Revealed: ‘Worrying and outdated’ stereotypes color Western perceptions of the Arab world

Special An important new survey highlights the gulf between Western perceptions of the the Arab world and the reality of the region. (AFP)
An important new survey highlights the gulf between Western perceptions of the the Arab world and the reality of the region. (AFP)
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Updated 18 July 2022

Revealed: ‘Worrying and outdated’ stereotypes color Western perceptions of the Arab world

Revealed: ‘Worrying and outdated’ stereotypes color Western perceptions of the Arab world
  • The study by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change came out on the eve of President Biden’s Middle East trip
  • Two surveys found a wide gulf between Western attitudes and the reality of the situation in the region

LONDON: The countries of the Middle East are “backward-looking,” unfriendly, or even hostile to Western nations, and fail to share their values or aspirations.

These are the worrying and outdated perceptions of people in four Western nations — the UK, US, France and Germany — surveyed in a new poll conducted for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

The same poll, however, reveals that, in fact, Arabs in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Tunisia “deeply respect the US and its values of freedom, innovation, and opportunity.”

YouGov conducted interviews online between March 20 and March 28 with 6,268 adults in four Western countries; the US (1,418), UK (1,780), France (1,065) and Germany (2,005).

Zogby Research Services, meanwhile, conducted face-to-face interviews between March 17 and April 7 with 4,856 adults in five Arab countries: Egypt (1,043), Iraq (1,044), Lebanon (857), Saudi Arabia (1,043) and Tunisia (869).

Published on the eve of US President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the timely survey and its accompanying report, “Think Again: Inside the Modernization of the New Middle East,” highlights the gulf between Western perceptions of the region and the reality of the situation.

Tony Blair, Britain’s former prime minister and founder and executive chairman of the Blair Institute, said that the results of the poll show that “people across the Middle East and North Africa, especially the youth, want societies which are religiously tolerant, economically enterprising and at peace with their neighbors.

“Leaders engaged in these reforms are supported; those wanting to exploit religious or tribal differences are not. And virtually in every country surveyed, opinions of the West, particularly the US, Europe and the UK, are surprisingly positive.”

Unfortunately, he added: “Western attitudes are lagging. We still think of the region as backward, intractable and irredeemably hostile to us.

“And, whilst of course there is evidence for those attitudes in parts of the Middle East, the polling shows they do not represent the majority.”

The risk for the West, he warned, was that “our outdated misconception of what people in the region really think leads us to disengage at the very moment where there is an opportunity for us to partner the region and its modernizing elements, for the benefit not only of the region itself but for our own security.”

The institute’s report points to social developments in Saudi Arabia as an example of “the new Middle East’s shared vision for change,” but concludes that this vision and the progress it has already brought about has so far failed to register in the Western consciousness.

More than half of those polled in the West believe that people in the Middle East do not share the same values as them, such as support for secular politics, and respect for difference and freedom of expression.

Western perceptions of the Arab world are far removed from the reality. (AFP)

Neither, adds the report, “do they think it is a forward-looking region characterized by hope, instead associating the Middle East with intractable conflict and violent extremism.”

But from the perspective of the people who live there, the poll reveals that “the New Middle East is an altogether different place.”

For example, “an overwhelming majority support the Saudi modernization program and others like it that are reforming institutions, liberalizing society and diversifying the economy.”

Equally, “the majority are opposed to regressive religious movements and their role in politics.”

The report praises Saudi Arabia’s modernization program, championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman under the Vision 2030 blueprint for the nation’s future, as “the most comprehensive, regionally driven, transformative agenda since the post-colonial period.”

From liberalizing the country’s laws and policies to diversifying the economy, 73 percent of people polled across the region said that they support these transformative steps, including 89 percent of Saudis themselves.

The survey reveals much about the changing nature of Saudi society, including the waning influence of religious authorities.

Indeed, educational reform and the role of religion are key issues for almost everyone polled across all five countries in the region: 77 percent of Iraqis, 73 percent of Saudis, 71 percent of Tunisians and 65 percent of Lebanese believe their country’s religious education and practices require reform.

The report singled out Saudi Arabia for praise as a result of its many modernization programs. (AFP)

“What is clear,” the report states, “is that people want secular and pragmatic government, not leadership bound to outdated and destructive Islamist ideologies.

