Sustainable States: Environment, Governance, and the Future of the Middle East

The importance of environmentally sus­tainable public utilities in the Middle East is an improbable topic for a Washington think tank study. Yet, many countries in the Middle East face serious challenges providing utilities in any manner to their populations, and the failure to do so is an increasing flash point for public dissatisfaction. This study finds that providing more environmentally sustainable services in the Middle East would be an effective way to address many citizens’ grievances which go be­yond the reliability of those services. It would also help ameliorate deep dissat­isfaction with the quality of governance and help build trust between citizens and their governments. 

This study examines three sectors—power, water and sanitation, and solid waste—in Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia. While the three countries are different in many ways, each faces increasing challenges providing services to their citizens. Providing these services in an environmentally sustainable way would also crucially increase each country’s re­silience and diminish their vulnerability in a chronically unstable region. 

Jordan has the most centralized system of providing these services. Efforts to en­sure service provision have often locked the government into arrangements that are expensive and protect elite interests at the expense of sustainability. In the case of water, the issue is existential for the desert country. 

Lebanon has a very decentralized sys­tem, but aspects of it have been captured by sectarian actors and business inter­ests who prioritize maintaining their economic and political power. 

Tunisia emerged from a revolution a de­cade ago with a keen interest in mov­ing beyond the centralized control of the previous dictatorship. It has found, however, that fledgling institutions are often incapable of implementing durable change, especially when legacy institu­tions seek to guard their existing prerog­atives. 

All of the governments under study strain to provide services today, and while they have all expressed interest in environ­mentally sustainable solutions, each has also faced challenges in implementation. The vignettes in each chapter explore con­sequential experiments, many of which were successful and point the way for replication in individual countries and re­gion-wide. 

This study found that the provision of en­vironmentally sustainable services would have a number of salutary effects: it would provide services economically, it would do so in ways that minimize pollution and conserve vital resources, and it would help empower local authorities that are closely connected to their citizenry. But perhaps even more importantly, providing local, environmentally sustainable services would address the yawning trust deficit between millions of citizens and their government. The halo effect of effective governance would, in the estimation of the study’s authors, spread to many other aspects of public life. 

The topic seems mundane, technical, and not worthy of high-level attention. In­stead, it should be seen as the more per­sistent ways many citizens in the Middle East see their government. Success in this endeavor would not only preserve the en­vironment for future generations but also contribute to lasting social peace as well. 

This project was made possible by a donation from the Embassy of Qatar in Washington, D.C. The shape of this project, as well as the opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in its findings, are those of the authors and do not represent the view of the embassy or the government of Qatar, which did not review the project’s findings before publication. 

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program