The Barriers to MENA Civil Society’s Influence at COP28
Tens of thousands of members of civil society from around the world have traveled to Dubai to participate in the COP28 climate conference. Although they do not have an official role in the negotiations, they exert influence at the conference in various ways. They demonstrate public support for bold and transformative climate policies, advocate for urgent climate action, and strive to hold government officials accountable. But environmental civil society from the MENA region faces unique challenges to achieve that influence at COP, even though the conference is in the Middle East for the second year in a row.
Although most civil society actors do not have access to the so-called “blue zone” where official negotiations take place, they can engage with policymakers. Being in close proximity to government delegations allows them to gain a better understanding of their governments’ negotiating stances and gives them the chance to push officials to adopt more ambitious policies. However, several barriers prevent MENA civil society actors from influencing policymakers.
Many civil society members are not able to get to COP in the first place. An environmental analyst from Iraq said she was not aware of any civil society representatives participating in the Iraqi delegation. Governments control who can access official delegate badges and they often choose delegates who they know will not seriously challenge their policies. A group of young activists recently established the Arab Youth for COP initiative to bridge this gap, seeking to support independent Arab youth participation in major climate conferences, like COPs and MENA climate weeks. The initiative brought together 10 young Arabs, representing youth and civil society voices from the least accessible and most affected countries in the Arab region, at COP28. However, initiatives like this are rare and still operate at a small scale due to the lack of serious support and funding.
The lack of professionalization of environmental civil society also serves as a barrier to participation. Most people in environmental organizations in the MENA region are volunteers with limited finances. It is difficult for them to participate actively in COP without an external backer. The lack of professionalization also undermines longer-term capacity building efforts and stymies civil society actors’ ability to engage in technical and policy-oriented discussions. MENA civil society actors also struggle to access comprehensive and up-to-date data on climate impacts and vulnerabilities, and their knowledge of adaptation strategies is limited, which hinders their ability to advocate for evidence-based solutions.
Politics also constrain civil society’s participation. In MENA states with closed political systems, governments restrict freedom of expression and association, and they strictly monitor civil society activities. These conditions limit civil society’s ability to voice concerns and participate in decision making processes on climate issues, either at COP or elsewhere. Certain cultural norms and systemic barriers also prevent meaningful youth inclusion in climate negotiations, despite the fact young people make up almost half of the population in the MENA region.
Regional tensions also serve as a barrier to MENA civil society’s involvement in COP. Those from conflict-affected states face particular difficulties traveling to the conference. In these states, governments and international donors often prioritize stabilization and reconstruction efforts over climate action, meaning the civil society ecosystem is often less developed on environmental issues. Regional tensions, including the war between Israel and Hamas, also influence the positions that MENA governments take in climate negotiations, hindering collaboration between civil society members from different parts of the region.
With limited access to the conference, MENA civil society actors have less capacity to monitor government and corporate climate commitments made during COP. COP27 in Egypt saw a record number of leaders of oil and gas companies attending the conference. More are likely to attend in Dubai this year, but it will be difficult for civil society to exert pressure on them. Because many states in the region depend on fossil fuel revenues, civil society actors must consider the economic implications of the energy transition when advocating for a just and inclusive shift to renewable energy.
The diversity of the MENA region also stymies civil society’s ability to form unified regional positions and priorities. MENA countries face different environmental challenges, have different economic priorities, and must overcome different vested interests. Some of them struggle to communicate with each other. Even though Arabic is an official language of the region, many discussions at COP only take place in English, which is a barrier for some members of civil society. These linguistic, cultural, and economic differences undermine civil society’s ability to band together to increase their potential influence.
Despite these challenges, COP presents a unique opportunity for civil society actors from the MENA region who do attend. Even if they struggle to influence decision making processes, civil society actors can build networks of like-minded individuals at COP that can build their capacity in their home states. They can forge alliances with other civil society organizations from their own country and elsewhere in the region to share ideas and best practices. COP is also an opportunity to meet with major donors such as multilateral international institutions, governments, and philanthropic organizations that would otherwise be difficult to access. Therefore, civil society organizations can create new relationships that can enable them to access new funding opportunities.
For all of the problems civil society groups have accessing meetings like COP28, they remain among the most important international platforms that civil society actors can attend. Talking to the media provides them with an opportunity to share their stories and perspectives in their own terms. They can also challenge the idea that civil society actors from the Global North are the only ones engaged with climate issues. COP gives them an opportunity to showcase innovative solutions and technologies to address climate challenges. This advocacy can encourage international actors to adopt more sustainable practices in various sectors, even if their influence on their own governments may be limited.
Neeshad Shafi is the co-founder of Arab Youth 4 COP and Arab Youth Climate Movement Qatar. Will Todman is deputy director and a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.