“Today, an overwhelming 75 percent agree that politicized religious movements are damaging for the region.”

This figure is even higher in Saudi Arabia, standing at 80 percent.

Saudi Arabia’s authorities, lawmakers and religious scholars, the report states, “have worked to modernize women’s rights, the judicial system (and) censorship laws and lift social restrictions, including gender-segregation laws.”

Modernizing and diversifying the economy is seen as a “high priority” for the majority of Saudis, 60 percent of whom identify technology and innovation, and 44 percent tourism, as the ideal sectors to generate employment.

More of those surveyed in the Kingdom favor their children receiving technological skills over religious education.

The report highlights that Saudi government thinking — and action ­— about the future is in step with the views of its citizens as the country moves to unlock the potential of non-oil sectors.

In 2021, for example, there was a 54 percent increase in start-up funding over 2020 and $33 billion invested in information and communication technology. The report also highlights there are now in excess of 300,000 jobs in the Saudi tech sector.

The Global Entrepreneurship Congress has ranked the economic and regulatory landscape in the Kingdom as the best environment for business start-ups out of 45 countries.

On women’s rights, by a margin of two to one, a majority of Saudis agree that women should have the same employment rights as men in private and public sectors.

Vision 2030 envisages women will comprise at least 30 percent of the workforce by 2030, while women’s economic participation in the Kingdom grew from 19.4 percent in 2017 to more than 33 percent in 2020.

All these developments, the report concludes, are popular in Saudi Arabia. Equally important, the Blair Institute says, is they should be supported by the West — and by the US in particular.

Despite its repuation for backwardness, the region is dynamic and forward-facing. (AFP)

Reflecting a history of friendship and economic and military collaboration that dates back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s historic February 1945 meeting aboard the USS Quincy on the Suez Canal with King Abdulaziz, founder of Saudi Arabia, “Saudis look to the US as their global partner of choice, despite decades of Western assumptions that anti-Americanism is on the rise.”

Saudi respondents to the survey gave their most favorable country ratings to China, the US and the UK, but 66 percent said that they would most like their country to partner with the US.

“As the Kingdom and its people make strides in transforming society and the economy,” the report states, “now is the time for the US and its allies to invest in the country’s future.”

The report also notes how Saudi Arabia is skilfully managing to balance the preservation and promotion of its own heritage with an embrace of Western culture — to the delight of its young people.

In “the once-conservative Saudi Arabia,” it says, “Vision 2030 prioritizes cultural expression with three aims: Promoting tolerance, professionalism, discipline, justice and transparency; preserving Saudi, Arab and Islamic cultural heritage and history; and preserving and promoting national identity in order to pass it on to future generations.”

There are also “commercial implications ... . Taking a global approach, Saudi Arabia is seeking international partners for its festivals, arts and museums, with the culture sector expected to generate $20 billion, create 100,000 jobs and contribute 3 percent of gross domestic product by 2030.”

At the same time, “music festivals and international sporting events are capitalizing on changes in the Middle East.”

The report cites last year’s MDLBeast Soundstorm festival, which was staged in the desert outside Riyadh and attracted a global audience of more than 700,000.

This state-sponsored event “witnessed young men and women openly mixing, wearing unconventional clothing and enjoying performances by popular Western musicians such as David Guetta — an appearance that caused great excitement among the Saudi youth. Sporting events, including Formula 1 ... are also drawing in a global audience.”

The report highlights that, as part of its national “cultural transformation,” Saudi Arabia has introduced a new visa scheme to encourage international artists to visit, and a residency program to allow artists to settle permanently.

Runners take part in the Tahrir Youth Marathon, in support of ongoing anti-government protests, in the Iraqi capital Baghdad. (AFP)

“The aim is to increase freedom for cultural exchange and to underpin the Kingdom’s plans to accelerate the arts and culture sector.”

In his foreword to the report, James Zogby, the managing director of international polling firm Zogby Research Services, which carried out the survey for the Blair institute, says that Western perceptions of the Arab world “are too often shaped by negative stereotypes and anecdotal evidence used to justify prejudicial views — rather than by reality.”

As a result, he adds, “our understanding of who Arabs are, and what values and aspirations they have, too often misses the mark.”

