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The environment in the 2002 Arab Human Development Report: a critique.

THE 2002 ARAB HUMAN DEVELOPMENT REPORT (AHDR) referred in its third Chapter to three main dimensions for Arab human-capacity building. These were population, health, and environment. The section dealing with the environment dealt with the main characteristics and issues of the environment, and the main strategies pursued and recommended to deal with this it. It referred to three main environmental issues in the Arab world. These are water scarcity, scarcity of arable land, and pollution of the shores. It also reviewed the main factors which constrain the ability of the Arabs to deal with environmental problems, and suggested a six-dimensional strategy to deal with the environment. It also reviewed the strategies of environmental protection adopted by Council of Arab Ministers Responsible for the Environment (CAMRE) in the Abu Dhabi Declaration of 2001, that advocated an institutional approach to deal with the question of the environment, and finally recommended a pan Arab cooperation to deal with the question of the environment.

In this essay, we will evaluate the extent to which the AHDR was able to diagnose the question of the environment in the Arab world, account for it and suggest proper solutions. Such evaluation will deal with the following issues: the attention given to the environment in the AHDR, the AHDR's environmental paradigm, the analytical value of the AHDR, the comprehensiveness of the issues outlined in the AHDR, the strategies advocated in the AHDR, and it will finally refer to the question of the environment within the framework of the Middle East peace process, a dimension which was bypassed in the AHDR.


The section dealing with the environment in the AHDR covered 6.5 pages out of 129 pages, which means that the environment was allotted 5 percent of the total number of pages of the Report. We understand that the AHDR deals with other concerns and that it should not be evaluated as if it were dealing only with the question of the environment. However, given the seriousness and urgency of the question of the environment, something which the AHDR itself has acknowledged, we believe that the AHDR should have given the question of the environment more attention.

The limited space allotted to the environmental issues resulted in a highly generalized pattern of analysis characterized by the lack of an innovative approach to the environmental issues of the Arab word. This was because the AHDR subscribed to the Arab tradition of viewing environmental issues as residual ones, that is, issues which would be dealt with once other issues were solved. This was not directly articulated in the AHDR, but it was reflected in the low level of attention given to the question of the environment and the failure to move beyond the traditional environmental paradigm dominant in the Arab world.


The attention to the question of the environment in the AHDR is a part of an overall trend in the Arab world which has been emerging since the late 1970s to attend to the environmental hazards in the Arab world. By this time Arab policy makers and academicians were beginning to articulate concerns about the quality of the Arab environment. In 1976, Al-Sharnouby published a book entitled Al-Insan wa Al-Bee'a (Man and the Environment) which was a sort of introductory book on the question of the environment. By the early 1980s, a number of books had been published dealing with the following issues: the relationship between the environment on one hand and education, development, and mass media on the other, the social dimension of the environment, the relationship between the environment and Islam, and the environmental issues. In 2000, the first book dealing with environmental security was published by King Saud University.

Elsewhere we have surveyed Arab literature dealing with the question of the environment (Selim, 2004). It was found that such literature subscribes to a managerial-technical paradigm of the environment. Such a paradigm views environmental issues as mainly resulting from the processes of industrialization and modernization, and the lack of proper state control and governance. It deals with environmental issues at the organizational level of analysis, as it focuses mainly upon relationships among state organizations. The state is viewed as the major reference point in dealing with the problem. The essential tools for addressing environmental concerns is improved state management and control, and better coordination between various state organizations. Further, Arab literature on the environment is characterized by its apolitical-technocratic nature in many respects. It focuses mainly on the technical issues related to the environment and does not frame them within a conceptualization of national security. In few cases, there is reference to the question of environmental security. But environmental security in the Arab literature means a set of measures to protect the environment. The book written by Ragab Sadek entitled Environmental Security and published by King Sand University in 2000 focuses only on the technical issues of environmental protection, even though it introduced the concept of "comprehensive environmental security." The author, being a specialist in microbial environmental pollution, did not identify linkages between environment and national security. He referred to issues such as water security, security against microbial weapons, maritime pollution and electrical magnetic pollution. This also applies to other books which used the concept of environmental security either directly or indirectly. This is in contrast to the literature which views the question of the environment from various political perspectives. Among such perspectives one may refer to those who link the environment with the capitalist mode of production, (Sunderlin, 2003) and those who approach the environment from the perspective of its impact on national security, and focus mainly on the area in which environmental concerns and security strategies interact (Winnefeld and Morris, 1994).

