John McManus explores what climate change means for Qatar, one of the world’s richest countries
I wonder if there will be crowds. The race doesn’t begin until midnight but, given how Doha’s malls and coffee shops are always busy through to the early hours, that shouldn’t be a discouragement. I walk the final 500 metres to the Corniche. When I arrive, I’m disappointed to find only small gaggles of people, including two men, a group of 20 or so Sri Lankans and three African men musing on the weather.
It is September 2019, and the start of the IAAF World Athletics Championships – the biggest global occasion for track and field after the Olympics. Qatar is the host, the contest meant to serve as yet another opportunity to burnish the county’s sporting credentials. Today’s other events took place in the air-conditioned Khalifa International Stadium. Climate-controlled, open-air arenas are one of Qatar’s innovations, developed in part to counter the fact that summer temperatures would be unbearable for World Cup footballers (and then FIFA moved the World Cup to the winter anyway). It was around 23°C in the stadium – not exactly an icebox but cool enough to forget the mean, relentless humidity of a September in Doha.
With its 42 kilometres of racing, however, the marathon race can’t take place in a stadium. And so I am here, gone midnight, watching it on a specially devised course on the Corniche – a large seven-kilometre loop from the harbour to the Sheraton hotel and back that the athletes must complete six times. Organisers moved the marathon to night-time to try to capitalise on Doha at its coolest. But the heat is still oppressive – it is 30-something degrees and so humid that my short walk has covered me in sweat. I have arrived just in time to see the first runners pour past in what to me looks more like a sprint than long-distance pace.
‘Go on Charlotte!’ shouts a British voice. I spin around to spot a woman in Great Britain kit stood with what I assume are her parents. It turns out she is a runner herself and the roommate of Charlotte Purdue, Great Britain’s entrant in the marathon. We get chatting while we wait for the athletes to come back round. I have just started to explain what there is to do in Doha when we are interrupted by a golf buggy zipping past with a stretcher on it. ‘Oh dear,’ says the mum.
‘Was someone on there?’
‘Yes,’ she says glumly.
We stop talking to cheer as the athletes come down the stretch on the far side of us. There is the group of three or four at the front. The athlete and her parents start to mull over where Charlotte is.
‘She was about 14th I think…’
‘After that woman…’
They wait and scan the road. After 20 minutes, the field is already strung out. The athletes at the front look languid and relaxed in their movements. But quickly, once you get to tenth position and lower, you can see just how much they are all struggling. Heads are lolling, running gaits are tightened. A golf buggy zips past again. In it sit three runners. Charlotte never turns up. With the clock past 1 am, the athlete and her parents decide to call it a night. I catch a yawn and decide to watch the finish from the comfort of my flat.
On television, the course looks more deserted than it did when I was trackside – moon-like in its abandonment and weirdness. The shouts of the crowd and the purr of the TV bike filming the runners echo off the asphalt. The camera focuses on a Bulgarian athlete who is walking. It turns out that of the 68 runners who started, 28 have had to withdraw – a 40 per cent dropout rate.
Ruth Chepngetich of Kenya ended up winning the race, but her victory was never going to be the story. ‘The Doha World Championships descended into carnage in the early hours of Saturday morning,’ wrote the next day’s Daily Telegraph. ‘Close to half the women’s marathon field failing to finish as sweltering conditions caused shocking scenes of multiple athletes collapsing in distress,’ the article stated. Purdue, who dropped out after less than an hour, called the event a ‘shitshow’. In the end, what stole the show was not feats of human excellence but the weather.
Heat and humidity
Qatar is heating faster than almost anywhere else on the planet, the consequence of being a peninsula surrounded by overheating seas in one of the hottest corners of the world. Average temperatures have already risen more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Qatar is one of the driest countries on the planet. Rainfall in some years can be as little as two centimetres. The country has no lakes or rivers. It has to desalinate most of its drinking water, which in turn requires an enormous amount of energy.
‘We started hearing stories that it’s getting hotter and hotter every year,’ one Qatari studying energy and the environment told me, a worried look on his face. ‘I remember when we were kids we’d go fishing. And now we’d have to drive out [in our boats] another 20 extra minutes to get the fish we used to get on the coast.’