Western policymakers and political analysts “talk about Arabs and at Arabs, but they rarely consider listening to Arabs in order to fully understand their lives, and their needs and hopes for the future.”

One consequence of this has been “the oversimplification of a complex region, which has led to costly policy disasters. In recognition of these failures and still hampered by attitudes shaped by negative perceptions, some voices in the West now argue for disengagement from the region.”

Zogby had this message for Western policymakers and political pundits. “Check your biases at the door and listen to what Arabs are telling us about what they want.

“As my mother used to tell me, ‘If you want others to hear you, you must listen to them first.’

“Thanks to the institute, Arab voices are speaking to you. Listen to what they’re saying.”


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Israel defies UN with raid on Palestine rights groups

Israel defies UN with raid on Palestine rights groups
Updated 5 min 53 sec ago

Israel defies UN with raid on Palestine rights groups

Israel defies UN with raid on Palestine rights groups
  • Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz repeats discredited claims of financing terror organizations
  • Nine EU countries have said they will continue working with the Palestinian groups because Israel has produced no evidence to support its accusations

RAMALLAH: Israel defied condemnation by the UN and the EU on Thursday by raiding and closing down seven Palestinian rights groups in the West Bank.

Security forces stormed the groups’ offices in Ramallah and seized files, computers and other equipment before sealing off entrances and declaring them permanently closed.

The seven groups are the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association; Al-Haq; Bisan Center for Research and Development; Defense for Children International — Palestine; Health Work Committees; the Union of Agricultural Work Committees; and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees.

Israel has designated six of the groups as terrorist, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Thursday repeated discredited claims that they had raised funds for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which it views as a terrorist organization.

The UN called for the terrorist designations to be revoked. “Despite offers to do so, Israeli authorities have not presented to the UN any credible evidence to justify these declarations,” the UN Human Rights Office said. “As such, the closures appear totally arbitrary.”

Nine EU countries have said they will continue working with the Palestinian groups because Israel has produced no evidence to support its accusations. “Past allegations of misuse of EU funds in relation to certain Palestinian civil society organizations have not been substantiated,” EU diplomacy chief Josep Borrell’s spokeswoman Nabila Massrali said on Thursday. “The EU will continue to stand by international law and support civil society organizations.”

After the raids, staff from Al-Haq removed the metal sheet covering their office door and vowed to get back to work. “We were established here not by Israel, not by their decision, and we will continue our work,” director Shawan Jabarin said.

Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh visited the group’s office and pledged his support. “This is not only an NGO, but this is also a state of Palestine institution — therefore as long as they work within the law, we will stand solid with them,” he said. 

Analysts speculated that Israel had attacked the groups because they were becoming increasingly effective at exposing Israel’s repression of Palestinian people. “I think Israel wants to restrict the activities of the Palestinian human rights institutions that worked to submit files to the International Criminal Court and were able to change world opinion of Palestinian human rights issues,” rights expert Majed Al-Arouri told Arab News.

Lebanon public sector faces paralysis as strikes widen

Lebanon public sector faces paralysis as strikes widen
Updated 39 min 56 sec ago

Lebanon public sector faces paralysis as strikes widen

Lebanon public sector faces paralysis as strikes widen
  • Move to raise customs dollar rate plunges markets into turmoil 

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s public sector and legal system are under growing strain amid widening strike action over the plunging value of salaries in the crisis-hit country.

Hundreds of judges continued their strike on Thursday in protest at having their salaries based on exchange rate of 1,507 Lebanese pounds to the dollar.

Civil servants have also decided to go on strike again for the same reason, despite being granted monthly aid.

Meanwhile, Lebanese university professors are continuing their open-ended strike, while students wait for work to resume so they can take last year’s final exams.

Lebanon took preliminary steps to raise the customs dollar rate from 1,507 Lebanese pounds — the rate adopted before the economic crisis hit three years ago — to 20,000 pounds.

The move created confusion in markets, adding to the chaos they were already facing.

The customs dollar is the price for calculating the customs value of imports, and is paid in Lebanese pounds.

On Thursday, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati sent a letter to Finance Minister Youssef Khalil demanding the customs dollar rate of 20,000 pounds be adopted.

