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Book Review: The Gulf Monarchies and Climate Change: Abu Dhabi and Qatar in an Era of Natural Unsustainability by Mari Luomi

David B Roberts - 10th February 2014
Review: The Gulf Monarchies and Climate Change: Abu Dhabi and Qatar in an Era of

The Gulf Monarchies and Climate Change: Abu Dhabi and Qatar in an Era of Natural Unsustainability by Mari Luomi. London: Hurst, 2012, 288 pp, £25 hardcover, 9781849042673

The concept of ‘natural unsustainability’ is at the heart of Dr Mari Luomi’s book investigating the responses to the exigencies of climate change by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. This is the theoretically-grounded way that Dr Luomi chooses to characterise the very nature of modern-day Qatari and Emirati societies. Dr Luomi contends that the basic economic system (the rentier bargain) of the regimes combines with persisting authoritarianism in the political systems to produce wasteful ruling bargains that stoke an ‘illusion of abundance’ (p.3). This concept is persuasively fleshed out and Dr Luomi thus highlights the central problem at the heart of these and indeed many of the other Gulf Monarchies: can these types of systems really become naturally sustainable?

The short answer is no, but Dr Luomi concludes with a series of steps that points out how these states can begin to strive to achieve such a point of sustainability. These include the ‘non-negotiable’ (p.135) re-pricing of energy and water, removing at least some of the subsidies; a new cross-sectoral approach to the issue of environmental sustainability; and practical legislation followed by meaningful enforcement of environmental codes and laws. Even without engaging with Dr Luomi’s other points, anyone familiar with the Gulf region can immediately see the profound institutional difficulties involved with these issues alone.

Yet what about Abu Dhabi’s trumpeted Masdar carbon-free city, its hosting of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) headquarters, or Qatar’s hosting of 2012’s Conference of the Parties 18th Climate Change Conference? To an interested observer such initiatives, which often come with significant funding and political backing from the highest sources, appear to show leadership in Qatar and the UAE striving to engage meaningfully with environmental issues. Certainly, given the deep vulnerability of Qatar and the UAE to the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change, some action on their behalf may be expected.

Though discerning underlying motives in the typically opaque higher echelons of Gulf decision-making is more an art than a science, Dr Luomi makes a compelling case, stating that the motives for such landmark policies lie elsewhere. For the UAE (or specifically Abu Dhabi) a mix of international pressure and condemnation of their lamentable environmental record juxtaposed problematically against the domestic legacy of the state’s founding father Sheikh Zayed, who championed concepts of environmentally sustainable development long before such topics became vogue, plays a key role. In the case of Qatar and its hosting of the 2012 iteration of the world’s most importance climate change conference (COP 18), Dr Luomi sees this as stemming more from Qatar’s magpie-like desire to collect and host a range of international conferences than anything else: the world-level nature of the conference being more important than the topic. It is difficult to argue with Dr Luomi on this point. Dozens of other nominally environmentally or sustainability-focused projects in the two states, while commendable, are, Dr Luomi argues, typically little more than ‘greenwash’: often isolated, public relations-focused activities (beach clean-ups, tree-planting events, etc.) that ignore the wider, systemic problems.

Dr Luomi’s choice of Qatar and Abu Dhabi as the two key case studies makes sense and the topics are dealt with sensibly; no unwarranted comparisons are forced. Both case studies perennially highlight the importance of personal politics in the Gulf region and Dr Luomi does an exemplary job of teasing out the lineage of different policies amid the complex, overlapping, and opaque world of Gulf Ministries, national energy companies, associated institutions, consultancies, and advisors. Such sections navigating the politics and the basics of the emergence of several key institutions (information which is often surprisingly difficult to unearth) provide the necessary contextual narratives and are frequently backed up by strong statistical evidence. Equally importantly, Dr Luomi engages in illuminating, bracing critiques of the various policies throughout: there is certainly no whitewash of the greenwash.

This book comes along at an opportune moment as the UAE and Qatar increasingly emerge with their own policies, positions, and initiatives after decades following the Saudi Arabian line. Yet this now means that this topic is moving quickly and parts need to be updated, particularly for Qatar. The legacy of Qatar’s COP 18 conference needs to be evaluated, while Qatar’s central policy initiative – the Qatar National Food Security Project – has reached the end of its planning stage and needs further analysis in the context of the mid-2013 leadership and cabinet level changes. Nevertheless, this book will likely have a particular longevity thanks to its basic organising principle around the concept of ‘natural unsustainability’: a simple but rich phrase that should become a basic starting point for considerations of the Gulf States and their future scenarios.

 

Dr. David B Roberts is Lecturer in Defence Studies at King’s College London, and the author of Qatar: Securing a City State with Global Ambitions (2013). Prior to moving to King’s College, David was the Director of the Qatar office of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI Qatar).