Exploring Perceptions of the Climate Change – Migration – Conflict Nexus in the Context of the Syrian War

By Ambika Natarajan

Photograph of a desert in Syria. (Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/78368745@N00/2178265304)

As with many wars, the origin of the Syrian Civil War can technically be traced to one concrete starting point—fifteen boys in Dara’a, Syria, spray painted the words “The people want the fall of the regime” on a school wall in 2011 (Laub 2020). The boys were captured and tortured, sparking unrest throughout the country. While the war was initially between the Al-Assad regime and the opposing Free Syrian Army, multiple entities, including different factions of Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Turkey, Russia, and the United States, were all involved (Laub 2020). The region has become totally destabilized, with around 400,000 casualtiessince the war’s onset, 6.2 million internally displacedand 5.6 million registered refugees, according to the Council on Foreign Relations (Global Conflict Tracker).

Return to Homs: A Syrian refugee walks among severely damaged buildings in downtown Homs, Syria, on June 3, 2014. (Xinhua/Pan Chaoyue). https://www.flickr.com/photos/64985169@N08/16969008478.

While political dissent was a visible factor in the region’s destabilization, in 2015, major media outlets such as Scientific American, PBS News Hour, and National Geographicpublished on the possibility of there being an additional contributor — climate change. The headlines ran, “Climate Change Hastened Syria’s Civil War,” “A Major Contributor to the Syrian Conflict? Climate Change” and “Climate Change Helped Spark Syrian War, Study Says,” respectively (Fischetti 2015, Mansharamani 2016, Wlech 2015). Climate change’s pre-existing reputation as a potential “threat multiplier” neatly affirms the underlying story within these articles. They all claim that anthropogenic emissions caused a prolonged drought in Syria that has decreased agricultural yields and encouraged migration towards the cities, prompting unrest. Perhaps given the novelty and strength of a climate war as a supporting example of the perils of climate change, the messages that the media carries miss the complex nature of the drought and its potential impact on the region’s conflict.

Additionally, most of the media articles rely on a single study performed by scientists of UC Santa Barbara and Columbia University’s School of International Affairs and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, titled “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought,” which was published in 2015 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States ofAmericaand has been cited over 1150 times as of April 6, 2021 (Kelley 2015). The study uses climate models to demonstrate the presence of climate change in Syria and then states that climate change may have exacerbated a drought that prompted the country’s debilitating conflict. However, less-recognized papers have contributed to the discussion by questioning the scope of the climate study and presenting more rigorous studies of natural and sociopolitical factors contributing to reduced water availability and agricultural output. The media’s highlighting of a single high-impact study rather than a comprehensive literature review on the relationship between climate change and the conflict in Syria can misinform public perceptions on the impacts of climate change.

Map of Syria in 2012 by UN Cartographic Section

The main strength of the paper by Kelley et. al. (2015) is its climate change study, which is conducted for the entire country of Syria. It availed of Climatic Regional Unit (CRU) 3.1 data to map precipitation levels and near-surface temperature levels between 1900 and 2008. A linear least-squares fit was established for both models, revealing the steady downward trend in precipitation and an upward trend in near-surface temperatures that would be characteristic of climate change impacts. Deviations in specific humidity are also reported for the period of 1989 to 2008 with respect to the period between 1931 to 1950, highlighting Western Turkey as the epicenter of the drying trend with parts of Iraq, Syria and Iran also experiencing similar effects. Additionally, the paper combined the factors into a Palmer Severity Drought Index to visualize the region’s growing tendency towards drought. This phenomenon was further supported by computational and observational data assessing the extent of CO2forcing in Syria, corroborating the role of anthropogenic emissions on the extreme weather effect. Indeed, the drought in Syria between 2007 and 2010 was the worst 3-year drought to be recorded within the region.

Average Temperatures and Rainfall of Watershed for Northeast Syria. Data obtained from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia and published on the World Bank Group’s Climate Change Knowledge Portal. Thirty-year time margins prevent sensitive analysis of temperature deviations, but a decrease in rainfall is observed. 

