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Climate Change: Challenges and Ecological Modernization in the GCC

Info: 12945 words (52 pages) Dissertation
Published: 11th Nov 2021

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Tagged: Climate Change


Climate change represents perhaps the most serious issue that humanity needs to face in the approaching decades, with important political and economic implications. The six Arab nations that form the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the UAE) are expected to be amongst the hardest hit by a warming climate. However, they are also amid the World’s biggest oil and gas exporter, two of the main sources of greenhouse gases. These countries’ attitude towards climate change is nevertheless ambiguous: whilst they often emphasize their commitment to curb the harsh effects of global warming, they also plan to step up their oil and gas production and infrastructure in the coming years. Thus stated, this research project aims at shedding light on how GCC monarchies are planning to cope with Climate Change, especially highlighting whether it is possible for them to achieve ecological modernization given their dependence on external fossil fuels-based rents. In the conclusion, recommendations will also be put forth. To do so, secondary data, such as governmental publications, reports, books and journals will be scrutinized.


There are two well-known definitions of what constitutes Climate Change. The first was put forth by the IPCC, which described Climate Change as such:

“Climate change in IPCC[1] usage refers to a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g. using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. It refers to any change in climate over time, whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity”.

The second definition belongs to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change[2] (UNFCCC), which stated:

“Climate change refers to a change of climate that is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and that is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods”.

Scientists[3] have been aware of the role of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (such as methane and nitrous oxide) in the atmosphere since the 1850s. CO2 however is the most important; this gas plays an important part in stabilizing the Earth’s energy equilibrium. Normally, CO2 is traded amongst flora, fauna and the atmosphere as a consequence of breathing, animals’ decay and photosynthesis, plus gas exchange that occurs between oceans and atmosphere. Furthermore, a very limited quantity of the gas finds its way to the atmosphere through volcanic eruptions (still to an extent that is less than 1% that of anthropogenic emissions). This volume of CO2 is in turn harmonized by a chemical process known as “chemical weathering of rocks” that eliminates the gas from the air by imprisoning it into stone. This process takes the name of Carbon Cycle. Humans however began disrupting the carbon cycle when they started burning fossil fuels, first coal, then oil and gas, to sustain the industrial revolution, combined with large-scale deforestation, mainly in the tropics. The use of hydrocarbons thus caused vast amounts of CO2 to build up in the atmosphere, where a certain quantity of it is expected to linger for hundreds or thousands of years. That volume can hardly be disposed of by natural processes. These mechanisms in fact cannot match the rate at which humans pour greenhouses gases into the environment.

As a result, according to the IPCC, measurements of CO2 in 2012 showed a level of the gas roughly 40% higher compared to 150 years previously, while a report of the US federal government[4] stated that 16 of the 17 warmest years on record occurred after 2001, since measurements of global temperatures begun in the 1880s. Moreover NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration[5], a US government agency, estimated the levels of atmospheric CO2 to rise past 406 ppm[6] in 2017, the highest they have ever been in the last 800 000 years. Additionally, since the beginning of the 20th century, the planet has warmed up: average global temperatures are about 0.8 degrees higher, with much of this surge happening after 1970. As a consequence, the UNFCC[7] estimates that by 2100 many parts of the World could be affected if no action is taken: exacerbation of extreme weather events, floods, draughts, rise and acidification of the oceans are some of the most severe consequences. Developing nations are especially at risk given their availability of resources to mitigate the harshest effects of a rapidly warming climate.

Climate change will not spare the Gulf region. The World Economic Forum[8]for example classified the Region as “high” in its index of vulnerability to Climate Change. The issue of water scarcity will be aggravated. As a matter of fact, the coastlines of the Arabian Peninsula are already endangered by an increase in sea levels: it has been estimated that many artificial islands, such as those in the UAE, could be lost, whereas Bahrain might be deprived of 15 kilometres of its shores (Raouf[9], 2008). This might hinder the operations of many water desalination plants that dot the coastlines. Furthermore, rising temperatures will decrease the Region’s biodiversity and enhance the degradation of groundwater reservoirs, through a rise in their salinity (Raouf, 2008), putting additional strain on the Arabian aquifer system, already the most overexploited in the World[10]. Such considerations for example prompted Saudi Arabia to gradually terminate its plan to become a major wheat exporter, in an effort to limit its water consumption (Woertz[11], 2009). Additionally, Pal and Eltahir[12] (2015) wrote that the Persian Gulf coast cities such as Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi could be subjected to extraordinary heat waves by 2070. They also added that climate in most of the Gulf could become as harsh as in the Northern Afar desert on the Red Sea, where temperatures are so high that no stable human community exists.

Additionally, the Gulf monarchies have been criticized for another reason: according to Raouf (2008), the region, whilst accounting for only 2.4% of the World’s total emissions, has one of the highest rates of emission per capita. In particular, all the six GCC countries are in the top 50 of greenhouse gases emissions per capita[13], with Qatar, UAE and Kuwait holding the first, second and third place respectively, and Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are not too far below. Seemingly acknowledging the risks posed by Climate Change and the unsustainability of their patterns of consumption, they have drafted and published several development papers that focus attention on how they plan to evolve from an economic, social and environmental perspective in next few decades, often displaying very ambitious goals, such as economic diversification to move away from hydrocarbons and empowering the private sector to foster job creation.

However extensive uncertainty surrounds these aspirations; while those goals were made public already in the 1970s, these monarchies are still heavily dependent on fossil fuel rents to boost their growth and uphold the costly social contract between rulers and citizens, leading some to question the feasibility of these countries’ plans to become ecologically viable entities and effective actors in the World’s endeavour of thwarting Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW).