Khalil told an expanded ministerial consultative meeting about the move.

The ministerial committee enjoys exceptional powers that allow it to adjust the customs dollar rate without the need for Cabinet approval.

Amin Salam, the caretaker economy minister, told a press conference on Thursday that the preliminary decision will be the subject of discussions between the finance minister and the central bank governor.

Salam said that the impact of the new customs dollar rate on prices of goods would be “insignificant,” adding that the current rate was no longer fair.

“We want to adjust the wages and salaries of civil servants,” he said.

Salam also voiced fears that traders might store goods to be sold later under the new rate.

“We are waiting for traders to provide us with the lists of goods they purchased previously,” the minister said.

Foodstuffs that will be subject to the customs dollar can be substituted by alternative products available in Lebanon, in order to encourage the industrial sector and the Lebanese industry, he said.

Salam said that expensive cheese and canned vegetables are among products that will be subject to the customs dollar.

He warned traders against pricing old products based on the new customs dollar rate.

The customs dollar is one of the main elements feeding the Lebanese treasury, which receives a percentage of the price of imported goods.

MP Ibrahim Kanaan, chair of the parliamentary finance and budget committee, said that he doubted the customs dollar would take into consideration people’s means and needs.

“How can we come up with the customs dollar? What are the covered and non-covered goods, and who is going to monitor the prices?” he asked.

Four rates are currently adopted in Lebanon by the state and banks, in addition to the black market rate, which reached about 33,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar on Thursday.

Economic analysts have predicted that the country will witness a new wave of price increases while social security measures are negligible in the face of worsening economic pressures.

Observers are worried that this might encourage smugglers crossing Lebanese-Syrian border.

Hani Bohsali, head of the Food Importers’ Syndicate, told Arab News: “There are no luxury goods anymore. If we want to speak logically and put things in perspective, the interests of Lebanese come before the traders’ interests.”

Bohsali said the customs dollar “will affect oils and canned vegetables, and we are afraid that those demanding a wage increase might request another one after a while.”

He added: “We will all pay the price of and be affected by ill-considered decisions.

“Do we know what the repercussions of increasing the customs dollar are? Is it really going to profit the state? They calculated it based on how things stand currently, but what if the value of importation dropped by half as a result of the Lebanese low purchasing power.”

MP Ziad Hawat said that increasing the rate without a complete economic plan would not achieve the desired objectives.

He called for a consolidation of the exchange rate instead of “stealing people’s deposits.”


A new honeymoon for Turkey-Israel ties may begin with envoy exchange

A new honeymoon for Turkey-Israel ties may begin with envoy exchange
Updated 55 min 33 sec ago

A new honeymoon for Turkey-Israel ties may begin with envoy exchange

A new honeymoon for Turkey-Israel ties may begin with envoy exchange
  • Timing coincides with efforts by both countries to build relationships in region, analyst tells Arab News

ANKARA: Israel and Turkey have announced the upgrading of diplomatic relations and the return of their ambassadors and consuls general after years of strained ties between the two nations. 

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid greeted such a diplomatic breakthrough as an “important asset for regional stability and very important economic news for the citizens of Israel.

According to Dr. Nimrod Goren, president of the Mitvim Institute and co-founder of Diplomeds — The Council for Mediterranean Diplomacy — the announcement on the upgrading of ties marks a diplomatic success.

"It is the culmination of a gradual process that has taken place over more than a year, during which Israel and Turkey have worked to rebuild trust, launch new dialogue channels, adopt a positive agenda, re-energize cooperation, confront security challenges, and find ways to contain differences," Goren told Arab News.

“Based on these positive developments, restoring relations at the ambassadorial level is now seen as a natural step, perhaps even a long overdue one,” he said. 

“It was important to seal this move before internal politics gets in the way, as elections in both countries are drawing near,” Goren added.

Goren said that the timing also “coincides with efforts by both Israel and Turkey to improve and deepen their various relationships in the region.”

Turkey and Israel, once regional allies, expelled their ambassadors in 2018 over the killing of dozens of Palestinians by Israeli forces during protests along the Gaza border.

Relations were completely frozen after the death of nine Turkish activists over an Israeli raid on the Gaza-bound Turkish Mavi Marmara ship in 2010. 