The treatment of the drought’s relationship to the conflict is stated blatantly in the abstract of the paper by Kelley et. al. (2015), which names climate change as a “catalyst” for the ensuing “political unrest.” The connection moves the paper away from concrete science and towards a geopolitical narrative, connecting climatic studies to a societal outcome. This becomes a source of contention, as the intermediate actors of agriculture and water management and politics are also complex. The authors acknowledge the increase in agriculture prompted by reforms under Hafez al-Assad, the over-extraction of groundwater, and the over four-fold growth of the total population of Syria since 1950. At the same time, these factors are not incorporated into the quantitative nature of the study. The paper’s conclusion asserts strongly that human-induced climate change contributed to Syria’s agrarian collapse and subsequent migration, and more tentatively that the government’s inability to respond to the needs of those displaced sparked conflict. A more rigorous examination of the variables contributing to agricultural decline, water loss, and conflict, must be presented before drawing a direct conclusion regarding the impacts of climate change in a single case study.

The most prominent rebuttal to the climate-conflict connection in Syria was issued by scientists of the University of Sussex, Hampshire College, the University of Hamburg, and King’s College London in the paper titled, “Climate Change and the Syrian Civil War Revisited,” which was published in Political Geography in 2017 (Selby 2017). The study was picked up by Reuters, but otherwise lacked substantial media coverage (Arsenault 2017). The paper acknowledges that the study by Kelley et. al. (2015) is well-known for its documentation of the case study given its incorporation of climate models. It emphasizes that although climate change may have contributed to the drought, the magnitude of its impact may be significantly less than that of other factors (Selby 2017). The paper first assesses the scale of the Syrian drought at local and regional levels, in contrast to the study by Kelley et. al. (2015) that looked at Syria as a whole. The findings show that northeast Syria did indeed experience the lowest records of rainfall on record for that region, but the cities of Aleppo, Damascus, Homs and Dara’a witnessed above-average or average levels of rainfall. Northern Iraq also saw a relatively greater decline in rainfall than northeast Syria, affirming that the location from which migration was observed was not necessarily the epicenter of the drought. The authors go further to suggest that the linear regression method of assessing dryland rainfall, used by Kelley et. al. (2015), has been proven inefficient for inter-decadal studies. The paper acknowledges that agriculture played a role in domestic dissent, but suggests that agrarian reforms likely had a more direct impact on livelihood disruption. The agrarian reforms of 2007-2008 enabled land owners to immediately void tenant contracts and restrict land sales, while those in 2009 terminated fertilizer subsidies. Selby et. al. also brings in the perspective of the Syrian people, who vocalized complaints related to oppression by the Al-Assad regime. Their stated demands were purely anti-authoritarian in nature, with the two core slogans at protests being “the Syrian people will not be humiliated” and “he who kills his own people is a traitor.”  Overall, this paper presents a stronger analysis of socio-political factors that contributed to the onset of the war, suggesting that they outweigh contributions of climate change to a drought-induced crisis.

In the event that the lack of water was the main cause of the Syrian conflict, more recent studies, including one from 2019, suggest that geopolitics and water management, rather than climate change-induced drought, would be the primary culprits. The paper “Was Drought Really the Trigger Behind the Syrian Civil War in 2011?” claims that Turkey’s control over the Euphrates upstream from Syria was the primary cause of the latter country’s dearth of water (Karnieli 2019). It opens by explaining that Northern Syria and Southern Turkey have the same climate, semiarid with precipitation ranges between 200 and 350 millimeters per year, despite the presence of a political boundary. The mountains in Eastern Turkey collect precipitation or rely on groundwater to feed into the tributaries that contribute to the majority of the Euphrates’ water. Syria relies heavily on this river, and 60% of the country’s water in total hails from outside of its borders. Turkey and Syria have had two sets of agreements regarding water — one in 1987 to ensure that a fixed amount of water would cross into Syria, and another in 2009 to increase cooperation on water policy. The paper highlights that the flowrate of water across the Turkey-Syria border, recorded at a station near Jarablus, has decreased over the past seventy years. The decreased flow rate is partially associated with changes in climate, but more emphatically correlated with the construction of the Turkish Southeastern Anatolia Project, which consists of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power stations.

