Extinction Rebellion, the grassroots green movement that has blocked city roads, nursed babies outside corporate headquarters and put climate change firmly on the political map in capitals from London to Madrid, is now gaining ground in the Middle East.
Off-shoots of the group that advocates peaceful protest as a way to pile on pressure to curb global warming are sprouting from Beirut to Doha, as activists in the oil-rich region want governments to ditch fossil fuels for renewable energy sources.
“Governments are not going to do anything unless they see that people themselves want that change – that’s how any movement starts,” said Iman, a member of the newly formed Extinction Rebellion (XR) group in Qatar who declined to give her full name for security reasons.
“There’s a very large number of Qataris who are very passionate about sustainability and who want to see change implemented but they also acknowledge the challenges to it – whether that be political or simply cultural,” she said.
The gas-rich Gulf State, with a population of about 2.7 million, emits more carbon dioxide per person than any other nation globally, according to World Bank data, while across the region, countries suffer blistering heat and water shortages.
As host of the 2022 football World Cup, Qatar is looking at ways to reduce carbon emissions linked to the event and execute a 2030 national plan to curb its carbon footprint.
Extinction Rebellion launched in London in 2018, inspiring waves of disruptive action around the world pushing for rapid cuts in carbon emissions, with the protests leading to thousands of arrests.
In Qatar – a country where protests are illegal – the nascent group acknowledges it will not be able to carry out large-scale civil disobedience like other XR groups.
But Iman said the plan is to change hearts and minds through public advertising campaigns and lobbying decision-makers.
“It’s a little harder to be more vocal about issues such as sustainability, especially when you’re in an oil-rich region,” said the 19-year-old student. “There are constraints.”
Despite a social emphasis on consumer culture, she said, there is growing public awareness in Qatar around waste – and a willingness by young people especially to shoulder more responsibility for the global climate crisis.
Water scarcity and desertification are major climate issues in the Middle East and North Africa, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned earlier this year.
In Israel and the Palestinian territories, green activists said a 2018 report by the U.N. climate science panel – which said heat-trapping emissions must be slashed 45% by 2030 to keep warming to a lower agreed limit – had spurred them to join XR.
“We see ourselves as the noise-makers – the ones who are saying no more business as usual,” Michael Raphael, a member of XR Israel, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Globally, XR tactics centre on civil disobedience such as blocking planes at a London airport and disrupting traffic outside Belgium’s Royal Palace, while in New York activists glued themselves to a green sailboat parked in Broadway.
In politically tense places like Jerusalem, survival is an everyday concern, said Raphael, but a warming climate may inadvertently unite factions and help bring peace.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re Palestinian or Jewish – you’re going to face the same difficulties under climate change,” he said. “If we don’t take this on together, we’re going to die together.”
Raphael and his group are most concerned about the development of off-shore gas rigs, water shortages, pesticides and over-fishing in the region, he added.
“There needs to be a big push for more systematic change.”
So far, local XR members have glued themselves to the windows of the Israeli stock exchange, blockaded petrochemical factories and protested outside government buildings.
In recent weeks, Lebanon has been paralyzed by an unprecedented wave of protests against what is seen as rampant corruption among its ruling elite, which led to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri.
“The mass protests erupted and are kind of doing our job… so we’re participating in them,” said Rami Suleiman, co-founder of XR Lebanon.
A rise in temperatures exacerbated forest fires in the country, a contributing factor to voter frustration over wider government inaction, he added.
“Climate change actually played a huge role in starting these protests,” he said by telephone. “In the Middle East, we’re suffering a lot from rising sea levels and changing weather patterns – so I got drawn in.”
The university student set up a Lebanese XR branch in May, after watching the movement grow abroad and feeling “astonished” the region had nothing similar.
The group, now around 40-strong, has translated climate documents into Arabic, disrupted traffic flows and lately participated in the broader political protests in Beirut.
In Turkey too, the climate movement is growing, with an XR group in Istanbul and others planned in Ankara, Bodrum and Izmir, said Elif Unal, an XR coordinator in the country.
“I was very anxious about the climate crisis and I was feeling very hopeless,” said 25-year-old Unal, who first got involved by translating XR tweets into Turkish.
The group has since put on art shows and performances in central Istanbul to grab public attention.
They are seeking to use more cautious and creative methods than in other European cities, she said, not least because “getting arrested is not something new in Turkey” and would be a less effective tactic.
Governments across the Middle East are grappling with how to slow down climate change and cope with its impacts.
Officials are eager to demonstrate their countries can be effective stewards of the environment, despite their heavy reliance on fossil fuels.
Dubai, Muscat and Doha, for example, are developing low-carbon residential areas that aim to reduce emissions and serve as green living models.
Yet while all countries in the region are signatories to the 2015 Paris Agreement to tackle global warming, six states – Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Turkey and Yemen – have yet to ratify the international accord, meaning they are not legally bound by it.
Unal said there was a tendency in the region to blame other parts of the world, such as Europe and the United States, for causing climate change.
But, she added, “the climate crisis is a global problem and the solution should be global too”.