Roundtable Summary: Civil Society and Environmental Action in the Gulf

Iran has hosted several international conferences on combatting sand and dust storms in recent years, but this year's included a Saudi participant for the first time. Saudi Arabia and Iran have increased diplomatic contact on several issues in the wake of their March 2023 normalization agreement, and shared environmental challenges are a new topic of dialogue. After the conference, the Saudi official pledged to share best practices with Iran and stressed the imperative of collaborative international action on the environment. 

As Gulf governments increase their collaboration on environmental issues, CSIS convened a private roundtable with Gulf civil society actors to explore the role that civil society actors can play in bolstering state-level collaboration efforts and driving environmental action. Participants included academics, activists, and analysts from Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and Qatar. They debated avenues to strengthen regional collaboration, pathways for civil society actors to influence government policy, and ways in which international actors can bolster their efforts. 

Bolstering regional collaboration 

Governments will drive the shape and speed of regional collaboration on environmental issues, but participants argued that civil society actors could bolster state-level efforts. For example, if governments agreed to a data policy for the region, civil society actors could build databases on environmental issues. Such data are needed to understand the true scale of region’s environmental challenges and the local impact of climate change, which is critical for governments to craft effective policy responses. Yet, a Kuwaiti analyst doubted the likelihood of a regional data-sharing agreement, stating that even Gulf Cooperation Council members rarely share data due to a lack of trust. 

Beyond data sharing, an Iranian participant argued that cooperation between academics is the most promising avenue for collaboration. Such collaboration would be most feasible if conducted within the framework of an existing international program such as the Regional Organization for the Protection of the Marine Environment (ROPME), which is headquartered in Kuwait, the UN Environment Program (UNEP), or the UN Development Program (UNDP). He noted that collaboration in these contexts would help build trust between states but cautioned that cultural sensitivities could still get in the way. For example, the Iranian government may prevent Iranian experts from participating in conferences that use the term “Arabian Gulf” or “Gulf” rather than “Persian Gulf.” 

Influencing policy 

Participants agreed that civil society organizations have greater ability to influence policymaking at the national level. A Qatari activist observed that civil society actors no longer have to travel abroad to participate in environmental discussions and share their ideas. An Iraqi academic agreed that discussions about environmental issues are becoming more common in the Gulf, but qualified that most of them are convened by external organizations. An Iraqi analyst agreed, noting that even though the government invites civil society actors to attend these discussions more frequently, it rarely gives them a platform to speak. An Iranian participant argued that civil society in Iran has had success in influencing decisions in specific areas. For example, civil society activism forced the Iranian government to adjust its plans for a petrochemical complex. 

Part of the problem is that relatively few academics and analysts in the region produce timely, policy-relevant research. An Iraqi academic said that social sciences are generally underfunded and most research on the environment and climate change is written by hard scientists who do not produce policy analysis. A Kuwaiti analyst agreed, saying that only the researchers with the most initiative succeed in securing international funding for their research. Challenges in accessing government data and a general dearth of up-to-date data are also major obstacles. An Iraqi academic said the Iraqi government often gives international researchers preferential access to information but frustrates locals’ access to data. Academics that do not speak English are at a particular disadvantage when it comes to producing timely research, as they must often wait several years for research to be translated into Arabic. 

Much of the research that regional experts produce does not reach large audiences. Foreign-funded research is usually only published in English, and it is only recently that more organizations are funding translations. Because there are very few “activist scientists” who work to draw public attention to their work in the region, participants argued that journalists have a critical role to play in packaging academics’ findings for a general audience. An Iraqi analyst said that journalists in the region are covering environmental issues more often and are increasingly asking local civil society experts to comment. However, many of the outlets covering these topics publish in English and environmental issues still receive relatively little attention in Arabic-language media in the Gulf. Participants agreed that if journalists connect experts’ environmental research with day-to-day issues and produce it in regional languages, they will gain more traction. 

Navigating international support 

International support can serve as both a boon and a hinderance to the work of civil society in the region. Foreign collaborations can confer legitimacy on civil society organizations, making regional governments take them more seriously. International actors also have important convening power, exposing civil society actors to new groups and building networks that can share best practices. In more closed political environments, international support can also enable civil society to conduct more innovative research, breaking free from the constraints of only being able to work on topics approved by their governments. 

However, participants noted that a gap exists between international actors’ priorities and local needs. An Iraqi academic described international support for environmental issues as “market-driven,” arguing that it often consists of short-term projects that seek quick results, rather than building civil society’s ability to have longer-term impact according to local communities’ needs. International actors sometimes impose their ideas on civil society, seemingly only engaging local groups to confirm their pre-existing ideas about the best solutions to environmental challenges, another participant added. In more fragile contexts such as Iraq, some political groups use international funding to discredit civil society. They see it as evidence that civil society organizations working on climate change are “agents of the West” and “trying to destabilize Iraq.” 

Participants concluded that local civil society actors are a useful channel for international actors to advance climate action in many parts of the Gulf. These groups are in close contact with affected communities and best understand the constraints and opportunities that exist in the local political context, meaning they can inform more effective interventions.