A MENA regional approach to address the implications of climate change

  • Shira Efron

    Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation Director of Policy Research, Israel Policy Forum; Senior Fellow, Institute for National Security Studies

    مديرة الأبحاث بمنتدى السياسة الإسرائيلية

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is a climate hotspot. Already the most water-stressed region worldwide, it is warming and drying up at twice the average pace, making some parts of it likely unliveable by mid-century.1Climate change could also increase instability in the region, acting as a ‘threat multiplier’ and exacerbating existing problems. While MENA countries differ in their ability to adapt to climate effects and related security risks, ultimately these transnational impacts reach across borders, undermining regional and global resilience. To mitigate climate change and adapt to its implications,2 MENA countries will need to address their core problems of poor governance, wide socio-economic and ethnic gaps, and population growth, to name a few. However, even if individual countries successfully make progress in silos, they will suffer from a ‘climate kickback’ from the negative transboundary impacts of climate change. This creates a clear impetus for regional cooperation.

The timing for such cooperation is now opportune, for several reasons. First, climate change initiatives are springing up frequently across the MENA region, illustrating that the topic is at least declaratively high on national agendas. Second, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) respectively are hosting the next two UN climate summits in November 2022 and 2023, putting a spotlight on the region. Further, the flurry of diplomatic activity in 2021–22 (namely, the Abraham Accords and the related Negev Summit; Turkey amending ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and possibly with Syria; Qatar repairing the rift with other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC); Iran and Saudi Arabia engaging in talks; and US President Joe Biden’s visit to the region in July 2022), indicates that MENA countries see more merit in diplomacy than in conflict, creating space for interest-based collaboration. And because of the cross-border nature of climate effects and their multiplied associated risks – political instability and mass migration, for example – there is a built-in incentive for regional cooperation. Finally, environmental issues are perceived as softer grounds for cooperation that can help to build trust and test the water for dialogue, coordination and even de-escalation in areas of ‘hard’ security. 

Building on existing climate cooperation

Several regional environmental and climate-related initiatives already exist at different levels of engagement (civil society, academia, and municipal and national governments), and include bilateral, trilateral and multilateral frameworks of MENA and non-exclusively regional members. For example, C40 is a network of some 100 cities, including the MENA cities of Amman, Dubai, Istanbul and Tel Aviv, which have been cooperating for more than 15 years on climate issues alongside industry, civil society and youth groups.3 Noteworthy is the Cyprus Government Initiative for Coordinating Climate Change Action in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, which consists of two pillars – an intergovernmental one with formal officials that is coordinated by the Cypriot government, and a scientific one that is coordinated by the Cyprus Institute and is structured around a dozen regional and functional taskforces with representation of scientists even from adversary states (Iran, Israel, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories).4 Another governmental initiative is the Negev Summit, which began as an impromptu meeting between the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Morocco, the UAE and the US, in southern Israel in April 2022. It has developed into an ongoing forum with six working groups including food and water security and energy groups, and a possible 7th group on climate change, that member countries hope could bring in additional actors, primarily Jordan and the Palestinians.5

Perhaps the most well-known bottom-up cross-border environmental organizations in the Levant are EcoPeace Middle East and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. EcoPeace promotes environmental cooperation between Jordanians, Palestinians and Israelis, in the pursuit of both sustainable regional development and creating conducive conditions for peace.6 EcoPeace’s Green Blue Deal work created the blueprint for the Israeli-Jordanian preliminary agreement to exchange desalinated water for renewable energy with UAE support.7 The Arava Institute is an umbrella organization, which hosts academic programmes, research centres, international environmental cooperation initiatives and students from Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and other places. Arava also leads the Track II Environmental Forum for Applied Diplomacy, a science-based civil society track working together with Oxford University to promote projects in water and waste management, energy and food security in Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan.8 Two examples outside the Levant are the Regional Initiative for the Assessment of the Impact of Climate Change on Water Resources and Socio-Economic Vulnerability in the Arab Region (RICCAR)9, which is designed to have multiple outputs including an Arab knowledge hub on climate and water; early detection of hotspots, capacity-building and support for policymaking and negotiations; and the Regional Organization for the Protection of the Marine Environment (ROPME), created by Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in April 1978, and sustained to this day, even through the Islamic Revolution in Iran.10 Although not exhaustive, this list illustrates the potential for cooperation even in the absence of a strategic regional framework. 

New directions for climate cooperation

Given the magnitude of climate threats, the return of diplomacy to the MENA region and the upcoming UN Conferences of the Parties (COPs) in Egypt and the UAE, it is time for new models that would not only advance regional climate action but would also help to de-escalate tensions in other spheres. Doing so effectively, especially in a region as unintegrated and mired by conflict as the Middle East and North Africa, requires addressing important questions. These include, but are not limited to: What lessons can be learned from climate cooperation frameworks in other regions? What are the most useful models for cooperation – i.e., bilateral, trilateral or multilateral? Should frameworks consist exclusively of MENA countries or include other players? Should cooperation be led bottom-up, top-down, or a combination of both? What are the lowest hanging fruits that can help to build trust? How should the added value of each country be assessed? And can climate-oriented partnerships also help to de-escalate tensions on other fronts? 

