Agency 2020, June 29). The largest power plant, which has been recently inaugurated, has been named after the UAE’s president, Sheikh Khalifa, and was funded by the Sheikh Khalifa Foundation. While it was initially promised that electricity would be free of charge, electricity counters with a prepaid system were soon installed in Socotra. The responsible operator of electricity is an Emirati “shadow company” (Interview with a researcher, 2022, January 28). Saudi Arabia has lately started to construct solar-powered water pumping stations and thus, assists Yemen in its water crisis; although the Saudi kingdom was long-term the key export market for water-intensive crops from Yemen.

Conclusion: Open questions of environmental responsibility and ‘just sustainability’

The approach of sustainability management differs greatly on the Arabian Peninsula. Frontrunners such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE follow the idea of ecological modernization that comes with several benefits for their own national development. Yemen, in turn, reveals the dialectic relationship between the management of nature and violent conflict. The Gulf monarchies’ way of ‘surfing’ sustainability further reveals that they mainly adopt a weak approach to sustainability that almost exclusively focuses on economic prosperity and energy security. In fact, they are mainly focusing on two of the Sustainable Development Goals, namely goal 7 of clean energy and goal 11 of sustainable cities and link them to their overall state vision.

For these states, a climate- and carbon-restricted world is not a constraint but an opportunity. Environmental sustainability has been largely seen as making good business and improving the Emirate’s reputation as the world’s petrol station. They invest heavily in alternative and cleaner sources of energy (e.g. solar, wind, and nuclear power) as well as decarbonization measures. At the same time, the Gulf monarchies are gradually expanding their oil and gas production. According to decision-makers that rule over the oil exporting country, this is not contradictory. For them, it is not the hydrocarbon commodities that need to be restricted but their fugitive emissions from exploiting and processing. This provides several benefits: investments can shift into new non-hydrocarbon and promising sectors, while the leadership continues to receive revenues from selling oil and gas as long as it remains profitable. Additionally, this article further indicates how climate diplomacy and clean energy investments also reveal soft power projections of some assertive Gulf states. In short, one can ‘surf’ the global trend of sustainability and can make economic and political capital out of it.

The article further shows that there is a transnational dynamic to sustainability management that is not often considered in nation-state centered research. Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s schizophrenic involvement between exploiting Yemen’s ecosystem and environmental capital and providing environmental assistance are further aspects to take into consideration when describing the discrepancy between suffering and surfing sustainability on the Arabian Peninsula. This forces questions concerning environmental justice and ecological responsibilities and complicates the seemingly disparate categories of ‘suffering’ and ‘surfing’ sustainability.



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