The study also availed of a metric to assess agricultural productivity in the region: the mean Normalized Difference Vegetation Index. The deviation from the mean could be used to determine whether agricultural production was higher or lower than expected, and the values were obtained from a combined dataset of NOAA-AVHRR and MODIS spaceborne systems. The study reported that up until 2008, both Syria and Turkey saw steady rates of agricultural growth, and in March 2011, there was a sharp deviation in that Turkey saw a dramatic increase in agricultural output while Syria saw a decline. This is notable given that the study emphasized the region around the border, which shares the same climate. The study even analyzed the agricultural output of precipitation-dependent cereals such as wheat. Changes in the vegetation signal, the difference between vegetation states, actually reported a net increase in wheat production in Syria by 13% from five years prior, a phenomenon supported by other studies as well. The increase in precipitation-dependent wheat production suggests that changes in rainfall were not correlated with the overall agricultural output, supporting the theory that Turkey’s control of water upstream from Syria was the main cause of the country’s water destitution. Agricultural productivity had not been examined in the earlier studies, even while it was a key link of the climate-conflict theory. Kelley et. al. (2015) had assumed that a hotter, drier climate would reduce agricultural yields, while Selby et. al. (2017) claimed that agrarian reforms were the main source of a lack of productivity.

A color spectrum (shown above) characterizes the presence or absence of vegetation in the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (not shown) (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Computer_color_spectrum.svg)

While climate change is a real, scientifically-proven phenomenon, its impact on localized conflicts cannot be observed in a vacuum. Climate models have long predicted that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions will wreck irrevocable havoc on Earth’s climate, but in the meantime, natural resource management and related politics may have a greater impact on a population’s access to necessities such as water and land. Unfortunately, over-simplifying the consequences of climate change can misinform the general public and impact policy decisions. This was a concern of Selby et. al. (2017), who wrote that key leaders of the United States of America, such as Former President Barack Obama, current Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, presidential democratic candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders, and Former Vice President and Climate Reality Project founder Al Gore, have all used the Syria case as a core example of climate change impacting regional conflict.

As an example of policy implications, Betsy Hartmann speaks specifically to how the discourse on climate change and conflict can impact the distribution of aid in the regions of interest in her paper “Rethinking Climate Refugees and Climate Conflict: Rhetoric, Reality and the Politics of Policy Discourse” (Hartmann 2010). She notes that statements by Christian Aid, the Center for Naval Analyses, and the Norwegian Nobel Committee, among others, have emphasized a connection between climate change and conflict. Hartmann states that this argument removes the focus of the role of institutions in determining sociopolitical outcomes that involve the environment as an intermediate. Similarly, the paper “Exploring the Climate Change, Migration and Conflict Nexus” by Kate Burrows and Patrick L. Kinney suggests that the environment-migration connection is highly complex, and that resource destitution may actually inhibit migration in some cases (Burrows 2015). The authors note that “conflict” can range from interpersonal to political and that migration may not always be long-term. Nine case studies are reviewed that assert a climate-migration link, but each example only cites one or two key studies. This again speaks to how limits in the amount of data available for individual case studies can make it difficult to draw concrete conclusions.

Climate Strike in Melbourne, Australia. Photograph taken by Takver from Australia (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82409246)

Climate change itself is well-proven — evidence supporting its societal ramifications is much harder to find. This is especially true in the context of the climate-conflict nexus, as clear sociopolitical indicators for conflict likely mask environmental indicators. While the paper by Kelley, et. al. (2015) was a sound analysis of climate change in the area, its rushed correlation between climate change and the Syrian conflict failed to gauge the magnitude of low precipitation rates as an indicator of civil unrest in comparison to determinants of successful agriculture, resource extraction, regional geopolitics, and political oppression. The simplistic perception of climate change as a “threat magnifier” may mask more powerful determinants contributing to regional conflict. Simultaneously, I will conclude by asking, is there a better way to shed light on the societal ramifications of climate change? Perhaps by the time the consequences are more visible, it will be too late to develop an appropriate response.

Desert Snow Skiing and Manmade Islands: Unsustainable Tourism in the UAE

By Hunter Collins | May 10th, 2021

Be honest. When you’re on vacation, do you ever think once about the environmental, economic, and social implications that your travel activities have on your vacation destination? If you’re like most tourists, the answer to that question is most likely a resounding no. Vacation is meant to be a rejuvenating escape from the troubles of our daily lives, so why should we ruin our experience by worrying about the impacts that our travel has on the environment and the local host community? The impending environmental crisis threatening the habitability of our planet signals that we probably should start doing so.