Since then, many attempts have been made to mend ties, especially in the energy sector, and in trade and tourism, which emerged as strategic avenues for cooperation. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli President Isaac Herzog have spoken on the phone several times and Herzog visited Ankara last March. 

As part of mutual trust-building efforts, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also visited Jerusalem in May, marking the first visit to Israel by a Turkish foreign minister in 15 years. His visit was reciprocated by Lapid, then Israeli foreign minister, in June. 

The two countries also cooperated in counter-terrorism efforts following Iranian assassination plots against a Turkish-Israeli businessperson as well as Israeli tourists in Istanbul. Turkey took steps to curtail the movements of Hamas within the country. 

They also signed a civil aviation agreement last month. 

Dr. Gokhan Cinkara, an expert from Necmettin Erbakan University, thinks that shifts in regional geopolitics are the main determinants for Turkey’s new efforts for normalization. 

“The competition between status quo and revisionism in the region is over. Consequently, every country has alternatives and can be replaced, which is also the case for Turkey. Due to the economic crisis and geopolitical deadlock that the country is passing through, it was inevitable for Turkey to search for new options,” he told Arab News.  

“The appointment of diplomats will ensure that bilateral relations will continue to operate under an institutional routine.”  

The ambassador to Israel is expected to be appointed soon. Both countries are also set to hold a joint economic commission meeting in September. 

However, Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu said that Ankara would continue to support the Palestinian cause. 

“Despite the new chapter in relations, Israel and Turkey still have differences of opinion on key policy issues, including Israeli-Palestinian relations and the Eastern Mediterranean,” Goren said. 

“These differences will not go away, but Israel and Turkey are aware of the need to be sensitive in how they deal with them and to put in place bilateral mechanisms to regularly engage on these issues,” Goren said.

“If Israel and Turkey can somehow support each other on the road to conflict resolution with third countries (e.g., Turkey with Egypt, Israel with the Palestinians) — that will be a major benefit of the new chapter in ties.”

As bilateral relations have been moving on a positive trajectory since Israeli President Herzog’s visit to Ankara, Selin Nasi, London representative of the Ankara Policy Center and a respected researcher on Turkish Israeli relations, pointed to the timing of the envoy exchange. 

“The Israeli side has been taking the process a bit slowly in order to understand whether Ankara was sincere in its efforts to mend fences,” she told Arab News. 

Ankara’s “calm and measured response in the face of tensions in Jerusalem and in Gaza in the last couple of months and its full cooperation with Israeli intelligence against Iranian plots which targeted Israeli citizens in Turkey have seemingly reassured Israel’s concerns,” she said.

Nasi thinks that the ambassadorial exchange shows Turkey and Israel’s willingness to give the normalization process a formal framework, as well as their readiness to move to the next phase. 

“Considering the upcoming elections in Israel in November, normalization of diplomatic ties is likely to provide a shield against the interference of domestic politics,” she said. 

Although Turkey and Israel have managed to turn a new page in bilateral relations, Nasi thinks that it is equally important to see what they are going to write in this new chapter.  

“Both countries have a lot to gain from developing cooperation at a time when the US is shifting its focus and energy to the Pacific region and Iran is about to become a nuclear power,” she said.

“On the other hand, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put energy security front and center once again. It revived hopes that the pipeline project that would carry Israeli natural gas via Turkey could be eventually realized,” she said. “While the unsettled Cyprus question remains the elephant in the room, it all comes down to the sides’ mending political trust. We may therefore see some openings in the future.”

Goren thinks that a relaunching of the Israel-Turkey strategic dialogue and the resumption of regular high-level contacts will also assist the countries lessen mutual misperceptions — related, for example, to Israel’s ties with the Kurds and Turkey’s ties with Iran — and avoid gaps in expectations.  

“Israel and Turkey should make sure that this time — unlike what happened in the previous decade — their upgrade of ties will be sustainable and long-term,” Goren said. 

The exchange of ambassadors has been also welcomed by the US.

“Today’s announcement that Israel and Turkey are fully restoring their diplomatic relations. This move will bring increased security, stability, and prosperity to their peoples as well as the region,” tweeted Jake Sullivan, national security adviser at White House. 