Literature Review

The dissertation will be divided into three parts: in the first section, official documents of Saudi Arabia and Qatar will be scrutinized to understand whether there is a match between these countries’ words and actions to fight Climate Change. The second part will try and determine if GCC monarchies can reach natural sustainability despite their addiction to hydrocarbons. The conclusion will put forth some suggestions in terms of technologies and policies to mitigate the most severe consequences of AGW in the Arabian Peninsula.

As it has been said, the first chapter of this work will concentrate on understanding the GCC countries’ stance on Global Warming and their response (or planned response) to it. Crucial to this point are therefore the several government papers released by the Gulf States; this dissertation will focus particularly on the most recently unveiled Saudi Vision 2030 and the Qatar National Vision 2030. Furthermore, other important sources of information will be the so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC). INDCs are statements published by every country before the Paris climate conference of 2015; each nation was invited to deliver its own climate pledge to the UNFCCC, to highlight its stance on Climate Change and the post-2020 efforts they would take to tackle it. These documents will provide an insight on what kind of economic development these countries wish to pursue in the next two decades, which will in turn determine their reaction in terms of policies and institutions to Global Warming. Additionally, newspapers articles from The Guardian and Scientific American covered quite thoroughly the UN climate conference in Doha of 2012, the United nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio De Janeiro also in 2012, and the Paris Climate negotiations of 2015; they can thus be used to track down several utterances made by, for example, the Saudi commission in Paris or the energy minister of Qatar Hamad Al-Attiyah while he was chairman of the UN conference in Doha. These highlight the ambiguity of GCC countries vis-à-vis Climate Change.

Furthermore, in the case of Saudi Arabia, reports from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies will be adopted to understand and put into perspective the renewable energy goals of the Desert Kingdom that are exposed in the Saudi Vision 2030. These documents in particular inspect the Monarchy’s energy sector, such as the amount of electricity generated by burning oil and gas and that obtained through renewable sources such as solar and wind. When it comes to Qatar instead, Luomi (2012), a research associate at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies put forth a definition of what defines a “naturally sustainable state”, taking into consideration natural sustainability and intergenerational fairness in the consumption of resources. It will be seen whether or not statements in the Qatar National Vision 2030 conform to that definition.

The second part of this project will deal with whether ecological modernization is an achievable goal in countries that base a great part of their income on fossil fuel rents. In this regard, two theoretical frameworks will be adopted: the Rentier State Theory and the concept of Ecological Modernization. The Rentier State Theory (RST) tries and analyse the social and political dynamics that underpin connections that exist between state and society in countries where rents form the main part of government budgets (Gray[14], 2011). In this case, “rent” means, to use the words of Marshall[15] (1920) “the income derived from the gifts of nature”; or revenues obtained through the exploitation of natural resources, such as oil, gas and other minerals.

The theory was cultivated firstly by Hussein Mahdavi in the 1960s, and later Beblawi and Luciani[16] (1990) gave shape to the “standard” RST, studying the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, defined as the perfect examples in which to study rentier dynamics given their massive hydrocarbons-based wealth. Beblawi and Luciani (1990) in particular pointed at several factors that are common in rentier states (or “allocative” states): the unaccountability and relative freedom of action of the government as long as it shares (or “allocates”) part of the fossil fuel revenues to the citizenry and lack of democratic processes (“no taxation and no representation”), a feature that is also mirrored in more recent research on RST in the Middle East, such as that from Ross[17] (2011).  An important complement of RST is represented by the concept of neopatrimonialism, discussed by Erdmann and Engel[18] (2011); this notion helps to describe the linkages that exist between powerful elites in rentier countries and the patterns of wealth allocation by the rulers.

RST was however revised, especially by authors such as Chrystal[19] (1990) and Grey (2011). In fact the classical RST, whilst undoubtedly a useful means to understand the outcomes of rentierism, was deemed rather too mechanistic and deterministic to provide a full picture. Thus the aforementioned authors developed a “revised” RST. A more static RST in fact could not explain certain differences in the patterns of development of certain countries such as Kuwait, which champions a National Assembly that is buoyant and powerful by the standards of the region, or the lack of it in other rentier countries such as Qatar. This kind of updated RST took into consideration factors such as different historical development and international relations; Chrystal (1990) for example made a comparison between the different histories of the merchants and rulers in Kuwait and Qatar; the different balance of power between the two groups in pre-oil times in the two sheikdoms meant different developments in the post-oil period.

To go on, the concept of ‘‘ecological modernization” was advanced for the first time by the German political scientist Martin Janicke[20] (1980). Scholars such as Gouldson et Al[21]. (2008) and Mol et Al[22]. (2009) defined ecological modernization as:

‘‘Theories are centrally concerned with the relationship between environment and economy and with social capacities to recognise and respond to existing and emergent environmental problems”.

In other words, theories that seek to highlight the long-term financial benefits of a society that embraces environmentally-friendly policies. Additionally, according to Murphy and Gouldson[23] (2000) ecological modernization theories have played a prominent role in aiding researchers to analyse how environmental issues are outlined in such a way that they appear relatively easy to be dealt with within the current institutional framework and in presence of an unlimited economic expansion (namely in a liberal order).

In particular, Giddens[24] (2009) pointed at how the considerable conviction towards machinery and science, the state and its plans, free enterprise and economic expansion gives rise to more room for governments and politicians to modify existing institutions and laws. The reason for this is to be found in the fact that this conviction averts the risk of obstruction and resistance from prevailing societal players and entrenched interests.