There are few places where understanding the relationship between tourism and the environment is more critical than the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This small country on the Persian Gulf comprised of seven Islamic kingdoms has experienced unprecedented economic growth within the space of just half a century largely due to the country’s endowment of lucrative hydrocarbon resources. Since its independence in 1971, the UAE’s economy has grown by 331%; it’s now the second largest economy in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). However, despite its economic success, the country’s arid environment makes it particularly susceptible to the effects of climate change and environmental degradation, like water insecurity and rising sea levels. To diversify its economy away from fossil fuels, the UAE has set about encouraging tourism to sustain economic growth and sidestep the environmental downsides of the fossil fuel industry. However, as I’ll try to demonstrate with this post, the belief that tourism, especially the luxury tourism that characterizes most of the UAE’s tourism industry, is a low-impact economic alternative to high-impact industries like fossil fuel extraction is misleading. There’s more of trade-off between economic growth and environmental impact associated with the tourism industry than most people realize.

The city of Dubai as seen aerially in 1990 and 2017. The city’s rapid and widespread developmental expansion is evident.

With this misleading belief driving touristic development, the country’s efforts to increase tourism have been fruitful; the travel industry in the UAE is booming. The country has experienced steady growth in international arrivals, welcoming approximately 16.7 million international visitors in 2019. The UAE is currently the second most visited country in the Middle East, and Dubai is one of the world’s most popular travel destinations. Tourists are increasingly attracted to the UAE because of the modern convenience associated with its developed infrastructure, its stable political system, its tropical climate, and its accessibility. The country is not only open to western tourists, unlike some other Islamic states, but the country’s superior transportation infrastructure enables seamless travel. Tourism in the UAE is overwhelmingly concentrated in the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the country’s most populous urban centers (66% of the tourism industry in the UAE is concentrated in the Emirate of Dubai and 16% in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi); because of this, I’ll mostly focus on these two tourist destinations in the rest of this post.

Money Matters: Economic Considerations of UAE Tourism

The economic importance of the UAE tourism industry almost goes without saying. The country’s economy, like many of the other economies in the region, depends heavily on the fossil fuel industry; the UAE has the 6th largest oil reserves and the 7th largest natural gas reserves in the world. Unlike other countries in the region however, the focus on tourism in the UAE has significantly lessened the country’s dependence on fossil fuel production, an industry well known for its overly large environmental impact, as its main source of economic prosperity. The UAE has effectively used its hydrocarbon wealth to advance sustainable development and diversify its economy. The country currently has the most diversified economy in the GCC, and the country’s successful economic growth model, which stresses tourism as a driver of growth, provides a proven template for developing countries to follow. The tourism industry is now an integral part of the UAE’s overall economy; in 2017, the industry contributed 628,500 jobs to the UAE labor market which accounted for 10.4% of total employment. And guess what, UAE tourism is only expected to provide more jobs in the years to come. Tourism’s overall contribution to the country’s GDP increased from 4.2% in 2000 to 10.9% ($47.4 Billion USD) of total GDP in 2019. The total revenue from international tourism in the UAE in 2019 was estimated at $21.8 Billion USD. Tourism is also a primary driving force of continuing rapid development (infrastructure improvement, increased quality of life, etc.) in the UAE which carries positive economic implications in and of itself.  The seemingly unlimited economic benefit of tourism makes it easy to see why many, including the industry’s stakeholders in the UAE, are reluctant to fully consider the industry’s indisputable contribution to environmental problems.

Increasing tourist traffic has the potential to unalterably impact the precarious environmental situation facing the country; money alone can’t stop the approaching environmental crisis.

The fact that the UAE is actively diversifying away from fossil fuels through tourism seems promising from an environmental standpoint; tourism surely can’t be as environmentally harmful as fossil fuel production—can it? Contrary to what we might expect, developing the tourism industry in a particular country has been shown to have little effect on the net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from that country (Lenzen et al). Why is this? Tourism is a high consumption economic sector: the industry requires vast amounts of water, energy, and other resources which disrupts the environmental balance of the host country and exacerbates existing environmental issues. Luxury tourism in the UAE, with its emphasis on shopping and other urban leisure experiences, is characterized by consumption and extravagance. Tourism might not be the economic godsend that it’s sometimes made out to be. Despite the UAE’s wealth, which enables the Emirati government to better address environmental concerns, increasing tourist traffic has the potential to unalterably impact the precarious environmental situation facing the country; money alone can’t stop the approaching environmental crisis. Economic growth is essential to the UAE’s overall wellbeing (including environmental wellbeing), but can tourism-induced economic growth be reconciled with the industry’s negative environmental impacts?

