It was December in Dubai, the days were shorter and the sun lower in the sky. But for the 70,000 delegates at the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (28th Conference of the Parties, COP28) shuttling between the different meeting rooms and side events, the weather was far from the crisp, cool air typically associated with winter.

As the COP28 president convened the world media in one of the halls to remind them of his unwavering belief in climate science, those standing outdoors, within the venue — and indeed across the city — did not need to make a leap of faith, as the impact of climate change was all too evident. The average winter temperatures in Dubai had risen by 2.7 degrees in the last five decades; summer temperatures had increased even more.

Future climate change is set to increase temperatures around the Gulf further still, rising twice as fast as the global average and pushing the cities of this rapidly growing region toward the edge of their viability as human habitats. But how did this situation come to be in the first place, and why did humans settle in such an inhospitable environment and build such cities around the Gulf waters?

Around 8,000 years ago, the tilt of the Earth's axis began to change slightly, leading to alterations in the global climate. Thus began a slow transformation of large areas of grassland north and south of the equator into deserts such as the Arabian and Iranian deserts, which lacked fresh water, moderate climate, and biocapacity — the ability to produce food. The Arabian Peninsula became largely uninhabitable, with only a few locations that could sustain human life.

Simultaneously, the Gulf itself began forming when glaciers and ice sheets started to melt at the end of the last ice age. Sea levels rose around the world. Seawater from the Indian Ocean flooded into lands hitherto occupied by the meandering Tigris-Euphrates River. Water levels rose by 125 meters over several millennia before reaching the current stable level 2,500 years ago.

Against the odds

When humans settled in the Arabian Peninsula, they did so against great odds. With the exception of the Fertile Crescent, there were only a few areas in the region that provided water, moderate climate, and the capacity to produce food. Oases such as Medina, Khaybar, al-Ain, and Liwa had some groundwater and the ability to produce food. Ta'if provided a combination of groundwater, high altitude, and good soils, while Riyadh grew on the banks of the Wadi Hanifa stream.

Coastal locations provided food production opportunities. In addition to fishing, the narrow plains on which cities such as Jeddah and Muscat were built were flanked by mountains on one side and the sea on another, making the most of the seasonal rainwater drainage.

On the other hand, the southern coast of the Gulf had no such favorable locations. Its tropical geography and proximity to the Gulf's warm and saline waters ensured a hot and humid climate with largely undrinkable groundwater. Yet small settlements such as Abu Dhabi and Doha emerged on the back of the limited potable groundwater there was and the local pearling industry.

Spaceship in the desert

The discovery of oil and gas in the Gulf countries over the last century turned the region’s fortunes around and allowed some of its settlements to grow into cities. Rapid expansion of fossil fuel exports created trade surpluses, which together with the globalization of hinterlands enabled food and virtual water imports from beyond the region. They also enabled the importation of technologies, such as water desalination and air conditioning, which improved living conditions and led to population growth. The population of Gulf Cooperation Council countries has increased tenfold in the last six decades.

As oil exports grew, oil wealth led to the creation of an urban region in the Gulf operating far beyond its ecological capacity. In fact, every country in the Gulf region has a high ecological deficit — the difference between biocapacity of its land and the ecological footprint of its population. This deficit far exceeds those found in highly industrialized economies in Europe, North America, and China. This is due to increasing consumption and dependence on imports and environmentally harmful technologies to provide citizens’ basic needs. As consumption grows, so does this deficit.

Less than a century after the emergence of the oil industry, a false sense of urban equality, even superiority, permeates the region compared to other global cities. The abundance of imports masks the underlying truth that Gulf cities live well beyond their own natural resources. The region’s cities have made no attempt to grow in symbiosis with their environment. Instead, they seek to seal themselves and their environment off like a spaceship and depend on vulnerable life support infrastructure.

Urbanization without urbanism

It is perhaps unsurprising that the Gulf region is one of the most urbanized in the world. The coastal states of Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates were effectively “born urban” due to limited rural activities, such as agriculture and grazing. More than 90% of the population in these countries currently lives in cities.