Bailey[25] et Al. (2010) however proposed a critic to the extent to which the concept of ecological modernization (EM) is applicable to Climate Change in particular. The authors wrote that EM theories can lead to downplay the magnitude of issues with global relevance like Climate Change: they might make seem complications such as AGW more manageable than they actually are. Notably, Bailey et Al. (2010) posit that EM approaches do not contemplate the need of modification of societal norms and consumption patterns; by way of explanation, those theories do not take into consideration that a mind-set of perpetual economic expansion could be basically incongruous with the task of halting AGW. A similar critic was presented by Foster[26] (2012).

Research objectives, questions and limitations

The intent of this research project is to elucidate the stance of the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries on Climate Change, and to assess whether these monarchies can ever achieve sustainability and ecological modernization despite hydrocarbons being their main source of revenues. Given the vital position of these nations as global oil and gas exporters and their strategic geographic location, connecting Europe, Asia and Africa, it could be extremely important to research into an issue that could jeopardize regional stability, energy security in many of the World’s countries and established trade routes. In the conclusion, examples of advantageous and convenient policies and technologies will be put forth. Thus, two questions will be raised in this dissertation:

1: Do economic and climate policies in the Gulf States of Saudi Arabia and Qatar reflect the rhetoric and strategy of fighting climate change as suggested in their development plans and official declarations?

2: What are the structural problems that might prevent ecological modernization in the rentier states of the Gulf?

It is important to point out that a study of this kind has one crucial limitation, namely the lack-or little availability of- Climate Change data from GCC government or institutions themselves. The reason of this paucity is to be found in either poor institutional competency or in the fact that governments might find the issue too sensitive to be publicly discussed. Thus, much of the data available at this point come from international organizations. Indeed, the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (2009)[27] pointed out that:

‘‘Virtually no work is being carried out to make the Arab countries prepared for climate change challenges. Specifically, no concerted data gathering and research efforts could be traced regarding the impacts of climate change on health, infrastructure, biodiversity, tourism, water, and food production. (…).”

Research philosophies and approaches

When doing research, it is essential to specify the underlying philosophy that serves as a foundation for the research process. As a matter of fact, research philosophy is crucial in both the social sciences and natural sciences. Morgan and Smirchich[28] (1980) defined it as an array of premises regarding the essence of knowledge and that guide the process of acquisition of that knowledge. In this respect, two concepts are important: ontology and epistemology.

Ontology can be defined as a part of metaphysics that is concerned with the nature and connections of being. Ingarden[29] (1964) wrote that the word can be related also to the inquiry of what might exists, or which one of the different potential ontologies is “true of reality”. When it comes to ontology, there are two major positions: objectivism and subjectivism (Bryman, 2004)[30]. According to Bryman (2004), an objectivist view implies that social actors exist in a reality that is extrinsic, objective and autonomous from the analyst’s perception. On the other hand, subjectivism entails that social entities and systems, to be properly understood by a researcher, must be examined considering how individuals identify them and how they act accordingly (Bryman, 2004).

Epistemology defines the way in which we know. Rescher[31] (2003) stated that the aim of epistemology is “is to clarify what the conception of knowledge involves, how it is applied, and to explain why it has the features it does”. There are two apparently conflicting approaches to epistemology: positivism and constructivism. Positivism is firmly connected with the previously discussed objectivism; it is a school of thought that places a great deal of importance to the structured and scrupulous methodology of science. This is necessary to understand a reality that is independent from the analyst (Gray[32], 2014). Nonetheless, according to Gray (2014) an opposing position exists, linked to aforementioned subjectivism, called interpretivism. This view posits that reality is not independent from social actors, but it is rather a product of individuals’ perceptions and subsequent actions; therefore, if a researcher wishes to study and understand reality, he or she must take into consideration the significance that individuals bestow upon their own perceptions of reality, even when it comes to the same event. As a result, there may be different and seemingly antithetical views of the World, but still legitimate.

This dissertation will benefit from both views. In particular, a position known as realism will be preferred. Madill, Jordan and Shirley[33] (2000) identify three kinds of realist epistemologies: scientific, naïve and critical. For this work, critical realism will be favoured. According to Bunge[34] (1993) and Madill, Jordan and Shirley (2000) this viewpoint recognizes the importance of science and the scientific method to study and understand reality, like positivism, but also acknowledges two facts: it is difficult, if not impossible to acquire absolute truth and also admits a subjective element in the creation of knowledge, similarly to interpretivism. As a matter of fact, climate change represents a much contested issue: whereas the findings of climate scientists are indisputable- global warming is real, and its causes are anthropogenic beyond any reasonable doubt- many amongst people and governments still refuse to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem-or even the problem itself. This is true even in the GCC countries, especially considering their role as leading hydrocarbon exporters.

As a matter of fact, climatologists Schneider and Moss (2000) wrote that a lot of scientists and researchers working in the IPCC often fail to acknowledge an element of subjectivity in their reports; as they said:

“Nearly all aspects of interesting global change projections (like the amount sea levels will rise and the potential effects this will have on human coastal settlements) involve subjective probabilities.”

In particular, Schneider and Moss[35] (2000) recognized an important difference: that between a type of science that is utterly objective and “though”, and a more subjective science, driven by policy making. Therefore, this dissertation will adopt a critical realist position: in order to best capture the objective elements of climate science and the subjective reasons that might hinder the actions of governments regarding the problem in question.

Data collection

This research project will use a qualitative approach. Relevant data will be collected and gathered through government papers, reports, books, journals and articles. Notably, the process of data collection followed the design of the dissertation: the introduction relies on papers and reports of supranational institutions such as the IPCC and the Middle East Institute, or national scientific organizations such as the Royal Society and the US Academy of Sciences.

The second section will shed light on the position held by GCC governments regarding Climate Change; thus, government reports will serve as a starting point. These publications are available on the website of each government, in both English and Arabic. Furthermore, other reports, such as those of IRENA and the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies will provide a clearer picture of the overall actions that these nations are taking to limit the damages or to reach their targets of sustainability. Finally, a study from a journal, the Renewable and sustainable Energy Review will provide an insight on the effect of the cost of the oil barrel.

