In the Gulf, sandstorms were once regarded as a natural marvel – a mystical event that would occur once or twice a year and be over within the hour. Sometimes called the ‘black storm’ or ‘ghost storm’, Iraq saw 26 sandstorms from 1985 to 2013. Less than a decade on, such storms have become much more frequent, large-scale and long-lasting.

Between mid-April and the end of June 2022, Iraq experienced more than ten sandstorms – around one a week. Its environment ministry has cautioned that without urgent environmental planning, the nation could face upwards of 300 ‘dusty days’ a year by 2050 – more than twice as often as it rains in the UK.

“We have reached a point where we can’t afford not to acknowledge that [sandstorms] are occurring more frequently,” says Banafsheh Keynoush, a geopolitical consultant and scholar at think tank the Middle East Institute.

A sandstorm engulfs Najaf’s city centre in Iraq on 22 May 2022. (Photo by Karar Essa via Getty Images)

Climate neglect

While climate change is the obvious culprit behind the uptick in sand and dust storms, their rapid intensification has left little room for Gulf nations to understand them – let alone adapt and mitigate the chances of more.

Gulf nations are not renowned for their climate action. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) built its economy on hydrocarbon exploitation and remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

In 2019, oil and gas production accounted for a 45% slice of Kuwait’s GDP, approximately 35% of Qatar and Oman’s, and 25% of the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) and Saudia Arabia’s. In a 2021 report, the ratings agency Moody’s forecast that GCC countries would not wean themselves off hydrocarbons for at least another decade.

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“If Saudi Arabia don’t sell their oil, the American producers out there waiting in the wings are very willing to do it for them,” says Karim Elgendy, non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, who believes that the GCC’s climate action is proportional to its contribution to global warming. “I can see the irony that those same countries producing oil and gas are getting impacted by climate change, but that is not how the system works. They are not historically responsible for the emissions, so they don’t see it as their responsibility to fix this sooner than anyone else.”

While the UAE and Saudi Arabia have set targets to decarbonise by 2050 and 2060, respectively, independent research group Climate Action Tracker rates the UAE’s targets as “highly insufficient” and Saudi Arabia has been fiercely criticised for releasing net-zero plans that foresee it producing oil as normal. Kuwait has no plans to reduce emissions this decade.

Keynoush points out a general lack of awareness among Gulf residents. “In Iran, [back] when sandstorms were a provincial rather than national concern, the government would throw mazut [a heavy, low-quality fuel oil] over the sand to prevent them,” she says. “Today, my Iranian friends wonder why the government isn’t still doing the same. In other words, polluting the environment more to prevent sandstorms.”

Edging on uninhabitable

“I arrived in Iran a day after a major sandstorm in 2014,” says Keynoush. “The way my friends described it is different from what we are seeing now. It was more of a tornado; it died down quickly. Now Iranian friends bordering Iraq say they can’t see their front doors from their porch, they have been cleaning up dust every day for weeks, and they can’t open windows or use air conditioning despite the summer heat because they would end up breathing in the dust,” she says.

In recent months, Gulf sandstorms have brought life to a standstill, particularly in Iraq. Two of the worst storms, both in May, saw 10,000 Iraqis hospitalised for dust inhalation, while air traffic was halted nationwide and various provinces announced national holidays to stop residents commuting to work.

The UN ranks Iraq as one of the world’s five most vulnerable nations to climate change and desertification. Keynoush reckons that Iraq is facing the brunt of the crisis for several reasons.

“The Mesopotamian marshes and wetlands have dried up significantly, despite restoration efforts," she explains. "That, combined with immense water scarcity in Iraq, in part due to its border disputes with its neighbours [Iran, Turkey and Syria], contributes to the intensification of sandstorms. Additionally, Iraq receives the tail end of storms emanating from sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa that flow into the Arabian Peninsula, and from the eastern Mediterranean basin.

“Saudi Arabia […] has invested several billion dollars in green belts to protect against many environmental issues [including] sand and dust storms," Keynoush continues. “But [with] Iraq, money is lacking, and conflict is pervasive. Water scarcity due to conflicts and conflicts due to water scarcity are on the rise. The challenges there seem insurmountable – Iraq has a long way to go.”

Politics versus science

“There is really nothing being done in many of these countries to minimise the impact of sandstorms,” says Keynoush. “Until about maybe a decade ago, they were viewed as a natural phenomenon.”