Recent scientific research predicts that, by 2070, the Gulf will experience heat waves beyond the limits of human tolerance. It isn’t the pure heat as much as its combination with extreme humidity that has people worried. ‘When there is abundant humidity in the air, our body’s ability to regulate our temperature and cool down through sweating is impeded,’ I was told by Dr Georgios Zittis, an expert on climate change in the Middle East at the Cyprus Institute, a research centre. ‘We breathe more rapidly as we get increasingly hotter. Our heart pumps more blood to our extremities, and less to our internal organs and brain. If not hydrated, our body overheats and cannot maintain temperature. In such cases, heat exhaustion or heat stroke may be fatal.’ The marathon runners at the World Championships had frequent refreshment options and doctors on hand. Most workers toiling in the heat in Qatar do not.
In May 2021, the Qatar government trumpeted its extension of a moratorium on working hours during summer. Along with other mitigation measures, the new law stated that, from 1 June to 15 September, no one would be able to work outside between 10 am and 3.30 pm. But the IAAF marathon race, which took place on 27 September 2019, showed that even outside of that window, and in the middle of the night, conditions are detrimental to human exertion. ‘The humidity kills you,’ said one of the competitors who did manage to finish. She perhaps didn’t realise that this has literally been happening in Qatar.
Qatar is not just vulnerable to temperature increases. Its topography – a flat peninsula with huge developments on reclaimed land – makes it one of the Arab countries most at risk from sea-level rise. According to the academic Mari Luomi, the physical damage and economic disruption caused by a one- to-three-metre rise would knock up to five per cent off GDP. If the increase is more than five metres above pre-industrial levels, more than 18 per cent of Qatar’s land would be permanently reclaimed by the ocean.
Air quality, too, is a problem. The Gulf is already a dusty place, courtesy of the sand. Add to that the growing traffic and industry fumes, increasing soil erosion and the detritus kicked up by non-stop construction and the result is increasingly poor air quality. One Qatari told me anecdotally that there was a period when there was no antihistamine medication in Doha – there had been a run on pharmacies as people suffered respiratory issues caused by the pollution.
Qatar has been slow to mitigate the effects of climate change, despite being on course to be threatened more than most. Sitting on one of the world’s biggest reservoirs of gas, Doha has little incentive for promoting renewable energy, given that the world’s gas dependency keeps its economy afloat. One young Qatari working in the sustainability sector recalled a testy exchange he had with a government energy official during the 2000s. ‘Why are you shedding light on renewables?’ he was asked by the representative. ‘You’re accelerating our demise.’
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In 2018, the World Bank labelled Qatar the largest per-capita emitter of CO2 on the planet. Many in Qatar take umbrage with this distinction, pointing out that included in the sums are the vast quantities of liquefied natural gas (LNG) exported to countries around the world. Would it not, they ask, make more sense to pin the emissions on the nations using it? Yet withdraw those emissions and Qatar still produces plenty of greenhouse gases. According to consumption-based calculators, in 2020, the country came 38th globally. Part of the problem is that Qatar doesn’t charge locals for electricity or water – one of the perks it offers citizens (migrants have to pay). As a result, the consumption of both utilities is at enormous levels. Gulf households make those in the USA look like Scandinavians in terms of energy use. A shocking 70 per cent of total electricity use in the Gulf goes on air conditioning (compared to around 15 per cent in the USA and ten per cent in China and India).
Government building regulations are weak, resulting in many houses and offices that are energy inefficient. West Bay is littered with skyscrapers sheathed in glass facing the sun all day that are impossible to make habitable without prodigious amounts of air conditioning. To maintain the semblance of ordinary life through the summer months, many businesses air-condition the outdoors. Cafés and restaurants deploy industrial-sized units to keep al fresco diners cool.