The AHDR represented a continuation of the traditional Arab environmental paradigm, and as a result did not present any conceptual breakthroughs in this field. This accounts for the lack of any reference in the AHDR to the linkages between environmental and political issues in the Arab world such as the destruction of the environment in the Palestine and the Gulf region as a result of political decisions, or the political conflicts rooted in environmental issues such as the Turkish-Syrian conflict over the distribution of the water of the Euphrates.

The urgency of the question of the environment requires a new paradigm that views the environment as a national security issue. Placing the environment within the framework of the national security strategy would increase public attention to the problem, and persuade governments to allocate more resources to deal with environmental issues. This calls for introducing the concept of environmental security as an integral part of the overall concept of national security. Approaching the question of environment from this angle allows us to deal with new issues that were ignored as a result of the dominance of traditional environmental paradigm.


The AHDR has also approached the question of the environment from a descriptive rather than an analytical perspective. It outlined the major environmental issues and recommended certain policies to deal with them. But it failed to account for the origins and deterioration of environmental issues. One cannot prescribe policies without explaining the source of the problems, as policies will be designed to deal with these sources. But the linkages between the descriptive and prescriptive parts are missing in the AHDR.

There are three main possible accounts for the environmental problems in developing countries. The first attributes environmental problems to geography and resource endowments. The second contends that the roots of environmental problems can be found in the lack of proper institutional management and governance of resources. These two views dominate the Arab literature on the environment. However, according to a third account the role of big powers and multi-national corporations is viewed as behind most of the environmental problems. This perspective has been advocated by some Arab analysts. They argue that we are witnessing the emergence of a "new global environmental system" characterized by the dominance of a "new environmental imperialism." This system is the main source of most of the environmental problems in developing countries such as nuclear waste disposal, ozone depletion and global warming. In fact, some analysts (Bullard, 2002) have articulated the concept of "environmental racism" by which is meant the shipping of hazardous wastes from the developed countries into the borders and territories of developing ones. This explanation was adopted by al-Madani (1997) a Bahraini specialist in environmental issues. However, the AHDR was oblivious to these debates and to the conceptual breakthroughs in the literature environment, with the exception to its reference to the problem of water scarcity as a result of population increase. One may refer here to the breakthroughs in the conceptualization of the issues of the environment in the works of the Committee of the Challenges of Modern Society on the environment outlined in the volume edited by Lietzmann and Vest (1999), of the Forum Golbale Fragen on Environment and Security edited by the German Federal Foreign Office (2000), and of the Environmental Change and Security Project under the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars ( The failure of the AHDR to benefit from these conceptual and analytical breakthroughs resulted in a highly descriptive report which does not account for the environmental problems in the Arab world. For example, environment in the Arab world has been seriously affected by political conflicts and wars, such as the impact of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (1990-1991) on the quality of environment in Kuwait and the Gulf region, the impact of the UN economic blockade against Iraq (1991-2003) on the disintegration of the Iraqi environment, and the impact of the Israeli colonization and military build-up in the West bank and Gaza Strip, and by the collapse of the Palestinian environment. These issues were ignored in the AHDR not only because of its emphasis on description rather than analysis, but also because of its technical orientation.

Further, in keeping with its descriptive orientation, the AHDR hardly dealt with the consequences and the costs of environmental degradation with the exception of a reference to its impact on the quality of life. This is despite the fact that Arab literature is rich with publications on the consequences of environmental degradation. One may refer to a major volume published in 2000 in Kuwait on the impact of environmental pollution on development in the Gulf region. It contained 29 papers assessing the consequences of environmental pollution on various aspects of development in the region (Al-Sar'awy and Masoud, 2000). In this sense the AHDR failed to alert the Arabs to what could lie ahead if no proper attention was given to the question of the environment.