Waste and Damaging Development: Tourism’s Contribution to Pollution and Ecosystem Disruption in the UAE

One of the most obvious environmental consequences of tourism in the UAE is its role in increasing environmental pollution. The industry causes all different types of pollution including air, water, ground, noise, and visual pollution. Tourists who visit the UAE are exceedingly more wasteful than the local population, and their activities are usually characterized by wasteful excess. As a basic example of pollution arising from tourism, consider the GHG emissions from tourist transportation, one of the most fundamental tourism activities—just think about all the planes and busses used to get tourists to where they’re going. Dubai International Airport (DBX) is the world’s busiest airport in terms of passenger traffic. There were approximately 418,000 flights from DBX in 2016 which, given that jet fuel combustion is one of the leading contributors of GHG emissions, is worrying to say the least. Also, cruise ships, one of the quintessential modes of tourism, have a far less than stellar environmental track record; passenger cruise ships produce 21,000 gallons of sewage, one ton of solid refuse, 170,000 gallons of wastewater, and 8,500 plastic water bottles per day on average. To put this in the context of the UAE tourism industry, Port Rashid near Dubai is the leading cruise ship destination in the Middle East. The wastefulness associated with irresponsible tourism in the UAE strains the country’s waste management system which, although highly advanced, is already stressed due to rapid urbanization (90% of the country’s population is urban). Pollution from tourism certainly has the potential to inflict long-term environmental damage.

One specific example of the negative environmental effects of UAE tourism can be seen with the coastal erosion and marine ecosystem disruption caused by the development of Dubai’s artificial Islands. Prompted by a desire to both capitalize on and sustain increasing tourism in Dubai, developers, along with the government of Dubai, planned several large-scale artificial archipelagos in the early 2000s directly off the coast of the city. Palm Jumeirah, which measures 2.21 square miles in land area, is the only island cluster that’s fully developed as of now. The archipelago, which is shaped like a palm tree, is packed full of private residences, luxury hotels, and tourist attractions including multiple amusement parks; it seems like an understatement to say that the total amount of water and energy required by this island community is immense. The island clusters of Palm Jebel Ali and The World have been constructed but have yet to be developed, and many more manmade island projects are still in the works (like the Deira Islands or The Dubai Waterfront, which is expected to be the largest manmade development in the world). A whopping 95 million cubic meters of sand and 7 million tons of rock were used in the construction of Palm Jumeirah alone which is striking considering it is the smallest of the planned island clusters.

Palm Jumeirah
A barge “rainbows” dredged sand during the construction of Dubai’s artificial islands
Dubai’s current coastline
Planned future developments on Dubai’s coastline

Along with all the marine life that is literally buried (asphyxiated) as sand is dredged from the sea floor and redistributed, island construction at this scale also significantly increases fine sediment suspension. This has been shown to drastically reduce coral reef growth along with the overall coral population. Fine sediment suspension allows less light to reach the seafloor which is detrimental for both sea plants and bottom feeders. The island developers have tried to rectify their negative impact on the coral reef habitat by implementing artificial coral reefs, but the effectiveness of these manmade reefs is still uncertain. Increased fine sediment suspension has also been shown to increase the concentration of Hydrogen Sulfide, a toxic chemical, in seawater. This major marine habitat disruption (produced almost directly by touristic development) carries some far-reaching consequences for the Persian Gulf as a whole; large disturbances in the food chain, like that caused by artificial island construction in Dubai, have the potential to derail entire ecological systems. But that’s not all. Island construction has led to increased coastal erosion and altered shoreline patterns which threatens both the islands as well as seafront development on the mainland. Only time will tell of the full effect of Dubai’s manmade islands on the fragile aquatic ecosystems of the Persian Gulf as well as coastal human settlement in the UAE.