Qatar’s current approach to climate change fits an all-too-familiar pattern. Doha talks a good talk: it hosted the COP18 climate talks, it claims to be organising the first carbon-neutral FIFA World Cup, and at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, the emir pledged US$100 million to support small island states and ‘the least developed states’ to mitigate climate change. The nation also does a good line in expensive,
flashy technological solutions. World Cup stadiums have huge buildings next to them to allow the storage of cool water at night as part of a high-tech air-conditioning system. The new inner-city neighbourhood of Msheireb has been designed to be more energy-efficient, with solar panels, sun-blocking canopies and streets pointing north to capitalise on the prevailing wind.
The substance is more worrying. In its 2015 submission to the Paris Accords, Qatar not only avoided setting any quantitative targets, it also described gas as ‘a clean energy’ and presented its biggest export – a fossil fuel – as ‘contributing indirectly to the global efforts to mitigate climate change’ (it has since submitted a target of a 25 per cent reduction of emissions by 2030). In 2021, the Al-Kharsaah solar plant was scheduled to come online, providing ten per cent of the country’s energy needs. But in the same year, Qatar Petroleum signed a contract to boost LNG output by 40 per cent a year up to 2026.
The World Cup’s pledge of carbon neutrality relies heavily on offsetting and doesn’t take into account many infrastructure projects, such as roads and the metro, because they are considered part of the country’s pre-existing development plan. Nor does it engage with the incontrovertible truth that spending billions on hosting a four-week tournament in a place with no existing infrastructure is the very definition of unsustainable. Qatar has been accused of ‘greenwashing’, making a song and dance about small environmental achievements while not addressing the wider issue. But I wonder if the better framework is to view the behaviour as consistent with the nation’s near-obsessive policy of hedging: build solar capacity but pump out more gas; talk about the environment but don’t alienate the oil companies. Be all things to all people and hope that it allows you to squeeze through.
Among citizens of Qatar, there has been rising unease about the quality of life in the country. ‘People started complaining about air quality and started linking that to development, started linking that to the way we’re living – is it sustainable?’ one Qatari working in government told me. ‘It wasn’t just about climate change, it was just how we’re living, how the country was developing so fast, how it’s getting more expensive.’ It reached a point where some people decided to do something about it.
Neeshad Shafi talks in a forthright tone. He is the co-founder of Arab Youth Climate Movement (AYCM) an environmental group in Doha. Established in 2015, a key focus of AYCM is lobbying entities in Qatar for solutions and change. ‘There is a big vacuum of having a real environmental organisation,’ says Shafi. ‘In Europe, we will say, “OK, I can join 350[.org], I can join Greenpeace International, I can join…” I don’t know how many number [of organisations] you have in your country. Here we have zero.’
There are academic think tanks, university departments and student groups in Doha devoted to the environment, but it’s a world almost entirely contained within an ivory tower. AYCM wants broader impact. ‘We want to make it so [climate change] is not a government thing anymore, it’s a public thing – your safety, your health,’ Shafi tells me. ‘When the government understand the public perspective is changing, they are automatically changing. So we need to build a dialogue, and that has to be done through an institution.’
There was, however, a large stumbling block as the founders sought to get ACYM off the ground: Qatar doesn’t particularly want organisations like this. There isn’t really a charity or NGO sector in Qatar. Organisations frequently referred to as charities – the Qatar Foundation, Education Above All – are usually government-funded and often headed by the immediate family of the emir. Bottom-up or citizen-led activities and groupings, if not actively discouraged, often wither from lack of support. The right to freedom of assembly is constrained for Qataris and doesn’t apply to non-citizens. Organisers of public events have to apply for a permit from the Ministry of Interior.
To formally register as a non-profit association, AYCM was told it would need the infrastructure of a profit-making business: a certain number of employees, a certain annual turnover, a registered address that couldn’t be a residential property. ‘These things will break you from day one,’ Shafi exclaims. ‘No wonder any Tom, Dick or Harry didn’t survive because if you want to be a legit organisation, you have to be registered by the government of Qatar. If not, yalla’ – off you go.
Shafi and AYCM weren’t to be discouraged. They submitted applications to the Qatar Financial Centre. For almost a year, they were stuck in a Kafkaesque cycle of delays followed by rejections. It looked as if they would never become registered when, through personal contacts, one member of AYCM managed to pull some strings and make the organisation official. But it’s obviously not a route other climate or civil-society organisations can easily follow.