Until these questions are answered, there are several promising areas for MENA countries and the international community to explore, both in terms of climate change mitigation and adaptation. Yet, the focus has thus far been on mitigation. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), this creates an adaptation gap that urgently needs to be filled, especially considering climate trends and poor regional resilience.11 Evidence is limited on what types of transboundary adaptation responses are effective but clearly, mechanisms are needed that encourage countries to collaborate to analyse cross-border risks and engage in multi-party adaptation approaches that build trust, minimize the collective risk and benefit all sides.12 Ideas for possible new regional climate cooperation frameworks include the following.

Climate R&D and innovation hub

Research and development (R&D) is possibly the simplest form of cross-border engagement that could be managed at the civil society and academic levels and could inform national and regional diplomacy. The Cyprus Initiative’s scientific component is a useful model. So is the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME), an initiative established in 2017 in Jordan that brings together scientists from Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan and Turkey, under the auspices of UNESCO. The idea is to establish a climate R&D hub, which will facilitate and coordinate applied research on the key regional challenges with the goal of improving knowledge, information exchange, capacity-building and translating new knowledge into policymaking. Areas for research can be diverse. They include solutions on the adaptation side to issues such as urban heat stress (for example, suitable trees, construction materials and methods that also reduce demand for cooling), water stress (such as wastewater reuse, improved groundwater management, pricing, atmospheric water generation), and food insecurity (crop selection, alternative protein, among others). On the mitigation side these issues include region-specific challenges of using and storing renewable energy (like extreme heat and dust on solar panels), and regional potential for hydrogen as an energy source. Oman, given its ties to all regional countries, could be a suitable host of such a climate R&D hub, with the support of an international actor. The hub should engage regularly with local focal points in individual countries to create further legitimacy and influence national policymaking.

MENA food security regional initiative 

Food security is an increasingly growing problem in the MENA region, aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Food insecurity is traditionally seen as a factor driving competition but instead, MENA countries can partner to create a food initiative that harnesses the added value of member nations to advance their collective interest – a food-secure and stable region. They can do so by establishing multilateral collaboration consisting of several pillars, the effectiveness of which would improve if implemented on a larger scale, for example:

    R&D and innovation dedicated to increasing domestic food production (for instance, high-yield, brackish (saline) water-tolerant seed engineering and cultivation); 

    enhancing effectiveness of strategic national grain reserves and examining the advantages of pooled reserves (by developing a regional trading hub, optimized monitoring, and reducing risk of spoilage, for instance); 

    diversification of suppliers and financial tools (by collectively establishing a diverse portfolio of trading routes, trading relationships and long-term contracts with suppliers); 

    agreeing on a set of crisis response measures (like intra-regional agreements for in-kind emergency food transfers and commitments to refrain from panic buying and export controls). 

Egypt, as the world’s largest importer of wheat, the host of COP27, and a country with close ties to most other regional actors, could lead the initiative with international support of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO). 

Preservation of the Mediterranean marine environment 

The Mediterranean Sea region, with a 46,000-kilometre coastline and bordered by 22 riparian countries, is one of the most vulnerable areas to climate change effects. Sea level is rising and could reach 1.8 metres by the end of the century, with implications for groundwater salinity, coastal agriculture and flooding, putting millions of people at risk.13 Three cities are frequently mentioned as being at risk of inundation by 2050 – Alexandria, Algiers and Benghazi – but the dangers are broader: a large share of Tunisia’s population as well as its important tourism sector are also threatened across the coastline. Higher sea temperature also changes the make-up of the ecosystem which affects the natural environment, local species and people’s livelihoods. The Mediterranean Sea Basin could be the focus of a forum that brings together countries like Israel and Lebanon on one hand, and Egypt and Turkey on the other, under a broader umbrella that also includes southern European members (similar to the Cyprus Initiative). The goal would be research on common challenges, knowledge-sharing, identifying possible solutions and integrating effective responses into policymaking. Morocco, given its location, ties with all regional countries and relationship with Europe should lead this initiative, possibly in partnership with a leading European country like France. 

In addition, the MENA region could consider establishing a collaborative forum on climate migrants, to be supported by the UN and perhaps the EU. This forum would address the multifaceted challenge concerning climate migrants; engage in data collection and evidence-based research on projected migration; targeted resilience building interventions to pre-empt migration; assist climate migrants on the move; and supporting climate migrants’ integration in host countries. The most fitting country for hosting such a forum is Jordan, given the numbers of refugees it has absorbed over the years and its diplomatic status in the region and abroad. Finally, the more advanced tech leaders of the region, Israel and the UAE, could collaborate on developing innovative early warning systems against climate disasters that can be deployed easily even in poor and resource-scarce areas – like the Gaza Strip, which suffers from recurring flooding every winter.14

Regardless of the type of setting, the topic area, and the proposed country hosts, it is clear that climate change is an area ripe for MENA cooperation and offers a channel through which even adversaries can be linked. Regional cooperation is not a panacea and cannot substitute the need for national-level reforms that address the man-made structural problems of most regional countries. Yet, given the magnitude of climate change and the transboundary nature of its physical and related national security effects, MENA countries and the international community have clear incentives to promote cooperation and policy coordination.