The third part has several books that serve as a foundation. These works mainly explain the concepts of Rentier State theory and ecological modernization. In particular, these theories shall be related to the findings and considerations reached in section two.

Ultimately the conclusion will benefit from reports of the Kuwait Programme on Development, Governance and Globalisation in the Gulf States, a project of the Middle East centre of the London school of Economics and political Science. Furthermore, government publications and newspapers articles will highlight the Green projects currently taking place in the Region.

The adoption of secondary data is in this case mandated by two reasons: the little time available to carry out the research project and the difficulty of obtaining primary data in this particular field. As a matter of fact, Schutt[36] (2011) and Smith[37] (2008) affirmed that nowadays it is more and more prevalent to use secondary data to carry out research, largely an outcome of digitalization and the spread of virtual databases that are easily accessible to students and researchers worldwide. This method has several benefits: a researcher needs only to carefully analyse data that have already been collected, freeing more time for inquiry. Furthermore, using existing set of data might mean that a single analyst has access to research projects that have been carried out with resources or expertise that would not have been accessible in small-scale research endeavours. However, it should be remembered that research enterprises undertaken by other scholars might be too far-reaching for a particular research project or a result of different research questions; thus, it is an analyst’s responsibility to detect relevant information in those sources.

Data analysis

Burnard[38] (1995) stated that a fundamental role in qualitative research is played by an analyst’s own considerations regarding his or her topic. Thus, it can be reasonably affirmed that quantitative studies require a certain degree of interpretation. This interpretation may change based on the researcher’s approach to data analysis and his or her capacity to avoid bias (Patton[39], 2002). Thus stated, this research project will take advantage of so-called content analysis of data. According to Bengtsson[40] (2016) qualitative content analysis is not tied to any specific field of inquiry and there is hardly any guideline that the researcher needs to abide by and can be adopted in both quantitative and qualitative research. Krippendorf[41] (2004) defined content analysis as such:

“A research technique for making replicable and valid inferences from texts (or other meaningful matter) to the contexts of their use”.

In particular, when it comes to content analysis, a researcher has the option of choosing whether to undertake a manifest analysis or a latent analysis. This dissertation will mostly use a latent analysis: a kind of inquiry in which an analyst tries and identify the “latent”, or hidden, significance in a given text or source- in other words, it entails an interpretive layer (Berg[42], 2001). Thus, for example, through a thorough scrutiny of the Saudi-or Qatari- development plans it will be inferred whether or not these are compatible with a sustainable economic growth, an aim these countries claim to wish to pursue; this process will be used even when evaluating the possibilities of ecological modernization in the GCC.

The GCC and Climate Commitments

Since roughly two decades, the GCC monarchies as a block have apparently been extremely enthusiastic to take up a more proactive function in the struggle against Global Warming, in particular on the international stage. Seemingly such move was the result of the realization that, despite these nations oil and gas wealth, the quick upsurge of their populations after 2000 laid an unbearable burden on their resources and welfare systems.

Such eagerness for action could be seen for instance in the UN climate conference held in Doha towards the end of 2012. Furthermore, goals of achieving “sustainability” and “economic efficiency” often figure high on the political agenda of these nations. Reem bint Ebrahim Al Hashimy, UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation, for example declared the establishment of a “National Committee on sustainable development goals” in 2017[43], whilst every other country has some form of “energy plan” to attain a higher percentage of electricity generated from renewable sources such as wind and solar. As a matter of fact, such readiness with words is not always matched with befitting actions. Indeed, during the climate negotiations that led to the Paris agreement on Climate Change, that took place at the end of 2015, Saudi Arabia was accused[44] of derailing the on-going talks, as it had tried to do at the UN conference on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, three years previously, when it opposed a proposal to cut state subsidies on fuel[45] (despite these facts, the desert Kingdom ratified the Paris agreement in the Spring of 2016, and was the last G20 nation to do so). In this regard, the Saudi commission dissented strongly on the new more arduous target of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees[46], while a Saudi representative was reported saying:

“It was tough, we had to go to every ministry, every part of government. We developing countries don’t have the capacity to do this every five years. We are too poor; we have too many other priorities. It’s unacceptable”.

Additionally, some have questioned the real commitment of certain Gulf States to climate action. For instance, it has been argued that Qatar and other Arab Gulf states are eager to host many prestigious events such as the UN conference in Doha (or the 2022 FIFA World Cup, in a similar fashion) only as part of what Samuel-Azran[47] et al. (2016) termed “international image management”, to boost their national image as host of large and important international occurrences as well as to enhance their reputation, often stained by accusations of supporting terrorism. Actually, according to an article that appeared on The Guardian[48], Abdullah Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, who used to be oil minister of Qatar until 2011 and then chairman of the UN conference in 2012, was derided when he said:

“We should not concentrate on the per capita [emissions]. We should concentrate on the amount from each country.”

A statement that is highly at odds with hosting an international climate conference, from the country with the highest per capita emission in the World.

To go on, as it has been aforementioned, the dramatic economic and population boom experienced by every country in the GCC at the beginning of the 2000s compelled them to re-think (at least apparently) their model of economic development and their social contract. This led them to the publications of several documents highlighting the way in which they wished to shape their societies and economies in the years ahead. These documents came under the name of Qatar National Vision 2030, Saudi Vision 2030 (presented to the public only in 2016) and Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 and so forth. Amongst other things, in all these papers started to appear terms such as “economic sustainability” and “green technologies” as well as targets for renewable energy.