This is a shame, because such groupings reflect the best of Qatar – its dynamic cosmopolitanism and the creative, intelligent people that it draws. Shafi is an Indian citizen. AYCM events are attended by people of all stripes. Their activities touch many of Qatar’s communities, whether through generating carbon calculators for school children or hosting a series of public talks on air toxicity at the Qatar National Library. ‘People say there is a lot of discrimination [in Qatar]. Of course there is,’ Shafi says to me. ‘But I never felt that I am leading an organisation which is very Arab as a non-Arab guy.’ Shafi tells me that it is actually at international climate summits that he has suffered the most. ‘For me, I faced a lot of racism not because I was brown and from India but because I was from Qatar,’ he tells me with a laugh. ‘They used to say, “Oh Neeshad, you’re from Qatar, you have the worst carbon footprint in the world!” Back then I was ashamed to even speak up.’ Now he points to their achievements: AYCM represented Qatar at the first UN Youth Climate Summit; the Qatari government recently invited them to take part in discussions about Qatar’s nationally determined contributions in line with the Paris accords. ‘There are people fighting to have youth voices in Europe [while] we are already sitting with the government,’ he says proudly.
With its diminutive size and vast wealth, Qatar could accomplish much more on climate change, but Shafi argues that goes for many nations. ‘I will not just go, “Oh Qatar is doing bad” – every country is doing bad. But I’m not sitting in a country like India and talking about what we can do about plastic – man, you’re in Qatar, one of the richest countries in the world! You can test anything. If you fail you’re OK.’
One thing’s for sure, Shafi wants to ensure that AYCM is part of the mix. ‘The organisation is now legal and legit,’ he says, trilling the ‘L’ sounds. His hope is that it becomes Qatar’s leading NGO. Perhaps even a rich benefactor will decide to take it under their wing. Shafi’s eyes sparkle and the sense of opportunity in his voice is palpable. ‘That is Qatar. One person can change everything.’
Qataris and climate change
Khalid (not his real name) admits to not having been very interested in climate change until recently. The 20-something Qatari, who works for the government, talks to me on his lunch break in the shadow of the skyscrapers of West Bay. He tells me what it was like growing up. ‘If you look back ten years ago… Schools weren’t teaching it, the government wasn’t promoting for it.’ He’s softly spoken and low key. When compared to the exuberance of Neeshad, his demeanour could be taken for disinterest. But as we chat, a quiet determination reveals itself, allied with a self-criticism that I rarely found when speaking to Qataris. ‘People don’t look into how much they consume,’ he tells Khalid (not his real name) admits to not having been very interested in climate change until recently. The 20-something Qatari, who works for the government, talks to me on his lunch break in the shadow of the skyscrapers of West Bay. He tells me what it was like growing up. ‘If you look back ten years ago… Schools weren’t teaching it, the government wasn’t promoting for it.’ He’s softly spoken and low-key. When compared to the exuberance of Neeshad, his demeanour could be taken for disinterest. But as we chat, a quiet determination reveals itself, allied with a self-criticism that I rarely found when speaking to Qataris. ‘People don’t look into how much they consume,’ he tells me of his fellow countryfolk. ‘They look into why isn’t someone treating it for us so that it doesn’t have an impact on the nature.’
Khalid got into environmentalism through his job, when they asked him to research sustainability. But he also volunteers from time to time with AYCM. He has helped AYCM work on some of its policies, particularly liaising with government departments. ‘They suffer because when they go they can’t speak Arabic,’ he tells me of his non-Qatari fellow activists. ‘If you work with governments here… you kinda need to have a [Qatari] national to help you expedite things.’
For Khalid, the lack of engagement with environmental issues is due in a large part to Qatar’s youth as a country. ‘We kinda had to be very…’ he pauses while thinking of the right word. ‘Generic, initially, to build up the nation.’ Qataris first had to be educated in key industries, such as engineering and construction. ‘But I think that people now have an opportunity to study things that are more specific – that includes sustainability of course.’
