The New Wave of Environmentalism in the Gulf

Resource stress, pollution and climate change all threaten to aggravate instability and inequality in the Gulf, but have so far failed to capture public imagination. Now a wave of grassroots initiatives is trying to change this. Springing up in response to local problems, watin-p often employing Islamic narrative and spreading through Facebook, the movement is characteristic of the Gulf’s new generation and its rapidly evolving approach to ecology.

“It’s growing like crazy” says the effusive Khayra Bundakji of the environmental movement in Saudi Arabia’s coastal city of Jeddah. A surprising fact, perhaps, in a country not known for its ecological values. What’s more, women are leading the movement. Of the 17 groups Bundakji found active in Jeddah on environmental issues, 15 of them were initiated by women.

Bundakji, a computer science major and internet blogger, founded Faseelah, Effat University’s first Islamic environmentalism organization in 2010. She also works with Naqa’a (purity), the brainchild of two nursing students, which calls itself a youth driven “environmental enterprise.” Naqa’a’s educational campaigns emphasize “the three Rs”-reduce, reuse, recycle-of the western mantra, this website the Islamic duty of stewardship over the environment, as well as concepts of purity and reining in excessive consumption.

Despite these examples, the environmental movement is still a small world, composed mainly of the educated middle class. Exposure to ecologically conscious societies in the West and efforts in other Gulf cities are the most commonly cited influences feeding the Gulf’s environmental movement, according to Bundakji, who lived in the US and Dubai for 11 years.

Environmental campaigns in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are at least a decade ahead and have been impacted by the large expatriate community (over 80 percent of the population). A former government official, nadiya Habiba Al-Marashi, established the Emirates Environmental Group in 1991 and has become a one-woman tour de force in railing against over consumption and engaging the private sector in sustainability drives. The international World Wildlife Fund (WWF) opened its first office in a Gulf State in Abu Dhabi in 2001, where it conducts conservation projects and tracks the heavy environmental footprint of UAE citizens. High-profile events such as the Sharjah Art Biennale, initiated by Sheikh Qasimi whose 2007 theme was ecological art, have also raised awareness in the region.

“People in the West often view these initiatives as either a drop in the ocean in countries which rely on oil exports or as plain hypocrisy because of their high levels of consumption” says Professor Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, a former lecturer in environmental ethics at the American University of Sharjah. But he cautions against cynicism. “In fact, sho what you see in the Emirates is just an intensified version of the material system we have in the US…the advantage they have is their ‘can do’ attitude and the capital to back it up.”

While the glamour of green activity in the UAE may have offered inspiration to Jeddah, it was the tragic floods of November 2009 that really kick-started local activism. One group, Muwatana, began as an emergency volunteer relief effort for the victims and has become active in subsequent local environmental improvements such as beach clean-ups-a look at its Facebook page reveals 1,751 members and it has served as an initial network and model for other groups.

“Before the floods, there was interest in the environment but it was not considered a priority” says Dr Majdah Aburas, member on the board of directors of the Saudi Environmental Society (SENS), an organization begun in 2006 under the auspices of Environment Minister, Prince Turki bin Nasser. “After the floods, people became a lot more active-SENS organized a campaign of 900 volunteers from many different [informal] groups to help with the clean-up operation-and there was much more interest in acting to improve their local environment.” forbixindia

SENS is now leading a national cleaning campaign in collaboration with the Mayor of Jeddah and Prince Salman bin Sultan’s Charitable Heritage Foundation, which explains the penalties for dumping waste but also regenerates deprived neighborhoods. “Every Thursday, we are in a historical area of Jeddah” says Aburas, herself a renowned specialist in the bio-remediation of crude oil pollution on desert soil. “One of the projects is getting volunteers to redesign a small garden in a neglected, poor area that will both fit with traditional aesthetics and provide a nice recreational space for poor families.”

Most volunteers are young people-from the ages of 4 to 30. And yes, SENS abides by Saudi law and custom in separating the male and female volunteers during activities. “This is why we will be successful” she says “because we take into account tradition and social development needs as well as the environment.” Al-Marashi is likewise impressed by the volunteering spirit in the UAE. “For example, the recent Clean Up UAE campaign witnessed the participation of 20,000 volunteers across the country who collected 91 tons of waste!” she says.

Greenpeace-style activism this is not. Political status is also ambiguous. Aburas terms groups like Muwatana “voluntary committees” as they do not have status as organizations under Saudi law. Can we even use the terms grassroots or civil society? Dr Chris Davidson, author of Abu Dhabi: Oil and Beyond, thinks not in the case of groups in the UAE, “you will find that they usually have patronage from the rulers and it would be very hard for them to publicize government crimes against the environment…it doesn’t help that the press is one of the most controlled in the region.”

“We can’t speak of a coherent civil society movement in the UAE as such-because of the politics, that is tricky” says Bendik-Keymer, “but we can see three broad areas of environmental action in the UAE: community philanthropy, ‘green business’ initiatives, and stunningly futuristic engineering projects.” Under the first category come groups like EEG and Emirates Diving that organize voluntary beach and reef clean-ups, and social efforts like Adopt-a-Camp-a volunteer group helping to improve sanitary conditions in the South Asian worker camps. The second is manifest in the media saturation with environmental claims from the business sector which vary from greenwash to seriously innovative conservation projects. The third, like Masdar City (a sustainable city planned for 2025) and the associated solar farm, have an effect on people’s minds according to Bendik-Keymer, “they could send a powerful message about the kind of civilization the Emirates aspires to be.”

In spite of their comparative newness and less sophisticated PR, the Saudi initiatives benefit from a more investigative press and the much larger indigenous university-aged population. They have steered clear of any conflict with the state but informal conversations reveal disdain for local management of the environment and concerns about the lack of mechanisms for accountability. Nevertheless, all express hope for more support from the national government and senior figures of society in putting this to rights.


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