Profile: Arab Youth Climate Movement – Qatar

Climate change and environmental issues have only recently become a subject of public discussion in the Gulf. In the run up to COP21 in Paris in 2015, a group of young people in Qatar resolved to bring greater attention to the issue. Up to that point, most public initiatives were government-sponsored. Governments themselves determined what topics got attention, and citizens’ role was to follow along.   

The young people formed the Arab Youth Climate Movement – Qatar (AYCM) in 2015 and registered in 2019, becoming the first fully independent youth-led association in Qatar focused on youth and climate issues. The group seeks to raise environmental awareness, shape climate policy, and advocate for climate action in Qatar and the broader Arab region. By collaborating with the government and receiving international support, AYCM has found a way to influence environmental policy in Qatar and the broader Middle East and North Africa (MENA). 

The association’s co-founder, climate scientist and social advocate Neeshad Shafi, says that the group’s creativity and ability to work with the government were key to its success. AYCM registered as an independent non-profit organization in Qatar when there was limited government attention to climate issues. Its ability to engage young people in their initiatives and attract large audiences to attend their events garnered the government’s attention. But rather than seeing it as a challenge and quashing or coercing it, the Ministry of Environment saw benefit in collaborating with AYCM to tap into their audience and expand the reach of their work. They invited AYCM leaders to meetings and discussed ways to cross-promote their environmental initiatives. In 2020, a government publication featured Shafi in a list of influential individuals who have “pushed boundaries and represented Qatar on the world stage.” 

International support has bolstered AYCM’s credibility in Qatar and beyond. The U.S. embassy in Doha has recently placed a greater emphasis on sustainability in the MENA region and gave AYCM a grant to work on climate issues in Qatar. Although U.S. funding could undermine the credibility of civil society organizations in some parts of the Middle East by raising accusations of the groups being puppets of a foreign agenda, Shafi believes that U.S. government funding was a “stamp of approval” that enhanced the association’s standing in the eyes of Gulf governments.  

Climate discussions are now much more mainstream in the Gulf and governments are driving the conversation. Many of these governments want to control the pace and direction of change and are likely to give youth groups less bandwidth to shape policy. In Qatar, the government has not registered any other independent, youth-led associations focusing on the climate to date. However, Shafi hopes that AYCM’s experiences will provide valuable lessons to other young people across the Arab world who seek ways to be part of the solution to climate change and lead the call for climate action.