The AHDR referred to two categories of environmental issues in the Arab world: resource scarcity, and environmental pollution. Whereas under the first category it focused on the issue of water scarcity, and scarcity of arable land, under the second one it dealt with the issue of water pollution, and pollution of the shores. However, the AHDR paid most of it attention to the issue of water scarcity to the detriment of the other issues it referred to. The statistics used to assess the magnitude of the water scarcity issue were not up-to-date. The AHDR was issued in 2002, but the statistics on the water issue were those of 1996 (Figure 3.6 in the AHDR). The AHDR also referred to the issues of scarcity of arable land, and pollution, but such references were brief and insufficient to grasp the depth of the problem. It is amazing that the AHDR did not refer, even in passing, to the question of desertification, which is one of the most serious environmental problems in the Arab world. Desert constitutes almost 89% of the total area of the Arab world. This is the area which receives a rainfall of less than 100mm. Most of this area is desert or desertified sand suitable only for grazing. The rest of the Arab lands are threatened by desertification due to anthropogenic activities including overgrazing. Overgrazing is responsible for almost 25% of the desertification that is taking place in Arab countries. Almost 20% of the total area is threatened by desertification due to forest/shrub clearing operations, compared to 2% and I% of the total area lost annually due to desalination and urban expansion respectively (UNEP, 2003). These are momentous environmental issues indeed. This issue was virtually ignored in the AHDR. This was not because of the lack of information, as there has been an accumulation of Arab literature on the issue of desertification over the last ten years. One may refer here to the volume of Abdel Monem Balba' and Maher Nassim issued in 1994 entitled, the Desertification of the Land: An Arab Global Problem, among other major writings on the issue of desertification.

But these are the traditional environmental issues usually debated in the Arab world. There are new environmental issues which were virtually ignored in the AHDR. Among these issues one may refer to those related to biodiversity, and climate change. The unique biodiversity of the Arab world is at risk from increased human activities. The main issues are the degradation and/or destruction of habitats and loss of species as a result of population growth, agricultural and urban expansion into ecologically important areas, poverty and unsustainable use of biota, and industrial pollution. Further, the Arab world is experiencing climate change as a result of burning of fossil fuel which results in Greenhouse Gases. Climate change could aggravate Arab world's vulnerability to natural disasters such as drought, food shortage, flash floods, pest infestations, and most importantly the sea level rise of the coastal areas (Georgas, 2003). These issues were referred to in the Literature of the United Nations Environment Programme both in its Global Environment Outlook Report (1997) and when dealing with the Arab world (UNEP, 2003), but were ignored in the AHDR, except in a passing reference which gives the impression that these were not immediate problems in the Arab world. In this sense, the 2002 AHDR failed to provide a balanced and comprehensive view of the major environmental hazards in the Arab world.


The AHDR presented a six-dimensional index of human development according to which world countries were rank-order. The index included an indicator related to the environment, that is, carbon dioxide emissions in metric tons per capita. This indicator was criticized by some Arab analysts (Atrisi, 2002-2003 and Ne'ema in Shu'un Al-Awast, 2003) as misleading, as it concealed the fact the United States was the largest state emitting carbon dioxide as its share of the world total was 23.2% which is not matched in any way by any other country. Using per capita measures showed that the United Arab Emirates was the worst in this respect with a per capita emission of 36.2 compared with an American value of 19.7. The Human Development Report uses two indicators, the share of world total and the per capita measure, which provided a balanced view of the record of the country on the question carbon dioxide emission. But the AHDR used only the per capita indicator which was biased against Arab countries. We believe that the AHDR should have kept the tradition of the Human Development Report of using the total and per capita indicators, or if it wanted to use only one indicator, it should justify its choice.

