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rear view of Arab Sheikh with traditional Emirati clothes looking for the energy industry and standing beside a wind turbines farm power station at sunset time

What is the Role of the US in Confronting Climate Change in the Middle East?

Things are heating up, but the US can take advantage of multipolar shifts.

Words: Sam Fouad
Pictures: alisaaa

The climate crisis affects all of us, but it is especially dire in the Middle East, which is warming up twice as fast as the rest of the world. The region faces an interconnected web of dilemmas that are worsened by climate change, including conflict and displacement

Not just in the crosswinds of a changing climate, the Middle East is also the locus of one of today’s most pressing geopolitical shifts: multipolarity. While multipolarity — a state of nonequilibrium in which, subjectively or otherwise, more than two states have relatively equal amounts of power — is manifesting itself globally, one of the places it has become most tangible is the Middle East. Growing multipolarity is affording Middle Eastern countries new advantages. Events like the signing of peace treaties, restoring formerly strained relations, and double-dealing are all signs of this and many nations are eager to stake out their claims as efficiently as possible. 

The US needs to take note of the building climactic and geopolitical heat and change its Middle East policies to meet this multipolar reality and the devastation that climate change is already causing across the region. Washington should view this as a window of opportunity to lead efforts to combat climate change, something the Biden administration claims is a vital US interest.

Foreign assistance has historically been used as a tool in strategic competition, and assisting Middle Eastern nations with the technology and know-how to better transition to green energy is not a novel idea. From the Marshall Plan to the formation of USAID, the United States has consistently used aid as a strategic asset in times of competition. The difference here, however, is that the field of renewable energy is already saturated by other countries, with the US playing catch up. “Recipients” of this aid have a plethora of choices and can choose if they need the assistance and who they should receive it from.

How the US Can Get Involved

The United States can encourage the use of electric battery storage as a supplemental resource for renewable energies, Dylan Haas of NRG Energy argues. This will help deal with the intermittent nature of renewable energies and reduce the risk of blackouts when wind and solar are not able to produce at peak capacity levels. Utility-scale battery systems can store large amounts of electricity created during over-productive times on the grid and deliver it later when necessary, Haas explained. He argues that the US could increase its battery capacity to improve its own grid but could also assist in transferring this technology and system to Middle Eastern countries that need it through private sector investment. 

Similarly, Will Todman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says that there is currently not much US involvement in the renewable energy sector in the region. His team’s report highlights ways in which countries of the Middle East can advance environmental needs through cooperation. While there is a role for the US to play, Todman says that such a project “ultimately needs to be a regionally led initiative if it’s going to work,” and that the United States should “leverage its climate know-how.” Since the US has a preponderance of experience in leading multilateral initiatives, Todman believes that “sharing some of those experiences can be helpful in shaping the structure of what this dialogue [between Middle Eastern nations] would look like.”  Furthermore, Todman’s discussions with officials from the region have revealed that some of them believe “that China’s role in facilitating normalization agreements has been exaggerated.” Therefore, Todman believes that “there is opportunity for the US to shift perceptions of its role in the region by having more of a focus on the environment.” 

By recognizing the realities of multipolarity and the increasing danger of climate change, the US can play a significant role in the Middle East and recuperate some of its lost goodwill before other nations, including China, completely dominate the green energy space.

Many Gulf states, while evolving, have limitations in both human capacity and know-how and in adopting the technology and policies and regulations required for the transition to green alternatives, according to Dr. Aisha Al-Sarihi of the National University of Singapore. She argues that adaptation needs to come from the states themselves. There is a plethora of investments from a variety of foreign nations in many of the Gulf states that are currently taking place. Oman, for example, has designated lands for hydrogen. These investments, according to Al-Sarihi, come from China and other Gulf nations, but there already are American companies involved in the region, such as Air Products. 

Gulf countries rely heavily on technology transfer for their energy transition, and there is not a singular country that is currently dominating the industry in the region. Al-Sarihi surmises that Chinese technology currently has a general stranglehold on the region because it is selling its technology at cheaper costs, but she emphasizes that every Gulf state along with every variant sector in the green energy space continues to keep its options open and is willing to do business with whichever country’s technology provides the best business opportunity. 

It is therefore in the United States’ best interests to provide the countries of the Middle East with the technology, the know-how, and the leadership in building region-wide initiatives that champion an efficient and successful transition to green energy. By recognizing the realities of multipolarity and the increasing danger of climate change, the US can play a significant role in the Middle East and recuperate some of its lost goodwill before other nations, including China, completely dominate the green energy space. The United States should not fear the emergence of a multipolar moment in the Middle East and should, in fact, take advantage of it for the betterment of the region as climate change continues to intensify and decimate parts of the region. 

Sam Fouad

Sam Fouad is a political analyst and PhD student, with a focus on the Middle East and grand strategy.

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