The Riyadh summits and the Green Middle East

Ghassan Charbel
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The Riyadh summits do not concern the Kingdom alone. When a country with such economic, political, and religious impact witnesses such a comprehensive renaissance and deep modernization, the impact is felt across the region. It becomes a model for the ability to keep pace and engage with the new world and to compete to create a strong economy that provides all the necessary pillars of prosperity and stability.

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The battle for change led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman under the patronage of His Highness the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdelaziz, has turned over a new leaf. Gone is the conviction that the countries of the region are condemned to remain outside the scope of groundbreaking economic, scientific, and technological development. It is no longer a matter of compensating for the decades gone. It’s rather a resolute decision to be present in the heart of the development process, to participate therein and master its workings. It’s a different way of tackling domestic and foreign problems, a process of transforming mentalities and approaches that begins in school and university classrooms and extends to the job market, opportunities, welfare, and the quality of life.

A few years back, Vision 2030 turned Saudi Arabia into an open workshop. The last few years have confirmed that waiting is no longer a viable approach; instead, a measured yet audacious sense of initiative is needed. In recent years, the Saudi youth was deeply involved in the holistic transformation that the country is seeing. The desperate tone that visitors might hear across several capital cities in the region is not heard in Riyadh. One does not hear of a Saudi young man who dreams of immigrating in order to overcome the impasse that’s looming on the horizon.

This ability to translate big slogans into concrete policies was aided by the Saudi youth’s confidence in Mohammed bin Salman and his ability to turn dreams into reality.

This is the feeling one gets upon visiting Riyadh to participate in the Green Middle East Summit that will be held today, and which will be followed by the COP26 Climate Summit in a few days in Glasgow. Ahead of these two events, Mohammed bin Salman had corroborated the biggest oil exporting country’s commitment to the fight against global warming with remarkable figures and milestones, which he announced at the Saudi Green Initiative Forum. He said the Kingdom aims to reach a zero-carbon footprint by 2060, and its many green energy initiatives should lower carbon emissions by 278 million tons a year by 2030. Formerly, the Crown Prince had also announced an effort to plant 40 billion additional trees, in the framework of the Green Middle East initiative.

In Riyadh, one gets the feeling that the climate issue has become a priority, which is a novelty in our region. A decade ago, the political climate was the sole preoccupation of journalists working in this thorny part of the world that we call the Middle East. When preparing for an interview with a certain official, a journalist would enumerate all the crises, tensions, and inflamed conflicts about which he or she should ask -- and rightly so, as the Middle East always delivered in this area. Then in recent years, journalists became focused on questions of Spring, its achievements and woes, its confiscators and murderers; questions of international tensions and regional ambitions and al-Qaeda and ISIS and small puppet armies.

It would not occur to a journalist to ask a decisionmaker about what their government has done to combat climate change, for instance. To be asked such a cold question while a government faces urgent issues and hot files that consume all its efforts and time was expected to solicit the official’s surprise and would have been understood as an attempt to lower the threshold of questions and avoid more serious ones.

Whenever I traveled for work across the “terrible” Middle East in the past, I always asked myself upon returning to my hotel in the evening how that city or town would look like in a decade or two. A pessimist answer was always the first to come to mind. I’d imagine overcrowded cities in countries with rising unemployment and poverty rates and increasing desperation and violence. I’d picture scared governments and failed crops and generations tormented by the looming horizon flocking to “death boats” in a last-ditch effort to resign from their countries.

Betting on a foreign solution was difficult. Major states are not charities in the first place, and the world tends to help only those who take the initiative to help themselves. Ready-to-wear solutions cannot be forced onto societies living in a different historical era. Governments seemed to be hostage to day-to-day concerns, their operations closer to caretaking duties and uncoordinated reactions to the never-ending problems.

Today, governments have a much tougher task. Their responsibility is no longer confined to their current citizens but extends toward future generations, which will pay dearly if these governments keep maneuvering to rescue themselves instead of developing long-term plans to rescue their countries. This means modern administrations that rely on efficiency, fight corruption, develop phased plans, provide opportunities, and apply monitoring, evaluation, and accountability mechanisms.

The climate summit has imposed itself on the global agenda. Scientists assure that the world is on the brink of a catastrophe if steps are not taken soon. Recent floods and tornadoes serve as a credible reminder of scientists’ warnings of the economic and cultural disaster that global warming will entail if left unhinged: destruction of crops, famine, millions of displaced due to food, water, and hope shortages. Middle Eastern governments must act before it’s too late, and today’s summit in Riyadh is one audacious step in that direction.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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