Most of the attention of the AHDR was directed towards suggesting strategies to deal with environmental problems. In fact, one could argue that this is the strongest part of the AHDR as far as the question of the environment is concerned. It suggested a six-dimensional environmental strategy, specific programs to protect the environment, building institutions to deal with the question of the environment, and pan-Arab environmental collective efforts. Understandably, these strategies and programs are directed towards the environmental issues dealt with the AHDR, mainly water scarcity and pollution. No recommendations were offered to deal with other environmental problems.

Further, it is not enough to suggest policy recommendations. It is equally important to identify the main hurdles which impact upon the ability of Arab countries to implement these recommendations. A strategy is essentially a relationship between objectives and capabilities. The AHDR's strategies focused mainly on the objectives to the detriment of the other side of the strategy equation.


As argued earlier, the AHDR subscribed to the apolitical environmental paradigm which resulted in the absence of any assessment of the linkages between environmental and political issues in the Arab world. Perhaps one of the most important issues that should be given due attention in the subsequent reports is the question of the environment within the framework of a future peace settlement in the Middle East.

When the Middle East peace process was launched in October 1991 in the Madrid Peace conference, it was branched off into two major tracks, bilateral and multi-lateral ones. The objective of the multi-lateral tracks was to search of means to establish regional cooperation regimes which could support the political settlement. Five working groups were formed. Among them was the Working Group on the Environment. This Group was chaired by Japan and held seven plenary sessions. The Group focused on six priority areas. These were environmental management, prevention of marine pollution, water quality including sewage treatment, protection of wild life, desertification control, and solid and hazardous waste disposal. One may notice that these priority areas were broader than those identified by the AHDR. Further, major joint projects were presented in the Group such as environmental management, human and institutional capacity building and public awareness, prevention of marine pollution, desertification control, sewage treatment, water quality management, and re-use of treated water, solid and hazardous waste disposal, and air pollution. An environmental Code of Conduct was also suggested.

Although the projects of the Environment Working Group were directed towards establishing an Arab-Israeli environmental regime, it was worthwhile for the authors of the AHDR to examine these projects and strategies to build upon them a suggested pan-Arab environmental regime. But the authors of the AHDR were almost oblivious to this dimension.

The deliberations of the Group witnessed major disagreements on the relationship between environmental and political issues and the strategies to be pursued to deal with the environmental hazards. The Israelis suggested giving priority to environmental questions and to establish a regional framework for cooperation in the form of joint teams to deal with the environmental issues. It also suggested giving priority to the uses of air pollution, climate change, and pollution of the Mediterranean. The Egyptians advocated linking the progress of regional cooperation on the question of the environment to the settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, arguing cooperation on the question of the environment should be part of an overall regional cooperation. It also suggested engaging the United Nations Environment Program in regional projects for cooperation. They gave priority to issues such as desertification, marine environment, air pollution, and natural disasters, and demanded that the point of beginning in establishing a regional system for cooperation was to determine the parties that caused the environmental damage and holding them responsible for it. This is because Israel, it was claimed, has caused tremendous damage to the Palestinian environment by building settlements on agricultural lands and removing trees. They also wanted to ban anti-environment military activities, and to commit all the regional powers to get rid of radioactive materials within their territories in an indirect reference to the Israeli nuclear program (Goma'a, 1994). The Israelis and the Egyptians agreed on one point, that is, the need to engage outside powers in building a regional system for cooperation in the field of the environment. However, whereas the Israelis preferred an engagement by Japan, the United States, and the European Union, the Egyptians wanted also the UN to be involved. Also, whereas the Egyptians preferred to begin by dealing with grand issues such as nuclear and chemical weapons and their impact on the environment, the Israelis preferred to deal with purely technical issues. It is obvious that the Egyptians advocated the politicization of the environmental issues. This is not because they adhere to a politicization paradigm, but mainly because they wanted to use the card of environmental cooperation to accelerate the peace process. The Egyptians wanted to safeguard against creating a precedent of regional cooperation and normalization without progress on the political issues. Further, despite its technical character, the Israeli approach had major political objectives, that is, to establish an Arab-Israeli regime for cooperation, a regime which will have political implications.

