Friday, November 9, 2007

The Persian Gulf and the Environment

I recently just watched the documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” by Al Gore and found it quite moving and well-produced. He brings together various pieces of evidences for global warming into a stunning and compelling presentation. As a Fulbrighter living in Kuwait, I wonder if the message of the film, that global warming is a serious and real phenomenon that requires immediate attention, is understood by the people of the Gulf Arab states.

I remember being shocked and appalled by the blatant wasteful consumerism when first arriving to Kuwait. I think it would be safe to say that just by observing the types of cars on the roads that Kuwaitis have any other country beat for the highest per capita ownership of Hummers. It is disgraceful and quite frankly revolting that the people in the Gulf in general wastefully spend their money to the detriment of the environment at this critical hour on large, bulky vehicles that are unnecessary and consume large amounts of gas. Yes, gasoline is cheap in the Gulf, but that should not be an excuse to buy a Hummer or SUV. In Syria, a much poorer country where I was studying Arabic, I was told there were only 4 Hummers in the entire city of 6 million whereas in Kuwait with a population of 3 million you will see just driving through the streets on a normal day at least 4 hummers.

While most of the pollution contributing to global warming is undoubtedly from the US, the recent development in the Middle East means that this region in the future will have a larger share in the pollution as new high rise buildings and luxury hotels are built, more cars are added to the streets, and new desalination and power plants are built to run the redeveloped and expanded cities. Indeed, already global warming has had its effects in Kuwait. When my mother was growing up in Kuwait 50 years ago, the weather was much cooler and some people used to sleep on the roofs of their houses in the summer. However today, average temperatures are higher during the day and evening so that it would not be as comfortable sleeping outside on a summer night. I read that average temperatures in May this year were the highest on record.

It does not surprise me considering how much heat is being produced by the power and desalination plants, the AC units and cars. I remember standing in a building overlooking a desalination plant and noticed that so much heat was coming out of one of the exhaust towers which I could tell from the air above it that was superheated giving a hazy, blurry image when looking at it. Additionally, because power is so cheap in Kuwait due to government subsidization, some homes and buildings are so cooled in summer that it is cold inside and require the wearing of a light jacket when temperatures outside are between 45-50C. Thus, due to the wasteful use of electricity on AC, Kuwait has experienced brownouts and this summer the government organized a massive campaign to make people aware to conserve electricity. There were electric meters displayed during programs on TV indicating the percentage of output being consumed and signs along the streets, especially very large ones on the way to the airport, reminding people to conserve electricity and lower the AC and turn off the lights before traveling.

It seems Arabs are unaware of the seriousness of global warming. The marine ecosystems of the Gulf have already been ravaged and coral communities destroyed. Diving in one particular area I saw a sea of sea urchins that had destroyed the coral in the area. Additionally, in speaking to a professor in Bahrain focusing on the marine life, he frankly stated that financial interests grossly outweigh a desire to preserve and protect environment. Hence the leaders of the Gulf countries are so quick to reclaim land such as for new business and luxury housing developments in Bahrain and the Emirates.

It’s safe to say that the people here and in other Arab countries rarely think about environmental interests. I wonder if they are simply are not conscious of it. People are so easy to throw their refuse into the streets. In Damascus and Aleppo when I went to sightseeing points to take in city views, there were piles of trash below where people would sit. I remember clearly in Aleppo a group of two or three adolescent girls sitting to the right of where I was standing throwing their empty soda cans and a plastic bag of trash on to the slight drop off in front of them. I do not understand why there such little respect among Arabs for the environment. Why is it so difficult for them to throw their trash in marked receptacles?

In Kuwait, the lack of car for the environment is on display when one goes to some of the beaches. One can often find plastic bags, bottles, cans, batteries, and once I found a small piece of carpet. Even when I went on a boating trip to a popular island of the mainland were there numerous clearly marked receptacles not far from the beach, I still found refuse along the beach and floating in the water. It seems it was too inconvenient for the Kuwaitis to gather their refuse and walk the 10 meters to deposit it in the waste bin. Such is the environmental degradation and apathy that I no longer desire to go to the beaches in Kuwait and witness their spoilage. Of course there are private, well-kept beaches but they are not as easy to access. Additionally, what is ironic is that a Kuwaiti I spoke with working as a director in one of the government departments tasked with monitoring fishing noted that Kuwaitis when they travel to Europe are aware of the rules against littering and abide them whereas the same person is more likely to litter in their country when they return home.

Another sign that today’s Gulf Arab leaders do not give sufficient consideration to the environment is the wasteful manner in which they spend their resources. Take for example the Emirates. The emirate of Dubai already has a large, established international airline. However, the rulers of neighboring emirates felt the need to start their own airlines to spur economic growth in their emirates which is understandable since you want airlines to bring tourists. Yet wouldn’t a much cheaper, more effective, and environmentally friendly solution be to develop high speed rail service between the major cities of the emirates. After all, when Dubai is only a 20 min drive to Sharjah, an hour drive to Abu Dhabi, and a 45 min drive to Ras Al-Khaimah, a high speed rail service connecting Dubai’s airport with the other emirates would be the ideal and practical solution rather than to have a country with 4 national airlines. While Dubai established Emirates Airways in 1985, Abu Dhabi started Etihad airways in 2003, Air Arabia was founded in Sharjah in 2003, and Ras Al-Khaimah’s RAK Airways is set to launch later this year.

Does a country as small as the Emirates with a population of 4.5-5 million people in real need of 4 airlines based in 4 separate emirates with the associated redundancy in infrastructure (i.e. airports) needed to support them? Is it greed that is driving the leaders of the emirates to establish unnecessary airlines while a rail system would be just as sufficient and with the added benefit of reducing traffic on the Emirates jammed roads, a growing problem?

I hope that the next generation of Gulf Arabs will be more conscious in their planning and preservation of the environment and not succumb to greed and materialism for the Earth is groaning under the oppression of the negligent and unconcsious.

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