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There’s an inextricable link between the Gulf’s complicity in the climate crisis and their failure to respect fundamental human rights.
Mustafa Qadri is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Equidem, a human rights organisation.
COP26 ends this week with world leaders pledging to address the global climate crisis. For the oil and gas-rich states of the Arab Gulf it is not a matter of when global warming will make life inhospitable, that threshold has already been reached. Rather it is a question of whether these wealthy kingdoms have the political will to address their outsized contribution to the greatest crisis in recorded human history.
It is well known that the Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are among the hottest places in the world. In June, Kuwait registered one of the highest temperatures of the year anywhere on earth.
The more privileged among locals and wealthy foreigners shielded indoors under air-conditioning this summer, while the more enterprising explore the possibility of outdoor cooling technology to mask the reality of sweltering weather.
But hundreds of thousands of women and men migrant workers have no choice but to toil in that extreme heat and high humidity. Temperatures are set to get even higher in the years to come, making the Gulf “uninhabitable” for humans according to experts.
It is a situation that makes it a deadly prospect for over 20 million migrant workers living and working in the Gulf. In recent years, experts have identified clear links between work environments where women and men are exposed to extreme heat and high humidity and a heightened risk of death. In the Gulf, the climate crisis is a threat to that most sacred and fundamental of human rights, the right to life.
Campaigners have rightly pointed out that labour protection laws in the Gulf states are both inadequate and weakly enforced, allowing employers to require workers to work during the hottest periods of the day during the hottest months of the year.
These workers are already at high risk of modern slavery due to poor labour conditions. Qatar has faced scrutiny ever since it was selected to host the FIFA men’s football World Cup in 2022. But, of course, this is not a concern limited to Qatar. The region has already been reeling from the economic and social impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic leading last year to the largest drop in oil consumption in a century.
Gulf authorities and businesses exploited the pandemic to weaken already inadequate labour protections, making it easier for employers to fire or exploit migrant workers and increasing the risk of modern slavery.
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, have also rightly received scrutiny for their poor human rights records: from restrictions on gender and sexuality rights, to the persecution of minorities and dissidents, and credible allegations of war crimes for their role in the war in Yemen.
But surprisingly little attention has been given to the critical role Gulf states play in carbon emissions that are fuelling a global crisis that will exacerbate the existing human rights crisis.
The six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are among the world highest per capita producers of carbon dioxide by some measures. Qatar is the greatest per capital contributor of carbon emissions in the world. Gulf states and businesses are directly responsible for the extreme heat that creates the deadly conditions that may be claiming untold numbers of women and men who have travelled thousands of kilometres from home hoping for a better life.
Yet Gulf state pledges at COP26 pale in comparison to the task at hand.
Saudi Arabia, the biggest contributor to carbon emissions in the Gulf, has pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2060 while maintaining its commitment to being the leading oil producer in the world.
Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have promised to shift towards renewables, while brazenly expanding oil and gas production and trading. It is a strategy clearly aimed at half measures and optics that kicks the climate change can down the road for future generations to pick up.
Airconditioned malls and high-tech solutions cannot replace the simple truth that unless the Gulf states decarbonise their economies, their coastal city hubs will be underwater in a matter of decades.
It is neither wise nor ethical for the Gulf states to bury their collective heads in the sand. But human rights campaigners must also do more to recognise the inextricable link between the Gulf’s complicity in the climate crisis and their failure to respect fundamental human rights. It is for these very reasons that any decision reached at COP26 by governments from the Gulf and globally must include explicit commitments to respect human rights.
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