Nonetheless, El-Katiri and Husain (2014) pointed at noticeable limitations in these seemingly ambitious aspirations: firstly, the self-appointed goals of a certain percentage of electricity coming from renewable sources or the implementation of efficiency improvements were not- and are not- often mandatory (such as being enshrined in constitution or law); secondly, blueprints that explain how to finance these ambitions are missing; thirdly, in general, inadequate clarity and no information regarding how to draft business proposals, and, lastly, a national population that largely lacks technical skills and education necessary to carry out these plans. Thus said, the next section of this chapter will more carefully examine parts of the National Development Plans, chiefly of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

“Saudi Vision 2030” was announced to the public in April 2016. The most outspoken and prominent advocate of the bold initiative is Muhammad Bin Salman, then deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia (elevated to crown prince in June 2017), son of the current king Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud. According to the prince[49], the driver behind the creation of the blueprint was the realization, after a plunge of the oil price, of the finiteness of the country’s hydrocarbon wealth and the need to diversify the economy away from oil. In particular, the king’s son highlighted the three preeminent sources of strength of the country: firstly, their “status as the heart of the Arab[50] and Islamic worlds”, pointing at the presence of the two most important Islamic holy sites; secondly, their ambition to become a “global investment powerhouse”, in order to diversify revenues; and thirdly, the position of Saudi Arabia at the center of trade lines between Asia, Africa and Europe. It is worth to point out the absence of oil amongst the mainstays of the country; petroleum however is mentioned thrice by the prince in the rest of the declaration that opens Vision 2030, each time minimizing its significance.

It is nonetheless undeniable that Saudi Arabia still depends heavily on oil to fuel its economic growth, and that the oil sector will stay prevalent for the time being. As a matter of fact, Khalid Al-Falih, current Saudi minister of energy, industry and mineral resources stated[51]:

“[the goal of decreasing dependence on oil] does not mean that the kingdom’s opportunities of optimising its benefits from its  natural resources, including oil, will receive less attention in the current economic phase than in previous phases. Increasing our oil revenues will help us to build a range of other economic sectors in the kingdom, besides international investments”.

Furthermore, when it comes to renewable energy, Saudi Arabia already in 2010 announced the will to have at least 54 GW of electricity within 2032 coming from renewable sources[52] (the plan was however delayed to 2040). In order to achieve this goal, the Kingdom formed the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KACARE). This institution had the task of devising a renewable and atomic energy blueprint for Saudi Arabia. However, little of this plan has been reached as of 2017.

Vision 2030 nonetheless repeated the country’s engagement to increase the share of electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar; in particular, it pledged to have at least 9.5 GW of green electricity by 2023; however, as it has been aforementioned, Vision 2030’s renewable commitments are not sustained by any law-and are therefore rather arbitrary. Moreover, as Fattouh and Sen (2016) pointed out, in 2015 only 25 MW of all electricity generated in the Kingdom came from renewable sources; thus, conceding that Saudi Arabia reaches its green energy goal in 2023, that amount of electricity would still cover only 5% of the total. It should also be remembered that energy demand in the monarchy is expected to double in a decade (Lahn; Stevens, 2011[53]). As a consequence, it can be affirmed that, for the next few decades at least Saudi Arabia will continue to rely heavily on hydrocarbons to meet its energy needs.

To conclude this part, Saudi Vision 2030, regardless of the magniloquence with which it has been announced, has been surrounded by widespread scepticism. A reason for this is to be found in the fact that the Saudi Arabia has been striving to achieve the same Vision 2030’s goals since the 1970s- and mostly it has failed to do so. Furthermore, while the Kingdom may manage to profit from the vast expenditure that took place in the decade after 2000 in infrastructure and education[54], when oil prices were high, it could be pointed at two big so-called “black swans”[55] in the Vision 2030’s blueprint, which will have repercussions on the country: the “oil contradiction” and Climate Change itself. The first will be more thoroughly discussed in section two of this dissertation, and refers to the fact that Saudi Arabia is a rentier state, whose internal consumption of hydrocarbons is skyrocketing, increasing at about 7% per annum.

On the other hand, climate change can also be considered a “black swan” for Vision 2030 on account of both a rapid temperature surge and political necessity. As a matter of fact, Saudi Arabia envisioned two possible lines of development for the country when it submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (“UNFCCC”)[56]: the first one was based on energy-intensive oil-powered heavy industry (which the Kingdom itself deemed less likely) and one in which high value-added sectors such as finance, healthcare and religious tourism dominate. Even in this case petroleum plays an important role, as petrodollars would be used to prop up investments in these industries. As a result, global warming represents a “black swan” for the Saudi Vision 2030 as the latter relies heavily on oil to succeed; but climate change is (and increasingly will) put pressure on the oil sector, reducing the potency of an industry that is already struggling to cope with the low price of the barrel and a soaring internal use. The next paragraphs will focus on Qatar’s approach to Climate Change and sustainability.

Qatar particularly stands out amongst the countries of the GCC: the fact that it owns the Earth’s third biggest[57] confirmed natural gas reservoir and it is the World’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas makes it one the wealthiest countries on the planet. Moreover according to Luomi (2012) these riches mean that Qatar is able to unnaturally enhance the boundaries of its national environmental carrying capability. Luomi (2012) in particular defined the concept of a “naturally sustainable state” as one in which

“the consumption of natural resources, renewable and non-renewable, is in a balanced relationship with the surrounding environment (i.e. environmental sustainability) and ensures the prosperity of both in the present and future generations (broad intergenerational justice)”.