She explains that a lack of research on the topic allows for untrue and harmful ideas to spread, even within government. “Iran tends to ‘blame it on the Arabs’ – to label it either an ‘Iraqi’ storm or a ‘Saudi’ storm.”

The Gulf region has a rocky political history. Since Iraq’s past leader Saddam Hussein initiated war with Iran before invading Kuwait, lingering tensions hinder collaboration when it comes to the environment.

“Because scientists cannot clearly identify where sandstorms come from or what causes them, governments in the region tend to [outsource] the blame,” says Keynoush. “For example, Iran says: ‘Turkey is building dams that are creating water scarcity, and water scarcity exacerbates sandstorms.’ Very little is being done at a local level to understand what can be done to mitigate and spread awareness about sandstorms.”

She says that even when expert knowledge is available, governments reject it in favour of projects that further their agendas. “In Iran, heavy drought threatens emigration and social unrest. So their priority right now is to channel water through desalination projects, like the Hope pipeline, to benefit industries and communities, but when these water channels are built, they may not function very well because of sand and dust storms covering them over. The Hope pipeline is meant to give people the idea that water is coming, that environmental issues are passing. When they are building that mentality, how are we going to [interject and] raise awareness about sand and dust storms? We have a major problem on our hands.”

Dust and sand concerns aside, desalination produces leftover brine that is dumped off the Gulf coast, with additional environmental repercussions. Salinity in the Persian Gulf is 1.5 times what it was 15 years ago and the water is 2°C warmer. Hypersaline conditions are exacerbated by water evaporation brought on by the area's arid climate, and despite the availability of alternative methods, it is not uncommon for fossil fuels to be used in water desalination.

Notwithstanding environmental experts’ concerns and the region’s palpable climate disaster, Iran has secured funding to go ahead with its $3.9bn (IR165.17trn) Hope pipeline project.

A wake-up call

There is a gap between what is happening and what is required in the Gulf – such as increasing vegetation cover in arid regions or implementing early-warning systems – to reduce the physical and economic impact of sandstorms, says the UN Environment Programme. The World Bank called for cross-boundary collaboration in its 2019 report on the topic: "Regional action will reduce the occurrence of dust storms. Recent years have seen some regional air pollution policies emerge, but more collaboration is needed and should be sustained.”

However, Elgendy at the Middle East Institute is sceptical that regional action will save the day. “It has nothing to do with the region,” he says. “This is a change in the global weather system. To mitigate the impacts of climate change, we must mitigate climate change as a whole. It goes back to reducing emissions.”

Keynoush can see incentives for Gulf regions to act. "These governments are very keen to seize UN initiatives, which will enable them to cooperate, irrespective of geopolitical concerns. They are keen to prevent war at all costs. They have felt and experienced first-hand the impact of warfare on many fronts, including the environment, and they are paying for it now. That awareness can be turned into policy and action.

“[Nevertheless,] as long as geopolitical conflicts preoccupy [the Gulf], it is going to take a lot more sustained information building to bring sand and dust storms to their attention in a manner that will make them a priority,” she adds.

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Even fossil fuel industries could come around to the idea of climate action as intensifying sandstorms threaten delays in oil and gas production and damage infrastructure.

In the only study of its kind, researchers uncovered significant disruptions by sandstorms to Kuwaiti oil and gas pipelines. They logged more than 5,100 non-productive hours and $9.36m (Kd2.87m) in economic losses between 2015 and 2017.

However, Keynoush believes the industry may be unphased despite the intensifying storms. “These countries are very experienced in handling their pipelines – if they can manage to quickly fix pipelines in warfare, they can figure out how to do it with sand and dust storms.”

While the fossil fuel industry could leverage its massive finances to fast become more resilient to sandstorms, the green energy industry is not so well-endowed. If renewable technologies are not able to function during these events, Gulf nations risk missing their climate targets under the Paris Agreement.

Discussing the impacts of dust and sandstorms on solar and wind energy, Elgendy says: “These are technologies that already struggle on a normal day, [but with sandstorms] there is a constant need for maintenance, like cleaning off solar panels. It is particularly troubling when dust intensity gets too high and blocks road infrastructure.”

Fortunately, some companies are already demonstrating how renewables can adapt to extreme environments. In 2018, Masdar, the UAE’s state-owned renewable energy company based in Abu Dhabi, installed GE wind turbines in Oman that are heat and sandstorm resistant – the first of their kind.