With the collapse of the peace process in 1996, the meetings of the Environment Working Group were suspended. Understandably, such collapse led to a further worsening of the regional environment especially in the Occupied Territories; this increased after the second Intifada of September 2000.

The review of the deliberations of the Environment Working Group of the Middle East Peace Process highlights the linkages between the political and environmental issues in the Arab world, and points to a major data base the AHDR could benefit from in the future.


All references are in Arabic except where indicated.

Al-Madani, Ismael. Our Environment is in Danger. Manama, n.p., 1997.

Al-Sar'awy, Mohammad and Mohammad Masoud (Eds.). The Impacts of Environmental Pollution on development in the Gulf Region. Kuwait: General Authority for the Environment, 2000.

Atrisi, Talal, "A critical reading of the United Nations Arab Human Development report," Majallat Dirasat Al-Shark Al-Awsat (Jordan), 7 (22), Winter 2002-2003, pp. 115-124.

Balba' Abdel-Monen and Maher Nassim. The Desertification of the Land: An Arab and a Global Problem. Alexandria: Monsh'at Al-Ma'aref, 1994.

Bullard, Robert. "Confronting environmental racism in the 21st Century," Global Dialogue (Nicosia), 4(1), Winter 2002, pp. 34-48. (In English).

Goma'a, Salwa, "The question of the environment in the multi-lateral talks," in Mustafa Elwi. (Ed.). The Arab-Israeli Negotiations and the Future of Peace in the Middle East. Cairo: Center for Political Research and Studies, 1994, pp. 574-590.

Georgas, Dimitri, "Impacts of Climate change and sea level rise on the Mediterranean coastal zones," in Hans Gunther Branch, P.Liotta, A. Marquina, P. Rogers, and M. Selim, (Eds.). Security and Environment in the Mediterranean: Conceptualizing Security and Environmental Conflict. Berlin: Springer, 2003, pp. 631-642. (In English).

German Federal Foreign Office. Environment and Security: Crisis Prevention through Cooperation. Berlin: Rga.-Druck, Remscheid, 2000. (In English).

Lietzmann, Kurt and Gary Vest. (Eds.), Environment and Security in an International Context, Final Report. Germany: Ministry for the Environment, 1999. (In English).

Najam, Adil. "The human dimensions of environmental insecurity: Some insights from South Asia," Environmental Change and Security Project Report. No. 9, 2003, pp. 59-74. (In English).

Oka, Hiroshi. "Activities of the multi-lateral Environmental Working Group in the Middle east Peace Process," in Hans Gunther Branch et al. Security and Environment in the Mediterranean. Berlin: Springer, 2003, pp. 573-590. (In English).

Selim, Mohammad. "Environmental security in the Arab world," Paper presented at the 45th Meeting of the International Studies Association, Montreal, Canada, 17-20 March 2004. (In English).

Shu'un Al-Awsat. "A Symposium on human Development in the Arab world." Shu'un Al-Awsat. No. 109, Winter 2003, pp. 7-24.

Sunderlin, William. Ideology, Social theory, and the Environment. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003. (In English).

United Nations Environment Programme. Global Environment Outlook. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. (In English).

United Nations Environment Programme. State of the Environment in the Arab World: A Progress Report. UNEP/ROWA/CAMRE/15/2003/Rev5, 29 November 2003. (In English).

United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP Strategy for West Asia, 2003-2005. United Nations, UNEP/ROWA/CAMRE: 15/2. 30 November 2003a. (In English).

Winnefeld, William, and Marry Morris, Where Environmental Concerns and Security Strategies Meet, Green Conflict in Asia and the Middle East. Santa Monica, CA,: Rand, 1994. (In English).

Mohammad El-Sayed Selim is Professor of Political Science, Faculty of Social Sciences, Kuwait University.
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Author:Selim, Mohammad El-Sayed
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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