Water Woes: Tourism’s Exacerbation of Existing Water Issues in the UAE

The UAE, like many other Middle Eastern countries, is currently facing an imminent water resource crisis; decreasing rainfall due to climate change and overextraction of groundwater have a major negative effect on the UAE’s overall water security. A dwindling natural water supply along with abjectly unsustainable water demand are steering the country towards environmental disaster. The UAE currently receives the 5th lowest average annual rainfall in the world at 78 mm, and the country’s water withdrawal rate exceeds more than 200 times its renewable water resources (aquifers are not considered renewable). The UAE is currently considered the 10th most water-stressed country in the world.

Tourism in the UAE contributes greatly to unsustainable water demand which is one of the primary determinants of water scarcity. On average, tourists use more water than local residents, and tourism infrastructure (hotels, landscaping, tourist sites, etc.) tends to be characterized by extremely high water and energy consumption rates. The UAE has one of the highest per capita water usage rates in the world at around 200 gallons per person per day. In Dubai specifically, an increase of 500 mL of potable water per person per day is attributable to tourists alone. Nothing better represents the industry’s unrestrained water consumption than the numerous large-scale water parks in the UAE that attract millions of visitors annually. For a country threatened by severe water insecurity, the massive Aquaventure Waterpark, which uses close to 5 million gallons of water per day, seems out of place. Tourism also encourages the widespread development of ostentatious urban green spaces with little water conservation principles in mind. These unsustainable green spaces are frequently deployed in urban landscape design (especially in Dubai and Abu Dhabi) to meet tourists’ expectations for lush, “oasis-like” urban environments even though much of the UAE has a natural desert landscape. These green spaces seek to provide a “natural” escape from urban living, but the reality is that these overwatered and unsustainably landscaped parks are not at all natural in the context of the country’s environment.

The Aquaventure Waterpark is part of the Atlantis Resort Complex, a 1,548-room resort located on Palm Jumeirah in Dubai. The waterpark attracts 1.4 million visitors per year and is considered among the largest waterparks in the world.
Corniche Park in Abu Dhabi. Instead of embracing the UAE’s desert environment, urban developers draw from clearly inappropriate models for urban natural spaces.

The UAE’s water problems, which are compounded by tourism, are definitely troubling, but (unsurprisingly) they don’t stop there. Fortunately for the UAE though, its wealth allows the country to supplement its water supply through expensive “manufactured water” sources like seawater desalination and wastewater reclamation. Unfortunately however, these costly water sources come with some significant environmental impacts of their own. Desalination, which provides 37% of the UAE’s total water supply and most of the country’s potable water, requires an exceedingly large energy input. With only around 5.74% of the UAE’s total energy production coming from clean energy sources, we can be pretty sure that most of the energy used for desalination comes from natural gas combustion which releases vast amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. As tourism increases, water demand increases which leads to increased desalination production; this ultimately causes increased GHG emissions, and the effect of carbon emissions on the environment pretty much goes without saying. On top of it all, hot brine, a byproduct of the desalination process, is usually dumped back into the Persian Gulf; this causes increased seawater salinity and higher seawater temperatures which are both extremely harmful to the coastal marine environment.

The Carbon Footprint of Tourism in the UAE and Its Impact on Global Climate Change

Tourism is an energy-intensive economic sector. I’m sure it’s not surprising for anybody when I say that large amounts of electricity are needed for hotels, restaurants, retail stores, and touristic activities. As we saw with desalination, tourism contributes greatly to rising energy consumption in the UAE which leads to more GHG emissions. This is all in addition to the more direct sources of carbon emissions from tourism like touristic transportation (remember DBX?). Globally, tourism accounts for about 8% of global carbon emissions alone, and, on a country-by-country basis, it has been shown that tourism’s carbon footprint increases with tourist affluence. This is bad news for the UAE which tends to attract wealthy tourists seeking luxury getaways. Energy consumption in the UAE has doubled in the past 10 years, and the country’s overall energy usage is only expected to increase as the travel industry grows. The whole point of the matter is that tourism leads to increased GHG emissions which are the leading cause of global climate change, and I’m sure we’re all well aware by now that climate change threatens to irreversibly alter our planet’s natural environment for the worse.