Thus, as a consequence of its prosperity, it might seem that Qatar’s resource consumption is ecologically viable and comfortably inside its local carrying capability. This however could not be further from the truth: this perception of sustainability exists only because the Emirate can satisfy for the present (and perhaps for some time in the future) the requirements of its booming population and economic activity. Actually Qatar falls way short of adhering to the aforementioned definition of a sustainable state. Additionally, the presence of natural gas is causing what Luomi (2012) termed the “illusion of abundance”: the constant deterioration of the environment and surpassing the point of no return could be camouflaged at the beginning, causing more harm in the future.

Qatar however decided to take a different approach to Climate Change and sustainability compared to that of, for example, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Those emirates in fact successfully managed to become pioneers and symbols of sustainable development and green technologies in the Gulf (Luomi, 2012) (whether they achieved sustainability is another matter; it is however undeniable that, as a marketing operation, it was successful). Qatar instead chose a slower and more uneven pace, probably owing to its massive wealth; this despite the fact that a research paper published by the World Bank[58] in 2007 identified Qatar as the World’s third most vulnerable developing nation when it comes to global warming and the most vulnerable Arab nation. Furthermore, Qatar’s attitude to Climate Change is at best ambiguous: as it has been said, it hosted the UN climate conference in Doha in 2012; nonetheless, before it took part in the Climate negotiations in Paris in December 2015, it submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions[59] (INDC) to the UNFCCC, which specified:

“Due to Qatar’s dependence on the export of oil and gas, there is an uncertainty from the potential impact of the implementation of response measures to climate change that may negatively impact the strength of Qatar’s economy and potentially the quality of life of its residents”.

Bill Hare, of Climate Analytics, a non-profit climate science and policy institute located in Berlin, Germany, defined[60] Qatar’s INDC “extremely disappointing”, adding that there was a “complete disconnect” regarding Qatar’s high exposure to global warming and its actions to curb emissions.

Similarly to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, Qatar too developed its own framework of national development after the oil-fed boom of the 2000s. The paper came under the name of Qatar National Vision 2030, presented to the public in 2008; it was conceived by an institution called General Secretariat for Development Planning (GSDP), established for the very purpose of guiding national development. In particular, the Qatar National Vision generally acknowledged Luomi’s definition of natural sustainability and intergenerational fairness, affirming:

“Qatar will meet the needs of this generation without compromising the needs of future generations […] by balancing the needs of economic growth and social development with the conditions for environmental protection.”

Furthermore, Qatar’s National Vision revolves around four key points: human capital, social justice, economic development and sustainable growth compatible with the possibilities of the environment. It is worth to point out that sustainability comes only in the end. In fact, the paper, as it has been said, acknowledges the need of sustainable development and intergenerational justice, albeit the statement is rather feeble:

“Economic development and protection of the environment are two demands neither of which should be sacrificed for the sake of the other.”

However, it is implied it will be accorded preference to economic development and the pre-eminence of the hydrocarbon industry:

“A development pattern based on the energy industry means that some environmental impacts are inevitable.”

To go on, the document also highlights the need to improve water management and reduce depletion; this need is stated to be connected only with the will to preserve the country level of affluence and way of living (it has to be remembered that Qataris have the highest emission per capita in the World). Luomi (2012) nonetheless pointed out the fact that two years after the document was released little had been achieved, and by 2012 the Emirate still lacked a formal climate strategy. Additionally, differently to what happened in the UAE, Qatar’s ruling class has not been overtly outspoken and active about the consequences that Climate Change will have on the country or to foster projects in this regard. For example, it was the president of the UAE and emir of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan who publicly backed the project of Masdar city[61]; in Qatar on the other end hardly any high level official openly provided a coherent green growth strategy or support for the cause; even former energy minister Al-Attiyah, chairman of COP18 conference in Doha, was known for his distrust of renewable energy and Climate Change and his personal hydrocarbon-based development agenda[62] ;it was he after all who led Qatar to become the World’s largest provider of liquefied natural gas.

In conclusion, despite Qatar’s rhetoric and actions, there is still much that the Emirate needs to do to become an effective player in the fight against Climate Change, in particular to limit its internal consumption of resources and the carbon footprint of its inhabitants. Indeed, its status as exporter of natural gas allowed the country to elude decisive climate action: Qatar’s climate responses since the 2000s have in fact been based on the assumption that natural gas is the less polluting hydrocarbon and considering that the majority of the country’s emissions[63] are generated by the export-bound fossil fuel sector. This at the same time allowed Qatar to secure a constant national energy supply disregarding renewable energy, and its ruling class did not have to face allegations about the soaring emissions per capita of Qatari nationals.

Therefore, it can be said that the Sheikdom’s stance on UN-led climate discussions was- and still is- mostly driven with the energy sector development in mind; and with the notion that, given the small size of the monarchy it cannot be called to account for its high per capita emissions. This lack of action in terms of policies and adoption of efficiency-improving technologies has been particularly exacerbated by the scarcity of patronage of high level officials of the Qatari government and similarly to Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries, the rentier structure of the economy. In this regard, the next section of the dissertation will try and analyse whether rentier economies and societies built almost entirely upon hydrocarbons such as those in the Gulf can combine economic growth and ecological modernization.

Ecological modernization in the Rentier States of the Gulf

A goal that GCC monarchies should strive for is greatly reducing domestic consumption of hydrocarbons. This would free more resources to be exported and thus boosting government revenues. As it has been stated, Saudi Arabia’s internal consumption of oil and gas is increasing at 7% yearly, and it is expected to double in a decade; a similar occurrence is taking place in Qatar and other wealthy countries of the Persian Gulf. In this regard, Reiche[64] (2008) put forth the case of Norway: the Scandinavian country is a net provider of fossil fuels, yet, according to the Norwegian government[65], roughly 98% of its electricity is generated by hydropower, which emits no greenhouse gas. This allowed Norway to devote almost the entirety of its oil production to export.