Nasi also said that Turkey’s relations with Israel “have always been a factor of its relations with the West and with the US in particular. In the backdrop of the ongoing war in Ukraine, Ankara has been threading a fine path with Russia.”

Nasi said “normalization of ties with Israel may aim to send a message to the US Congress, whose favorable view and support on the modernization of F16s is very much sought for.”

Bella Hadid expresses ‘sadness’ at growing up away from Palestinian roots

Bella Hadid expresses ‘sadness’ at growing up away from Palestinian roots
Updated 18 August 2022

Bella Hadid expresses ‘sadness’ at growing up away from Palestinian roots

Bella Hadid expresses ‘sadness’ at growing up away from Palestinian roots
  • Model opens up on her relationship with Muslim, Arab heritage ahead of acting debut in Hulu’s ‘Ramy’
  • Hadid has become a vocal campaigner at demos and on social media about the plight of Palestinian people

LONDON: The model Bella Hadid has spoken of her “sadness” that her “Muslim culture” was taken from her as a child following the divorce of her parents.

In an interview with GQ, ahead of her acting debut in the Hulu TV series “Ramy,” she said she had been “extracted” from her Palestinian father, real estate developer Mohamed Hadid, and his side of the family when her mother, Dutch model Yolanda Hadid, moved her and her siblings, Gigi and Anwar, from Washington, D.C. to Santa Barbara, California.

“I was with my Palestinian side (of the family) and I got extracted when we moved to California,” she said.

“I would have loved to grow up and be with my dad every day and studying and really being able to practice, just in general being able to live in a Muslim culture, but I wasn’t given that.”

Hadid, who was just four years old when she was forced to move, added she was the only Arab girl in her class at school in Santa Barbara and suffered racist discrimination.

“For so long I was missing that (Palestinian) part of me, and it made me really, really sad and lonely,” she said.

“Ramy” is a comedy-drama about a first-generation American Muslim, starring Hadid’s friend Ramy Youssef. She said the show had ignited her interest in discovering more about her Palestinian heritage and her faith.

She added that she “couldn’t handle” her emotions when crew members working on the show gave her a “Free Palestine” T-shirt as a gift.

“Growing up and being Arab, it was the first time that I’d ever been with like-minded people,” she said. “I was able to see myself.”

The 25-year-old star has become vociferous in her support for Palestine in recent years, attending protests and spreading awareness on social media.

In a post following a protest four years ago, she wrote: “It has always been #freepalestine. ALWAYS. I have a lot to say about this but for now, please read and educate yourself.

“This is not about religion. This is not about spewing hate on one or the other. This is about Israeli colonization, ethnic cleansing, military occupation and apartheid over the Palestinian people that has been going on for YEARS!”

Writing on Instagram after attending a protest in New York in 2021, she said: “The way my heart feels ... To be around this many beautiful, smart, respectful, loving, kind, and generous Palestinians all in one place ... It feels whole. We are a rare breed!”

In another post, following violence in Gaza later that year, she wrote: “You cannot allow yourself to be desensitized to watching human life being taken. Palestinian lives are the lives that will help change the world. And they are being taken from us by the second.”

In an Instagram post about her grandparents’ wedding in Palestine in 1941, she wrote: “I love my family, I love my heritage, I love Palestine.”

In the GQ interview, the model also opened up on issues surrounding body image and self-esteem. She said she had compared herself unfavorably to her older sister, and fellow model, Gigi, developed an eating disorder, and even been driven to plastic surgery at the age of only 14 years old when she had a nose job.

“I wish I had kept the nose of my ancestors,” she said as she reflected on the procedure. “I think I would have grown into it.”

She added: “I’ve had this impostor syndrome where people made me feel like I didn’t deserve any of this.

“People can say anything about how I look, about how I talk, about how I act. But in seven years I never missed a job, canceled a job, was late to a job. No one can ever say that I don’t work my a— off.”

What increasingly hot and dusty Middle East summers mean for public health, productivity and energy demand

What increasingly hot and dusty Middle East summers mean for public health, productivity and energy demand
Updated 7 sec ago

What increasingly hot and dusty Middle East summers mean for public health, productivity and energy demand

What increasingly hot and dusty Middle East summers mean for public health, productivity and energy demand
  • Region expected to experience extreme weather events including drought, flash flooding and sandstorms
  • Frequency of dust storms in the Middle East could double by 2050 as average temperatures keep rising

DUBAI: This summer, at least 20 countries around the world recorded maximum temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius or above, with extreme heat episodes striking Europe, the Middle East and Africa — often for the first time on record.