Ski Dubai is one specific example that highlights the massive energy consumption associated with tourism in the UAE. Ski Dubai is a 22,500 square meter indoor snow skiing facility located within the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai. Yep, you heard me, who would have thought you could snow ski in a place with an average annual temperature of around 85 degrees Fahrenheit? This unique tourist attraction receives more than 750,000 annual visitors, and 30 tons of artificial snow are produced each day. The ambient temperature is kept right around 30 degrees Fahrenheit. The extensive refrigeration and snow production at Ski Dubai requires around 1000 MWh of electricity per year. Assuming all the electricity used by Ski Dubai is generated through natural gas combustion (which isn’t far from the truth), the indoor ski resort contributes approximately 500 tons of GHG emissions per year which is equivalent to the resulting GHG emissions from 900 round trip commercial flights from Dubai to Germany (Shahbaz et al).

Ski Dubai

With tourism’s immense energy consumption in mind, the industry can be viewed as self-destructive in a sense. Since tourism has been shown to play a definite role in driving climate change, touristic activities are literally contributing to the deterioration of the natural environment on which the industry’s viability is based. There could quite possibly come a day when rising sea levels in the Persian Gulf threaten coastal development in the UAE or insufficient water supply deters tourist arrivals. It’s somewhat ironic that the very activities that constitute the tourism industry, if unchecked, have the potential to disrupt the industry itself.

UAE’s tourism industry is complex, and it’s difficult to weigh the industry’s economic potential with its definite contribution to environmental degradation and climate change. One thing is for certain though:

Irresponsible tourism, or tourism with little to no regard for reducing its impacts, is environmentally unsustainable and needs to be re-envisionedespecially in countries, like the UAE where the environmental balance is already fragile.

What Can Be Done?

Behind tourism’s negative environmental effects is the fact that tourists don’t have to live with the immediate ramifications of their actions on the local environment because they don’t permanently reside there. There’s little incentive for tourists to practice environmental stewardship, so local residents are left to deal with tourism’s harmful impacts. Many of the tourists who come to the UAE just aren’t mindful of the heightened environmental vulnerability of the country, and their unsustainable activities reflect this disregard. And while the UAE is taking measures to lessen tourism’s contribution to environmental degradation such as strongly emphasizing sustainable development strategies, tourism’s rapid growth is making it exceptionally difficult for the country to sustainably accommodate the industry.

Another dimension of tourism’s overall impact is the industry’s negative sociocultural consequences. Chief among them is cultural erosion which threatens Emirati heritage. Cultural erosion occurs when local cultural identity fades as touristic lifestyles replace traditional lifestyles and customs. Especially in a country like the UAE, where expatriate residents outnumber natural-born citizens (Emiratis), great care must be taken to preserve and foster local cultural heritage.

It’s unclear whether the UAE government truly recognizes the destructive potential of tourism. The country’s visionary future goals reflect a desire to develop sustainably and ameliorate the tourism industry’s negative impacts, but these goals are all framed in the context of economic development. This demonstrates that the economy is still the number one priority for the UAE. Maybe in the eyes of the Emirati government, the industry’s immense economic potential really does eclipse the environmental and social considerations of tourism activity. And we have to wonder, is this rightly so? Economic health is so tied up with the state of the natural environment that it’s likely that the environmental wellbeing of the UAE depends on the strength of the economy. For example, the water crises in the UAE would be tremendously worse if there wasn’t enough money for desalination. This relationship becomes paradoxical when we remember that the very industries that contribute the most to the UAE economy, like tourism, are some of the most environmentally destructive; both curbing tourism and continuing to encourage tourism can be seen as environmentally problematic when viewed from this angle.

Tourism in the UAE allows outsiders to experience the country in a way that just can’t be done on the internet; a great degree of cultural understanding would be lost if travel in the UAE was limited.

It seems hopeless, but there’s really only one question left to ask; can anything be done about tourism in the UAE? We’ve seen that the industry has some serious downsides, but the UAE obviously can’t just abolish tourism. Aside from the industry’s immense and necessary economic contribution, tourism in the UAE allows outsiders to experience the country in a way that just can’t be done on the internet; a great degree of cultural understanding would be lost if travel in the UAE was limited. With tourism’s overall significance in mind, encouraging sustainable tourism seems like the best way to mitigate the detrimental environmental and cultural effects of tourism in the UAE without sacrificing the industry’s important benefits.