Key to convincing more Qataris of the importance of the environment, says Khalid, is challenging the idea that sustainability and environmentalism are alien Western concepts. As an example, he cites AYCM’s Eco-Literacy for Imams programme. The scheme trains imams to talk to their congregations about environmental awareness and conservation. The hope is that casting climate activism in religious terms will help to make the message more compelling for Qataris. ‘People here are very religious… very patriotic,’ says Khalid. ‘So you kind of just have to frame it with the people’s beliefs – tell them that this is for the good of your country… Religion is saying you have to preserve this, you have to maintain that. This also means climate change.’
For Qataris who want to battle climate change, a bigger impediment than mistrust of the West is a society that has grown used to unconstrained consumption. ‘If I go to anyone that’s in the general public and I ask them, “What do you think about the plastic issue?” They’ll be like, “Why isn’t there recycling?”’ Khalid tells me. There seems little awareness in Qatar of the need to change individual behaviour or rein in consumption. People leave their air-conditioning units on when they go away on holiday. Qatari supermarkets don’t charge for plastic bags. Petrol prices are rock-bottom. I once got a lift back from an event outside Doha with a Qatari guy. He filled up his car – a hulking Land Cruiser – with 123 litres of petrol. I looked at the pump: it came to 213 rials, less than US$59. ‘I’m guilty of that. I have a Lexus!’ Khalid laughs sheepishly. ‘I try to drive it as eco as possible but the consumption is really high.’
Speaking to Qataris about the environment offers a reminder that the battle against climate change takes on a different hue when viewed from the developing world. ‘It’s easy to look at the UK or very environmentally progressive countries and say, “Well they’re doing such a great job” – net zero and so on,’ another Qatari activist in the climate movement reminded me. ‘But actually those countries, their revenues do not depend on fossil fuels.’ There is an understandable irritation with the hectoring tone of industrialised countries – a feeling that it is a bit rich coming from those who have used up a disproportionate amount of the world’s carbon budget. ‘I think Qatar is doing more than what other countries potentially would have done if they were in the same boat,’ the Qatari activist countered. ‘We’re doing everything you’re supposed to do, right? Diversify the economy, move into other sectors.’
Many Qataris, not just those in the green movement, are becoming aware that the way the country has got rich – through sales of hydrocarbons, construction and consumption – cannot be the model that will sustain that wealth into the future. They had a glimpse of Qatar’s precarity with the 2017 Gulf crisis. ‘You had the blockade happening and it really affected us financially,’ recalls Khalid. ‘More things will happen… you will get into problems… so we will need to have a resilient economy.’ He surprises me by suggesting the government should resort to more dramatic measures. ‘To be honest, I’m pro the idea of having taxes,’ he says. ‘Some people reach a point where they have 10– 20 cars. So, then, why don’t they have to pay for that?’
Paying tax would build a sense of social responsibility, says Khalid. It would remind people that they have responsibilities to their government rather than just being recipients of its largesse. He points to the introduction of military service for men, begun in 2014, as a precedent for such a move.
Perhaps the key is to overlap environmentalism with the increasing cost savings the Qatari government needs to make. ‘I am aware of how much people are getting here, how much extra they’re getting. But it’s time for them to kind of give back, so that the country can reach a level where they kinda can keep giving back to you,’ says Khalid. Even Qatar’s emir has publicly hinted at the need for some kind of shift, suggesting in a 2015 speech that high oil prices had led to ‘dependency on the State to provide for everything’ and reduced the motivation for individuals to be ‘sophisticated and proactive’.
Khalid concedes that Qatar is currently a long way away from introducing the kind of bold measures he suggests, but he nevertheless thinks that Qatar will eventually reach that level of understanding. ‘I feel it will, definitely, but it will take time.’ Yet climate change is the issue on which the world doesn’t have time.
Driving around Doha, I watch the steep towers being built on reclaimed land and imagine the place submerging, Atlantis-like, into the sea. In my mind’s eye, fish dart in and out of the wooden pillars of the shops of Souq Waqif. The canals of Porto Arabia overflow. The walls of long-abandoned buildings are caked in seaweed and mud.