However, these cities were neither efficient nor designed to take their environments into consideration. Many of them have ended up with what sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim describes as “urbanization without urbanism,” where the quality of a city’s planning as well as its environmental and social provisions do not grow at the same rate as its size.

Gulf cities were designed with low-density, single-use zoning and a focus on private vehicles over public transportation. Gulf countries subsidized fuel prices, which were an integral part of the social contract of their respective governments, thus disincentivizing any transition to energy-efficient public transportation. Building stock largely comprised inefficient, fully glazed buildings, and subsidized electricity and water prices removed incentives for efficiency.

The region's unsustainable urban development has negatively impacted the environment in many ways, such as from greenhouse gas emissions and energy-intensive desalination. The Gulf region is disproportionately responsible for global emissions, accounting for 2.9% of global greenhouse gas emissions, almost four times its share of the global population. The Gulf region also accounts for more than 60% of the world’s desalination capacity with harmful impacts on the marine environment.

How resilient is your oasis?

Under the worst-case climate change scenario, summer temperatures in the Gulf could rise by up to 12 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The average summer maximum temperature could exceed 55°C in Riyadh, Mecca, Medina, Kuwait, Muscat, and Doha, and could reach 60°C in Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, and Muscat.

But perhaps the most alarming potential impact is the combined effect of rising maximum temperatures and high humidity. In this worst-case scenario (RCP 8.5), by the end of the century, coastal cities around the Gulf could experience maximum Wet Bulb temperatures (a combined metric of temperature and humidity) that reach the limits of human adaptability, bringing summer days so severe that it would be fatal to be outdoors for even a few hours. Needless to say that these impacts would have a detrimental impact on key economic sectors such as tourism and construction.

Additionally, as the Gulf waters continue to warm, they will attract tropical cyclones from the Arabian Sea into the warming Gulf of Oman. Hurricane Shaheen in 2021 was the first tropical cyclone on record to strike the northern coast of Oman. This presents risks of urban flooding, especially in cities with vulnerable topography, such as Muscat in Oman and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. 

Low-lying coastal areas are at risk of inundation. About 4,000 years ago as water levels in the Gulf were rising, they exceeded the current level by 1-2 meters before settling down. While the coastline was uninhabited at the time, it is now home to cities and infrastructure that are at risk of climate change-induced sea level rise. Most threatened by long-term sea level rise are southern Iraq and southwestern Iran. But Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Manama also face risks, especially new coastal developments and man-made islands. Long-term sea level rise will take place when the full effects of global warming on glaciers and oceans are realized over centuries, though once certain carbon dioxide levels are reached, these phenomena will be locked in and hard to reverse.


In the long term, the earth's axis is expected to shift back to its original angle in around 30,000 years, and with it the Gulf region’s deserts are expected to return to grasslands. Yet in the medium term, the only way to preserve Gulf cities from the ravages of climate change is to pursue sustainable development that is in harmony with the environment around them.

The region and its cities could become more sustainable to reduce their environmental impact and enhance their resilience to the locked-in impacts of climate change. Urban policies can be developed to promote renewable energy, public transit, walkable densities, mixed land use, local food production, green infrastructure, and climate-adapted building design. Gulf cities have the potential to become models of ecologically regenerative development, responsive to both global climate change and local community needs.

The cities of the Gulf have indeed risen against great odds, defying the harsh desert environment to become thriving urban centers. But now they face their greatest challenge yet: the ravages of climate change that threaten to make them uninhabitable. Yet within this crisis lies an opportunity. By embracing sustainable, resilient, and regenerative development in harmony with nature, Gulf cities can transform themselves once again. They can become trailblazers, showing the world how to build livable, vibrant communities in balance with nature, even in the most challenging environments. The ingenuity and determination that enabled cities to flourish here can now be harnessed to make them endure and inspire others. The sands of time are shifting, but with courage and vision, the pillars that support Gulf cities could stand on firm, sustainable foundations.


Karim Elgendy is an urban sustainability and climate consultant based in London, and a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute.

Photo by Wang Dongzhen/Xinhua via Getty Images

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