While it can be argued that Gulf countries for geographic reasons do not have hydropower capacity, they have a vast untapped potential for generating energy from solar and wind. In fact these nations lie in the so-called World’s “Sun belt”, an area that SolarPowerEurope (the European association of the photovoltaic industry) said it is located between 35°N and 35°S; it is therefore endowed with massive amounts of sunshine. A report from IRENA[66] found that, even in spite of technological problems that are peculiar to the region in the application of solar panels, such as desert dust and extreme heat, solar energy is becoming progressively cost-competitive with more traditional energy sources such as oil and gas. Additionally, Tzen and Morris[67] (2003) pointed at how widespread adoption of photovoltaic technologies to make seawater drinkable in the GCC would save a considerable amount of petroleum.

The high levels of internal hydrocarbon consumption in the Gulf States are mainly driven by the fact that fossil fuel products are heavily subsidized, both for citizens and businesses. As an illustration, the IMF[68] calculated that energy tariffs across the GCC are way lower than the international average. In the entire Gulf but the UAE the price for petroleum products such as gasoline and diesel are 40% to 90% lower than in the USA. The same is also true for natural gas tariffs across the region. Reducing this wasteful pattern of consumption would not only save these nations money but also would brace them for an age in which oil and other hydrocarbons are no longer the pillars of human economic activity. There is however a number of structural barriers that prevent- or could severely limit- the adoption of more environmentally-friendly policies in the rentier Gulf states.

Firstly, several authors such as Sharma[69] et Al. (2016) and Spiess[70] (2008) argued that the presence of a vociferous and well-developed civil society and conscious citizens in many liberal democracies is a powerful force in driving environmental policy-making, as elected lawmakers heed the will of the people. This vibrant web of civil society, NGOs, many independent media outlets and political parties (these include the “green parties” in Europe, whose agenda revolves around environmentalism) plays a vital role in rising awareness towards ecological issues; this environmental awareness is in turn translated into political action. However, no such feature exists in the Gulf monarchies; or, if it exists, it is much smaller and constrained by financially-powerful authoritarian states. Kuwait is considered the “freest” of all countries of the GCC; yet according to Freedom House[71] it scored only 36/100 in the 2017 freedom index, being considered “partly free”, with numerous activists who criticized the government having been arrested and facing prosecution.

Secondly, another obstacle to ecological modernization is represented by an almost total lack of taxation. It could be said that a part of the social contract in GCC rentier monarchies could be summed up with the sentence “without taxation there is no representation”, implying a lack of democratic processes in exchange for no personal income or corporate taxation. Nonetheless taxation represents a powerful tool in curbing greenhouse gas emissions. The Organisations for Economic Co-operation and Development[72] (OECD) points at the numerous benefits that taxation provides in slashing greenhouse gas emissions. In particular, environmental taxes compel companies to improve efficiency, increase governments’ budgets and enhance clarity in public and private environment management. Furthermore, the implementation of ecological taxes can correct the deficiency of the free market to consider the environmental consequences of economic activity and enable buyers and companies to decide freely how to lower their carbon footprint without a too heavy top-down approach.

Sweden is a case in point. The Nordic country introduced a carbon tax[73] as early as 1991. The tax involved a payment of 75 US dollars for each tonne of CO2 for industrial complexes, with biofuels being exonerated from this tax. As a result, The Swedish Ministry of Environment [74]calculated that in 2000 emissions were roughly a quarter lower compared to three years previously, more than it would have been possible with a normal policy-based approach. Additionally, Sweden raised the tax in 2007 for the specific purpose of combating AGW. The revenues from this tax were then used to lower taxation on labour and other conventional energy contributions.

According to the IMF[75] however in the period between 2012-2015 in the six nations of the GCC tax revenues not connected to hydrocarbons contributed only to less than 4% of non-oil GDP and less than 2% of total GDP on average. As it has been discussed in the literature review, GCC monarchies are rentier states: the legitimacy of these regimes is based on the provision of low-priced utilities and services such as water, electricity, housing, healthcare and education by the government. It is a way to share the immense hydrocarbon wealth with the population. Introducing taxation would mean rolling back the traditional social contract and sharing a certain amount of power with the inhabitants of these countries. Abdelkarim[76] (1999) for instance wrote that:

‘‘The absence of direct taxes, while freeing the government from any need to share power […] reduces the redistributional power of fiscal policy […] Without taxation-induced political bargaining, rentier states are supposed to be generally autonomous from societal demands, free to pursue policies as they please, drawing on external resources the use of which they are not held accountable for’’.

Kostas Nikolopoulos, chief of Middle East and North Africa for Climate Change Capital, an asset management and consultancy company stated[77]:

“Subsidies are politically very difficult to change. Energy is the national wealth and people feel they have a right to consume part of those resources. If there were alternative sources of energy, it would be politically easier”.

Furthermore, these circumstances of low corporate taxation, provision of cheap subsidized feedstock and the presence of many low-priced foreign workers are also likely to exacerbate energy consumption in the future. In particular, while Gulf monarchies have often stated their will to become diversified knowledge economies, a report[78] from McKinsey pointed at the fact that the Gulf region, for the aforementioned reasons is becoming more and more appealing to energy-hungry businesses such as aluminium, petrochemicals and steel. With this kind of industrial development it will be hard for their governments to make GCC nations more “green”. As a result introducing taxes in these countries would not only threaten the stability of the social contract between citizens and rulers, but also erode the competitive advantage created by a low-tax environment.