The Arab world in particular has experienced ever-more extreme temperatures year on year, due to a mixture of suspected man-made climate change and long-term variations in weather patterns. And it is forecast to get worse.

“Countries in the Middle East that have surpassed temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius include Kuwait, Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” Hussein Rifai, chairman of Australian company SPC Global, public speaker and a keen environmentalist, told Arab News.

“Temperatures are expected to rise in the region by at least 4 degrees Celsius by 2050 if greenhouse gases continue to increase at the current rate.”

According to an International Monetary Fund report published in March, temperatures in the Middle East are set to rise by almost half a degree Celsius per decade, leading to extreme weather events including drought, flash flooding and dust storms.

The findings show that climate disasters in the region are already reducing annual economic growth by 1-2 percentage points on a per-capita basis.

“This is not fiction or exaggeration,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in April, responding to the latest findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“It is what science tells us will result from our current energy policies. We are on a pathway to global warming of more than double the 1.5-degree limit (above pre-industrial levels agreed by world leaders in Paris in 2015).”

The effects can already be seen in Tunisia, where 90 percent of coastal tourism infrastructure is threatened by erosion caused by seawater flooding. Similarly, in Iran a severe drought last year sparked protests as water shortages destroyed farmers’ livelihoods.

Hotter summers and more frequent dust storms have implications for public health, productivity and energy demands say experts. (AFP)

“Climate change is exacerbating desertification and water stress,” said Rifai, whose Shepparton-based company made a commitment last year to a sustainable future for the planet. “Repeated sandstorms like those in Iraq will continue to shut down commerce and send thousands to hospital.”

Because of the Middle East and North Africa’s geographical location, average temperatures have already risen much faster than other inhabited regions, up by around 1.5 degrees Celsius in the last three decades — twice the average global increase of 0.7 degrees.

A study published in the scientific journal Climates Dynamics, which introduces a new and more precise way to project temperatures, claims the threshold for dangerous global warming could be crossed as early as 2027, and certainly by 2042.

“It’s a combination of burning fossil fuels, faulty waste-management systems, continuous deforestation and excessive urbanization, creating greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere and make the planet warmer,” Zoltan Rendes, chief marketing officer of SunMoney Solar Group, a MENA-focused semiconductor-manufacturing company, told Arab News.

Erratic weather patterns could be especially harmful for regions that are already hot. Droughts could be longer, deeper and more common, while the frequency of dust storms in the Middle East could double by 2050.

“To put things in perspective, in 2015 a major dust storm blanketed Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq, causing widespread disruption. It was so massive that it could be seen from space,” said Rendes. “One can only imagine how dangerous the situation will be in the years to come.”

Policymakers throughout the Arab world are now grappling with what increasingly hot summers will mean for public health, infrastructure, productivity, the natural environment and energy demand.

No matter what measures are taken at the global and regional levels to slow the pace of global warming, experts say communities will have to adapt quickly to cope with hotter summers and mitigate their most harmful effects.

Research shows that greenhouse-gas emissions are making heatwaves more common and more intense.

Indeed, this summer at least 90 cities worldwide issued heat alerts, urging the public to remain indoors to avoid excessive sun exposure and heat exhaustion.

Iraqi youths beat the heat in the Shatt Al-Arab river in the southern port city of Basra. (AFP)

The elderly, the homeless, and those with pre-existing medical conditions are especially vulnerable. Hundreds of heat-related fatalities were recorded over the summer months in places that lacked the facilities and infrastructure required to deal with the abnormal weather conditions.

The combination of high temperatures and relative humidity is potentially deadly if the human body is unable to cool off through sweating — a phenomenon known as “wet-bulb” temperatures.

Scientists have calculated that a healthy human adult in the shade with unlimited drinking water will die if wet-bulb temperatures (TW) exceed 35 degrees Celsius for a period of six hours.