The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) defines sustainable tourism as referring to “a level of tourism activity that can be maintained over the long term because it results in a net benefit for the social, economic, natural, and cultural environments of the area in which it takes place”. Ecotourism and heritage tourism are two classes of tourism that fall within the sustainable tourism umbrella category. Ecotourism is nature-based travel with minimal environmental impact while heritage tourism refers to travel that centers around experiencing the authentic cultural heritage of the destination. The UAE should focus more on encouraging responsible tourism in place of the luxury urban tourism that the country has been promoting in order to counteract tourism’s damaging effects without forfeiting its transformative economic benefits. There’s certainly no shortage of natural beauty in the UAE with its stunning desert landscapes, lush oases, and awe-inspiring mountain ranges. The country’s many cultural heritage sites, like the Al Ain Oasis in Abu Dhabi or the Al Bidya Mosque in Fujairah, invite tourists to enrich their travel experience by immersing themselves in the rich history of the region as well as Emirati culture. Spending a day exploring a vast expanse of natural sand dunes or learning about Emirati heritage at the Jebel Hafit Tombs is far less impactful than spending a day skiing and shopping at the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai. And as an additional environmental benefit, greater emphasis on ecotourism and heritage tourism might lead to a more even distribution of tourism across the country instead of its current concentration in the country’s coastal metropolises. Responsible tourism won’t eliminate tourism’s environmental and social impact in the UAE, but it should help reduce the industry’s destructive potential.

Rub’ al Khali Desert, Abu Dhabi. The extraordinary natural landscapes of the UAE definitely have the potential to attract more ecotourists.
Jebel Hafit Tombs in eastern Abu Dhabi near Oman. These hive-shaped stone tombs date back to the bronze age (3200-2600 BCE).

There you have it. While tourism is hugely beneficial for both the UAE (economic benefit) and tourists who visit the country (benefit of a broadened worldview), the negative ramifications of touristic activities are far-reaching and, if unchecked, could lead to deterioration of the country’s already fragile environmental situation. And this complex touristic relationship is not at all unique to the UAE. Travel should be a fun and exciting experience that bridges the gap between differing global perspectives, but we, as future tourists ourselves, can’t forget about the industry’s impact. So next time you’re on vacation, whether in Dubai or elsewhere, stop a while and think about how your leisure activities might affect the economic, social, and environmental circumstances of your destination. Depending on your answer, consider altering your travel plans to reflect an increased understanding of personal responsibility. Do that, and I promise, not only will you make a difference in counteracting tourism’s negative consequences, but your travel experience will be much more meaningful.

Hunter Collins is an undergraduate student at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. He’s originally from Atlanta, and he doesn’t really know what he wants to study yet. He enjoys traveling, but, after writing this blog post and taking MESAS 270, he’ll make sure that his future travels reflect environmental and cultural responsibility. He’s never been to the UAE or the Middle East for that matter, but he would certainly like to visit one day. 


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Images: listed in order of appearance

  1. Crowd of visitors at Dubai Mall are waiting for the Dancin… | Flickr
  2. Dubai 1990 vs. 2017 (mattdavidky.blogspot.com)
  3. Experience in Dubai, United Arab Emirates by Yusuf | Erasmus experience Dubai (erasmusu.com)
  4. Initial – The Impact of the Palm Islands, United Arab Emirates (google.com)
  5. Are the Google Street View cars back in Dubai? (whatson.ae)
  6. Historia con Mapas – Atlas & Maps (lahistoriaconmapas.com)
  7. Aquaventure Waterpark, Dubai – Book Tickets & Tours | GetYourGuide.com
  8. Green dream: Abu Dhabi park named one of the best in the world | The National (thenationalnews.com)
  9. https://survivorsnetoworks.blogspot.com/2020/04/dubai-mall-dubai-indoor-skiing.html
  10. Ski Dubai – One of the World’s Largest Indoor Ski Resorts in Dubai (nerdstravel.com)
  11. 7 things you must do in Abu Dhabi – eDreams Travel Blog
  12. Hafeet Tombs: Beginning of Bronze Age in UAE – News – Emirates – Emirates24|7

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