27 November 2023

Climate Change and Regional Instability in the Middle East

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is home to over sixteen million refugees and internally displaced persons due to decades of conflict and instability, and the United Nations estimates that over seventy million people in the region need humanitarian assistance. At the same time, it is one of the most vulnerable places in the world to the deleterious effects of climate change; the region has seen 0.2°C (0.36°F) of warming between 1961 and 1990, and the rate of warming is intensifying. Climate-related disasters like droughts, increasing desertification, declining crop yields, population displacement from low-lying coastal areas, and worsening sand and dust storms already threaten human security in the region, and therefore increase the likelihood of violence during a scramble for resources. 

Marwa Daoudy, nonresident scholar at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center and associate professor of international relations at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, argues that it is crucial for the United States and its international partners to recognize the interplay between instability and climate change, which is influenced by “structures of power, individual governments’ policies, and interstate negotiation (or, often, the lack thereof).” Weaponization of water access in particular is an issue in the region; the depletion of groundwater resources, stressed by both mismanagement and droughts, allows both state and nonstate actors to use access to water “to establish legitimacy and domination over a population in times of peace and as an offensive and defensive tool during war.”

The cost to human security of this exploitation of natural resources is great. In Yemen, for example, existing water scarcity issues were exacerbated by Saudi-led blockades, leading to some of the highest cholera-related death rates in the world between 2016 and 2021. In Iraq, ISIS was able to recruit fighters more easily from areas experiencing drought, while Turkey used water shutoffs in northeastern Syria to crush expanding Kurdish autonomy.

Daoudy cites four compounding challenges to successful climate adaption in the MENA region: government mismanagement of climate change’s effects, transboundary resource management, urbanization and migration, and regional economic inequality. All will need to be addressed in order to safeguard human security, and the United States has “a significant number of strategies at its disposal,” Daoudy argues, “including prioritizing climate-forward data sharing and development assistance, leveraging relationships with allies to protect the most vulnerable, mitigating the effects of instability, and utilizing international organizations to foster resource-protection norms.”

“In the Middle East,” Daoudy writes, “where conflicts tend to be recurring and protracted, prioritizing climate adaptation can prove difficult. However, a failure to do so can undermine future prospects for overall stability.”

This is the fourteenth Discussion Paper in the Managing Global Disorder series, which explores how to promote a stable and mutually beneficial relationship among the major powers that can in turn provide the essential foundation for greater cooperation on pressing global and regional challenges.


This is an excerpt from a discussion paper, part of the Discussion Paper Series on Managing Global Disorder No. 14 October 2023. To read the complete discussion paper, click on this link.

Authored by Marwa Daoudy 

Photo credit: Flickr/Rod Waddington