01 May 2024

Climate Priorities in the Middle East and North Africa

Examining Nationally Defined Contributions, Targets, and Gaps in Wealthy Versus Middle-Income States

A Region on the Frontlines of Climate Change

MENA countries are in a climate “hotspot.” The region comprises 14 of the 25 most water-stressed countries in the world. Freshwater availability in MENA is expected to fall 50 percent by 2050 as temperatures continue to rise and annual precipitation continues to drop. The Arab Climate Change Assessment Report also predicts that the region will see a 20-30 percent decrease in agricultural production by mid-century linked to the warming climate. Devastating storms, wildfires, droughts, coastal erosion, and other environmental issues compound these factors, with cascading impacts on health, food security, livelihoods, and regional security.

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States Hone in on Energy

With their concentration of oil and gas resources, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations—an alliance of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—face a conundrum: Investing in climate mitigation despite the importance of fossil fuel resources to their economies. GCC states account for just over 51 percent of known oil reserves in the world. In recent years, some of these nations have put forward a net-zero carbon vision that still includes hydrocarbons and hinges on hydrogen production, among other investments. Their climate goals also include significant investments in renewable energy—particularly solar energy—as well carbon capture technologies. Energy seems to dominate the climate priorities of these states, with limited attention to water availability and use, climate-resilient infrastructure, and other adaptation efforts.

Ambitious Agendas Face Funding Constraints in Lower-middle Income States

The picture looks different for the region’s lower-middle income states, like Egypt and Tunisia. Despite facing growing external debt and currency crises, several of these nations have advanced ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that include major emissions cuts and comprehensive adaptation measures. Egypt’s climate approach, for instance, emphasizes renewable energy, local green banking, and climate-resilient infrastructure, among other investments. In 2022, the country also launched the Nexus of Water, Food, and Energy program, which has mobilized several billion dollars in private financing for renewable energy, agriculture, and water sector projects. Tunisia, meanwhile, aims to cut emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and its NDC goals include afforestation, renewable energy, and improved groundwater management.

But meeting these targets is another matter. Lower-middle income MENA states are constrained by enormous financing gaps for climate projects, partly due to barriers in applying for and securing climate funds, and a lack of regional projects. The central challenge they cite when it comes to achieving their climate ambition, however, is external debt. Egypt’s debt-to-GDP ratio is 88.09 percent; Tunisia’s is 84.7 percent. Luck describes how these nations’ debt burdens have led to a debt-food-climate trilemma that severely limits government revenue available for climate interventions.


In the face of these challenges, Luck lays out a set of recommendations for policymakers, partners, and the international community to boost climate action in the region. Among these recommendations is improving access to green financing and debt-for-climate swaps—redirecting loan repayments to in-kind climate investments—alongside capacity-building for early warning systems and the integration of climate resilience into peacebuilding.

This is a summary by the New Security Beat of a paper published in April 2024 by the Wilson Center, authored by Taylor Luck. The full paper can be accessed through the link here.

Photo by Antonio Garcia on Unsplash