In conclusion, Gulf countries should invest massively in the development of renewable energy- especially solar -to come closer to meeting their climate goals and ease the pressure on their hydrocarbon sectors, whose potential is increasingly curtailed by low oil prices and growing domestic utilization. Nonetheless, it could be pointed out that, despite their potential for clean electricity generation, the outlook for an extensive GCC-wide enactment of sustainable practices is at present quite poor. It is also not clear despite the grand plans expressed in the National Vision Documents how these countries plan to push for and enforce laws mandating the effectiveness of electricity utilization and clean energy.

Moreover the established social contract and a rooted rentier mentality mean that it is very hard to impose measures such as personal and corporate taxation and rolling back subsidies; actions that could decisively help the Gulf nations to become more ecologically sustainable. These issues in fact bear a heavy political price, as the legitimacy of rulers is based on their provision. GCC autocrats are scared that imposing more austerity measures and personal taxation would result in demands for more transparent and democratic forms of government. For example, when the Saudi regime felt its power threatened following the Arab spring in 2011, King Abdullah announced a 32 billion dollars’ worth of subsidies[79] to public workers, retirees, students, members of the military and a wave of infrastructure investments, mostly in water and power generation.

It is thus to be expected that Gulf rulers will most likely try and refrain from fundamental changes in the rentier structure as much as possible. Much more probable instead it is that climate and ecological policies will be focused on large-scale high-visibility projects such as Masdar city and the Green Building Regulation in Dubai. These projects have a lower political sensitivity while boosting the “international green image” of Gulf monarchies.


This dissertation tried to shed some light on how Gulf monarchies plan to cope with climate Change. In the first part, the focus centred on whether actions and policies matched the wordiness of Gulf nations towards AGW. In order to do so, the national development visions and UNDCs of Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been examined. Results pointed at several problems beyond the apparent ambition of these visions: Saudi Arabia has set goals for renewable energy generation, but these are very limited compared to the ever-increasing domestic usage of electricity of the desert Kingdom; also, the country does not seem to be willing to fully exploit the huge potential it has in generating energy from solar, given its massive amount of sunshine throughout the year.

Furthermore, Saudi Vision 2030 relies on oil revenues to attain a good outcome. The decision of not striving for more ambitious goals in clean energy generation and saving petroleum for export is clearly not a step in the right direction: a report from Lahn and Stevens (2011) in fact found that Saudi Arabia could become an importer of oil between 2030 and 2038 if internal energy consumption is not limited, causing severe repercussions inside the Kingdom and in the international oil market. Even introducing a carbon tax and slashing energy subsidies might not be a viable option, given the rentier bargain between citizens and rulers. Climate Change will in turn put additional pressure to the Saudi oil industry: higher temperatures in the Arabian Peninsula mean more electricity for cooling and water desalination.

Qatar on the other hand decided to follow a different path to sustainability and ecological modernization, as highlighted by its official documents. Despite it hosting the UN conference on the climate in Doha in 2012, the Sheikdom has been able to avoid serious climate commitments that could have slowed down its economic growth. This had to do with its greater energy and financial security compared with larger and more populous neighbours such as Saudi Arabia or less oil-rich countries like Bahrain and Oman. Moreover, the assumption of natural gas as the “cleanest” of all hydrocarbons permitted Qatar to exceed the boundaries of its national natural sustainability and allowed Qataris to have the highest emissions per capita in the World. The current situation is also made worse by the apparent apathy of important personalities of Qatari establishment to raise awareness towards AGW and sustainability and to foster important projects akin to Masdar City.

The second chapter highlighted the structural constraints that prevent or limit GCC countries from taking a more attentive approach to the environment. In particular, these nations should consider limiting their internal consumption of oil and gas to assign more resources to export and investing in developing solar and wind power capabilities. This would replenish their treasuries and improve their energy security in the long term.

Nonetheless, the fact that a lively civil society and political opposition movements are largely absent from the GCC nations, as they are dictatorial monarchies, seriously limit the growth of environmental awareness in the political agenda. Furthermore, taxation proved an effective tool in slashing emissions in several countries, such as Sweden, Germany, Denmark and Spain.

Tax however remains a persistent taboo in the dynamics of the rentier states of the Gulf. Introducing taxation would not only raise demands for more power-sharing, but also cancel the comparative advantage for businesses created by the absence of taxation.

To conclude, if Gulf monarchies truly want to become good examples of sustainable practices they should address what Hertog (2009) termed their “energy crisis”; it is perhaps one of the most serious problems these nations have to confront in the next few years. If they managed to increase the share of electricity coming from renewable sources these countries could also adhere to their plans of boosting energy-hungry businesses such as aluminium, steel and petrochemicals. Doing so would allow GCC economies to become important international exporters of those aforementioned goods as well as saving more oil to be sold and increasing governments’ revenues, in a time where many of the World’s nations are trying to slash emissions.

In particular, GCC governments may reorganize subsidies and welfare systems as well as stressing the importance of reducing one’s own environmental footprint through government-sponsored campaigns. Governments could also compel the private sector to take steps in the right direction and invest in improving the efficiency of its businesses or in green projects around the country. Another important initiative could be spending a considerable amount of money in researching technologies to make hydrocarbons, especially oil, less polluting. It could be pointed out[80] for example that countries like China and the USA are pouring billions of dollars in developing clean-coal technologies. Doing so might turn Gulf nations into more active players in the fight against Climate Change and its consequences.

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[45] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/qatar-pressured-to-cut-emissions-new-climate-talks-begin/

[46] Above pre-industrial level

[47] Samuel-Azran T., Yarchi M., Galily Y., Tamir I., “Promoting Terror or Sport? The Case of Qatar’s International Image”, American Behavioral Scientist, 2016 SAGE Publications

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[57] https://www.eia.gov/beta/international/country.cfm?iso=QAT

[58] http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTANNREP2K7/Resources/English.pdf


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[72] https://www.oecd.org/env/tools-evaluation/48164926.pdf

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