What the Middle East needs for a sustainable future, according to UN report

Poverty is on the rise in the Arab region, with nearly 40 percent of the population living on less than $2.75 a day. (AFP)
Updated 20 August 2019

What the Middle East needs for a sustainable future, according to UN report

  • Many challenges are intersecting, such as climate change and poverty, ESCWA points out
  • The region requires more support to address these issues and progress towards SDGs

DUBAI: From poverty and climate change, to food security, social justice, regional integration and sustainable development, the Arab region still lags in vital areas to ensure a sustainable future, according to a new report.

The aim of the 2018 Annual Report for the Arab Region by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia’s (ESCWA) is to measure progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to help the region build entrepreneurial societies.

“The report reveals that there are several intersecting socio-economic and environmental challenges facing the Arab region and that pursuing these requires integrated solutions for the achievement of the SDGs,” said Carol Cherfane, ESCWA’s chief of water resources in sustainable development policies. “ESCWA assists member states to pursue the water-energy-food security nexus under changing climate conditions through a human rights lens that aims at achieving sustainable development.”

This involves pursuing inclusive solutions that consider how climate change affects cities and rural agricultural areas, which depend on water and energy as basic needs and prerequisites for development.

Climate change was one of the issues tackled in the report, as temperatures in the Arab region are expected to continue to rise through the end of the century and maybe beyond. It found that, although the Arab region contributes only about 5 percent of the total global carbon dioxide emissions, it is one of the regions most affected by climate change.


  • More than 40 million people in the region — or 1 person in 10 — suffer from hunger and malnutrition.
  • Saudi Arabia has committed to 20 to 30 percent of its renewable energy targets within the next 20 years.
  • Scientific research ranges from just 0.2 to 0.4 percent of the national GDP in Arab countries.
  • Nearly 40 percent of the region’s population lives on less than $2.75 a day.
  • $2.3 trillion in development finance could be needed by the region to achieve the SDGs by 2030.

In energy, the region was revealed to be the only one in the world where energy intensity has been on the rise, with a significant gap in energy efficiency regulation and actual progress achieved.

“ESCWA’s work in this area has included supporting rural renewable energy projects that can support entrepreneurship and income-generating opportunities in rural areas, which particularly target women,” Cherfane said. “Pilot projects are being launched in Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia to support this initiative with
the financial support of the Swedish government.”

ESCWA is also working with Arab governments to improve their understanding and ability to access climate finance, which can be directed to alleviating climate change’s impact on vulnerable groups and strengthening the adaptive capacity of urban and rural communities, including coastal areas where a significant share of the Arab population lives.    

Findings show, however, that funding for climate change activities in the Arab region has focused on mitigation projects, rather than initiative geared towards adaptation, which are needed to strengthen water and food security in the region.

As such, some of the solutions being pursued include Jordan becoming a leader in treated wastewater reuse, water harvesting schemes throughout the region, alongside efforts that promote climate-smart agriculture, and Morocco’s investment in combined solar power and water desalination in its parched southern Sahel region.

We are a region where droughts and land degradation are driving food insecurity and humanitarian crises, flash floods are damaging homes and informal shelters from Iraq and Lebanon to Yemen and Sudan.

Dr. Rola Dashti, executive secretary, ESCWA

But more needs to be done, as more than 40 million people in the region — or 1 person in 10 — were still found to suffer from hunger and malnutrition, and increasing climate shocks are putting the food security of the region in peril.

“Fossil fuels are an important component of the economy of some Arab states, but we are a diverse region, comprised of oil-producing countries, middle-income countries, states affected by conflict and occupation, and least-developed countries that are all vulnerable to climate change,” said Dr. Rola Dashti, ESCWA’s executive secretary.

“We are a region where droughts and land degradation are driving food insecurity and humanitarian crisis, flash floods are damaging homes and informal shelters from Iraq and Lebanon to Yemen and Sudan, and have taken the lives of people in cities and rural areas alike, and climate impacts on water and agriculture will be most felt by women and vulnerable groups from the Moroccan and Mediterranean coasts to the Mashreq.”

She said the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme climate events was being felt worldwide, and have been particularly severe in southeast Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific and Western Europe in recent months.

But despite these challenges, Arab states were taking action. 

“The region is working to diversify its economy, transition to sustainable energy, improve energy productivity and invest in renewable energy technologies,” Dashti added. “All Arab states have put in place renewable energy targets: Morocco committed to 52 percent by 2030, Egypt 42 percent by 2035 and oil-producing states such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Qatar are committing to 20 to 30 percent within the next 20 years.”

More than 40 million people in the Sahel region — or 1 person in 10 — were found to suffer from hunger and malnutrition, a crisis which is being partially blamed on climate shocks. (AFP)

As the Paris Agreement calls for “a balance between adaptation and mitigation,” Dashti said there was a need in the Arab region for such adaptation and grant finance. “Developing countries are facing impacts today based on the practices of the past. They have developed strategies to overcome climate challenges. Yet, to achieve them, developed countries need to honor their commitments to support nationally determined contributions based on national needs ... to take effective action toward a sustainable future.”

The report found innovation to be weak in the region, as expenditure in scientific research ranges from 0.2 to 0.4 percent of the national gross domestic product in Arab countries. 

