In recent weeks, many in the Gulf have been looking up to an apocalyptic orange sky with a flurry of sand and dust storms (SDSs) battering the sub-region.
Construction of more dams, years of warfare, mismanagement of water, extreme dryness, desertification, and other factors all contribute to this nightmarish phenomenon.
In an increasingly climate-stressed planet, storms in these mostly desert countries, which exist in a dust belt, are set to intensify. What comes with these exacerbated ecological crises are increasingly dire threats to human health, economies, and security in the Gulf.
These transregional issues also have much potential to be a driver of future interstate conflicts across the greater Middle East.
Last month’s temporary closure of ports, airports, and schools in Iran, Iraq, and some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states underscored the extent to which recent SDSs have taken a major toll on trade, travel, and daily life for the people of these countries.
Kuwait International Airport suspended all flights twice last month. On May 16, maritime operations in three Kuwaiti ports – Doha, Shuaiba, and Shuaikh – were suspended because of the climatic conditions. Sand and dust storms hit Riyadh and other parts of Saudi Arabia resulting in at least 1,200 people being hospitalised in the kingdom with breathing difficulties in May.
Dubai’s Burj Khalifa was not visible after a huge dust layer vanished the world’s tallest building.
In Tehran, authorities closed schools and government offices while there were dozens of flight delays or cancelations in western Iran. In Khuzestan, Iran’s hardest hit region, at least 800 people with breathing difficulties were forced to seek treatment.
Perhaps Iraq has been the country most vulnerable to sand and dust storms. Since March, there has been a storm hitting Iraq roughly every week, sending thousands of Iraqis to hospitals and the government declaring a national holiday to encourage residents and government workers to stay home. At facilities in certain parts of the country, Iraq’s health ministry even resorted to stockpiling oxygen canisters.
These ecologically disastrous conditions in the Gulf are merely the latest sign of the dangers that climate change and other related factors pose to the Middle East.
“In Gulf waters, SDSs are a main cause of sediments that can clog up nearby lakes and marshlands, and sometimes even cover large swathes of the Gulf waterway,” wrote Banafsheh Keynoush, a foreign affairs scholar and a fellow at the International Institute for Iranian Studies.
“Even renewable solar panels malfunction when covered by dust. Given these factors, it becomes evident that SDSs participate in a vicious cycle: Climate change causes the storms, and the storms exacerbate the impacts of climate change. Socio-economic life revolves around weather patterns, so livelihoods are severely threatened,” added Keynoush.
According to the World Bank, sand and dust storms in the Middle East come with an annual cost of $13bn. To be sure, such storms in the region constitute a transregional crisis. Mindful of the Middle East’s importance to the global economy from the standpoint of international trade via strategic waterways and energy supplies, countries far from the Gulf will pay a steeper price as the phenomenon exacerbates.
Opportunity for armed groups
Disturbingly, there is a growing threat of violence because of sand and dust storms. For years, the armed group ISIL (ISIS) in Iraq has exploited the lack of visibility resulting from these storms to carry out attacks with greater ease.
In May, ISIL carried out deadly attacks in Kirkuk and Diyala provinces, targeting farmers who were harvesting crops. In April, ISIL exploited the enormous storms to strike against the Iraqi army in al-Anbar province’s town of Hit, killing two soldiers.
Naturally, Iraq’s security forces will have difficulties coping with SDSs that leave them more exposed to future ISIL attacks. With this extreme weather requiring the military to put some of their operations and aerial support on hold, fighters will have an easier time exploiting these storms to wage more frequent attacks against the Iraqi military and civilians, particularly in more remote areas.
Beyond concerns about terrorism, experts warn these unusual storms have the potential to spur interstate conflicts in the region over water. Environmental crises related to low rainfall, drought, and declining river levels can serve to heighten tensions between countries.
Turkey’s damming of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is one factor leading to more desertification in Iraq, where water resources have fallen 50 percent since 2021, with a backflow from the Gulf into Iraq’s mainland.
“Saltwater is actually coming in from the sea into freshwater areas,” Tallha Abdulrazaq, an expert in Middle Eastern strategic and security affairs, told Al Jazeera. “This is killing arable land, causing salinisation of soil, and ultimately leading to desertification.”
Iran’s digging of canals around the Bahmanshir River, a tributary to the Shatt-al-Arab, “has artificially altered the midpoint Thalweg line in the Shatt al-Arab, which historically – and particularly since the Algiers Accords – has demarcated the boundary between Iran and Iraq across the Shatt-al-Arab”, explained Abdulrazaq.
“Basically, the water line has been split down the middle between the two. By artificially altering this border, this can lead to a conflict not only over the borders and access to the Shatt-al-Arab, but also to pollution of Iraq’s water supply.”
The issue of Turkey’s dams is also adding tension to Ankara’s relationship with Tehran with Iranian officials partly attributing their country’s drought to Turkey’s upstream dam-building.
On May 12, a spokesman for Turkey’s foreign ministry dismissed such accusations as “far from scientific”, while maintaining that Tehran is not taking a “realistic approach” to this problem by putting blame on Ankara’s doorstep.
As the sand and dust storms terrify people in Iraq and other countries of the region, the serious effects of desertification are only set to intensify while global warming has the potential to make decreases in rainfall more permanent with a devastating effect on the ecology.
Among other factors, these terrifying environmental issues can be drivers of future conflicts in the Middle East.