It was long assumed this theoretical threshold would never be crossed. However, US researchers came across two locations — one in the UAE, another in Pakistan — where the 35C TW barrier was breached more than once in 2020, if only fleetingly.

Hotter climates will also reduce worker productivity and cause overheated equipment to malfunction.

The Arab world in particular has experienced ever-more extreme temperatures year on year, due to a mixture of suspected man-made climate change and long-term variations in weather patterns. (AFP)

“This is particularly true in manual-labor jobs, but even office workers can be affected when temperatures become too hot,” said Rendes.

Under the circumstances, air conditioners have to work harder to keep people cool, which puts further strain on power grids in the form of higher energy demand.

“If we don’t take action to increase energy efficiency, switch to renewable sources of energy like solar, and propel clean energy solutions through green investments, these problems will grow bigger in the days to come,” said Rendes.

With even roads, railway tracks and runways at risk — some of them literally melted in this year’s summer heat — disruption of economic activity is likely to become more frequent.

Equally worrisome is the increasing risk of conflict and social unrest resulting from human displacement, discomfort and deprivation as rising temperatures destroy livelihoods, overwhelm infrastructure and cause shortages of even basic necessities.

“There will be geopolitical unrest as marginalized citizens fight for access and control of scarce food and water resources,” said Rifai, predicting a looming security threat if no action is taken.

Countries need to be more ambitious with their climate change legislation, the lives and those of future generations are at stake if not, according to Hussein Rifai, SPC Global chairman. (Supplied)

Responding to the challenge, the Gulf states have sought to lower their greenhouse-gas emissions in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement by reducing their reliance on fossil fuels.

The UAE, for instance, has pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and to invest up to $160 billion in clean and renewable-energy solutions.

Last year, Saudi Arabia launched the Saudi Green and Middle East Green initiatives, committing the Kingdom to reach net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2060 and to plant 10 billion trees over the coming decades.

Rifai thinks widespread adoption of alternative green technologies such as wind turbines, solar panels and battery-powered electric vehicles is the way to go.

If wind and solar-power facilities were to be set up in half the world’s countries, he says, not only would their greenhouse-gas emissions be negligible, but the combined cost of installing them would be much lower than operating the existing fossil-fuel power plants.

Some Gulf countries have made notable progress in the development of utility-scale solar and wind power, including the third phase of the Mohammed bin Rashid solar project in Dubai completed last year, and the inauguration of Saudi Arabia’s first wind farm at Dumat Al-Jandal.

A man rides his scooter along a street during a sand storm in Dubai, on August 14, 2022. (AFP)

Saudi authorities aim to increase the Kingdom’s solar-photovoltaic power-generation capacity to 40 gigawatts by 2030.

Another sustainable-energy source being explored by Gulf states is hydrogen, which is regarded by many experts as a clean fuel of the future, particularly green hydrogen, which is produced using solar energy.

Some countries are also tapping the potential of artificial rain to combat drought and increasing aridity.

Cloud seeding is a man-made intervention to increase precipitation, where clouds are seeded by aircraft or ground rockets, which then release the required material, most commonly silver iodide.

Worldwide, as many as 56 countries are using cloud-seeding technology, according to the World Meteorological Organization. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have both launched programs to boost precipitation.

“In the UAE, where warm clouds are prevalent, salts mixed with magnesium, sodium chloride and potassium chloride are used,” Rifai said.

Palestinian children play in a public fountain during a hot summer day in Gaza City. (AFP)

Of late, the UAE has been testing a new method of cloud seeding by using drones that zap clouds with electricity. Rifai believes more research is needed to fine-tune cloud-seeding technologies.

“It’s not a perfect solution to drought issues, as it requires the presence of clouds to work and a specific type of cumulus cloud. In drought-affected areas, there are likely to be fewer seedable clouds,” he said.

Taken together, the many energy initiatives show that Arab countries that have the requisite resources and political will are getting to grips with the climate crisis.

Even so, hotter temperatures appear to be the new normal, which Middle East populations will simply have to adapt to.

“It’s not too late, but countries need to be more ambitious with their climate-change legislation. Our lives and those of our future generations are truly at stake,” Rifai said.

“Rich nations that have pledged billions in annual funding to help poor countries transition to renewable energy have to start delivering on this promise.”