And poverty is on the rise, although reduced dramatically elsewhere in the world, with nearly 40 percent of the region’s population living on less than $2.75 (SR10) a day. Dashti said solutions will require commitments. “Arab states are already committed. They established the Arab Center for Climate Change Policies at ESCWA and we support (them) to advance climate assessment, policy and action. But frankly, the region needs more support, and we need it at scale.”

This includes bold political commitments that recognize the financial resources needed for developing countries in the Arab region, as the region could require up to $2.3 trillion in development finance to achieve the SDGs by 2030. “We (must) harness and advance regional solutions to accelerate climate action that reflects national priorities and leaves no one behind,” she said.

For Dr. Basem Hashad, an economist at BlueBlox in Riyadh, a trade compliance and consulting company, the report figures were unsurprising, having witnessed the economic and political deterioration of certain Arab countries. “The major areas that need to be worked on in the region are education and scientific research,” he said.

He suggested the next action should end all political and military distortions in the region — in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Arab Gulf waters. “The Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, bear the major burden and responsibility to lead the region to a more stable and secure atmosphere.”

Muhammad Chbib, an entrepreneur and business leader who founded Sukar.com in the UAE, said Gulf states could contribute by increasing the budget for education across the region to match what is spent on defense. 

“They have the financial power to lobby for a unified strategy among regional powers, to push for education and technology leadership and to ensure proper execution,” he said. “Arab expats who return and contribute will be a key to success.”

Outsider, jailed tycoon top Tunisian presidential vote

Updated 12 min 1 sec ago

Outsider, jailed tycoon top Tunisian presidential vote

  • The premier’s popularity has been tarnished by a sluggish economy and a high cost of living
  • The election follows an intense campaign beset by personality clashes

TUNIS, Tunisia: A jailed media magnate and an independent outsider appeared likely to face off in Tunisia’s presidential runoff, after a roller coaster first-round race in the country that unleashed the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings.

Official preliminary results are expected in the next couple of days from Sunday’s voting, in which corruption, unemployment and Islamic extremism were among key campaign issues. A second-round vote is expected by Oct. 13, the electoral commission chief said.

An exit poll by agency Sigma Conseil forecast what would be a surprising result: A top showing of 19.5% for independent Rais Saied, a constitutional law professor without a party.

Tycoon Nabil Karoui, jailed since last month on money laundering and tax evasion charges, was predicted to come in second with 15.5%, according to the poll.

Karoui’s supporters quickly declared victory, and his wife Salwa said his legal team is pushing for his release as soon as Monday. She read a letter he wrote from jail in which he said the apparent results reflected “the Tunisian people’s wish to see change, to say no to injustice, no to poverty, no to marginalization and yes to a fair state.”

The polling agency projected the candidate of moderate Islamist party Ennahdha, Abdelfattah Mourou, would come in third, followed by Defense Minister Abdeldrim Zbidi and then Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who had been considered a top contender.

Sigma Conseil said it questioned 38,900 people at 778 of Tunisia’s 4,554 polling stations, spread out over 27 of the country’s 33 regions. It claimed the poll had a margin of error of 1%.

The electoral commission announced that overall turnout was a relatively low 45%. If no candidate wins more than 50% of Sunday’s vote, the election goes to a second round. The exact date of the runoff will be announced once the final first-round results are declared.

Both Saied and Karoui promised to fight unemployment, a key problem in Tunisia that also helped drive its 2011 revolution.

Saied has no political background but notably picked up support among young voters with his straightforward, anti-system image and constitutional law background. Corruption frustrates many voters, which might have increased the appeal of an outsider candidate.

Karoui meanwhile positioned himself as the candidate of the poor, notably using his TV network to raise money for charity. His arrest appears to have mobilized voters in the struggling provinces or those who feel sidelined in the Tunisian economy. Karoui was allowed to remain in the race because he has not been convicted.

The voting followed a noisy but brief campaign — 12 days — marked by backbiting and charges of corruption among the contenders. All vowed to boost the country’s flagging economy and protect it from further deadly attacks by Islamist extremists.

Tunisia is in many ways an exception in the Arab world, with its budding democracy lurching forward despite challenges. Some 6,000 Tunisian and international observers, including from the European Union and the United States, monitored the vote.

More than 100,000 security forces were on guard Sunday as 7 million registered voters were called to the polls. Military surveillance was especially tight in border regions near Algeria and Libya where Islamist extremists are active.

Sunday’s election follows the death in office in July of the nation’s first democratically elected leader, Beji Caid Essebsi. His widow, Chadlia Saida Farhat, died Sunday at age 83, as Tunisians were voting.

This is only the second democratic presidential election that Tunisia has seen since the 2011 popular uprising brought down autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and triggered uprisings across the Arab world.

“The most important thing is that the vote be transparent ... and reflect the choice of voters,” said retired journalist Radhia Ziadi, alluding to the days when Ben Ali won election after election with well over 90% of the votes.

Tunis voter Sonia Juini summed up the overall sentiment as she cast her ballot, expressing hope the new president would make Tunisia more secure and “improve living conditions and take care of marginalized areas.”

Tunisia is also holding its parliamentary election on Oct. 6, another challenge since the new president’s success will depend on having support in parliament.