This article is part of a series for the ‘Building a Cooperative Regional Security Architecture in the Middle East’ project, a partnership between Chatham House’s MENA Programme and the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles. 


[1] Mekelberg, Y. (2022), ‘Without urgent action on climate change, the Middle East will become uninhabitable’, TRENDS Research & Advisory, 23 March 2022, https://trendsresearch.org/insight/without-urgent-action-on-climate-change-the-middle-east-will-become-uninhabitable/ 

[2] Climate change mitigation: human intervention that prevents the planet from warming to more extreme temperatures, by reducing the emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, or enhancing a reservoir where a greenhouse gas is stored. Adaptation: adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climate and its effects to moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities for human and societal welfares.

[3] See: C40 Cities (2022), ‘Our Cities’, https://www.c40.org/cities/  

[4] For more information see: The Cyprus Institute (2022), ‘Cyprus Government Initiative for Coordinating Climate Change Action in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East’, https://www.cyi.ac.cy/index.php/cyi/international-collaborations/cyprus-government-initiative-for-coordinating-climate-change-action-in-the-eastern-mediterranean-and-middle-east.html. The taskforce reports and lists of their participants is available here: The Cyprus Institute (2021), ‘Executive Summaries of the Reports of the Climate Thematic Task Forces’, https://www.gov.il/BlobFolder/news/climate_change_meeting_environment_ministers_from_region/he/news_files_2022_Cyprus_ES_LJ_5a.pdf

[5] i24 News (2022), ‘“Meat on the bone”: Negev Summit countries to follow-up’, 26 June 2022, https://www.i24news.tv/en/news/israel/diplomacy/1656254396-meat-on-the-bone-negev-summit-countries-to-follow-up; according to Israeli officials, the goal is to integrate Palestinians at least into the water and food security sub-group that Israel is leading; source: conversation with a senior Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, July 2022, Tel Aviv.

[6] See: EcoPeace Middle East (2022), ‘About Us’, https://ecopeaceme.org/about/  

[7] Reuters via Haaretz (2021), ‘Israel and Jordan Pen Historic Water-for-energy Deal’, 22 November 2021, https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/2021-11-22/ty-article/israel-and-jordan-pen-historic-water-for-energy-deal/0000017f-dc8b-df9c-a17f-fe9b92a00000

[8] See: Arava Institute (2022), ‘About the Arava Institute’, https://arava.org/about-our-community/about-arava/ 

[9] UN ESCWA (2017), Arab Climate Change Assessment Report, Regional Initiative for the Assessment of Climate Change Impacts on Water Resources and Socio-Economic Vulnerability in the Arab Region, Beirut: United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, https://www.unescwa.org/publications/riccar-arab-climate-change-assessment-report 

[10] ROPME provides technical coordination and assists its members to implement the Kuwait Regional Convention for Cooperation on the Protection of the Marine Environment from Pollution, oil, and other harmful substances. See ROPME (2022), ‘Who We Are’, http://ropme.org/1_WhoWeAre_EN.clx 

[11] Duenwald, C. et al. (2022), Feeling the Heat: Adapting to Climate Change in the Middle East and Central Asia, Departmental Papers 2022, no. 008, Washington, DC: International Monetary Fund, https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/Departmental-Papers-Policy-Papers/Issues/2022/03/25/Feeling-the-Heat-Adapting-to-Climate-Change-in-the-Middle-East-and-Central-Asia-464856  

[12] Hocquet, R. (2021), ‘Transboundary climate risk and adaptation’, Adaptation Without Borders, https://adaptationwithoutborders.org/knowledge-base/transnational-climate-impacts/transboundary-climate-risk-and-adaptation

[13] Wehrey, F. and Fawal, N. (2022), ‘Cascading Climate Effects in the Middle East and North Africa: Adapting Through Inclusive Governance’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Article, 24 February 2022, https://carnegieendowment.org/2022/02/24/cascading-climate-effects-in-middle-east-and-north-africa-adapting-through-inclusive-governance-pub-86510; see also Duenwald et al. (2022), Feeling the Heat: Adapting to Climate Change in the Middle East and Central Asia.

[14] Efron, S., Noach, K. and Shusterman, N. (2022), ‘The Gaza Strip and the Climate Crisis’, Institute for National Security Studies Special Publication, 7 June 2022, https://www.inss.org.il/publication/gaza-climate/