Fighting the desert; how the Middle East can become a solar superpower: book review

Jack Hamilton reviews the 'The Power of Deserts,' which examines the changing oil fortunes and climate threat in the world's hottest region.

By John Maxwell Hamilton

(About the author: John Maxwell Hamilton, the Hopkins P. Breazeale Professor of Journalism at Louisiana State University, is a longtime journalist and author of Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda.) 

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Callaway Climate Insights) — In the 1970s I made a reporting trip to the Negev, an inverted triangle of land that begins 25 miles south of Jerusalem and ends in a sharp point at the port of Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba. The word Negev comes from the Hebrew word for “dry.” I had journeyed this stony desert, which accounts for more than half of Israel’s territory, to write about experiments that were widely viewed as hopeful for much of the planet.

My first view of the Negev was arresting. Before me were smooth open spaces broken by undulating hills, just what one would expect of a desert. But instead of a moonscape, the land was lush with carpets of tomatoes, corn, and melons. Here and there were stands of trees and thriving settlements.

This mirage-like scene of desert reclamation was a testament to human determination and ingenuity. But it brought moments of doubt, too, such as when one of the scientists I interviewed mentioned the resistance they encountered from inhabitants of the Negev who were not participating economically in the blooming desert. “They steal the rain gauges,” he lamented, and repurposed them for home uses. He dismissed this behavior as a sign of ignorance, rather than the rational response that it was.

This experience came to mind when reading Dan Rabinowitz’s The Power of Deserts: Climate Change, the Middle East, and the Promise of a Post-Oil Era. Rabinowitz is a professor of sociology and anthropology at Tel Aviv University and highly respected for using his scholarly talents to understand and promote environmental justice. 

The Middle East is especially vulnerable to climate change. It is also riven by especially stark economic disparities. In The Power of the Deserts, Rabinowitz threads his way through this fraught, complex combination of factors to find a path that will allow the entire region, rich and poor, to bloom.

Studies indicate that temperatures are rising in the region at twice the average global rate. Many cities on the shores of the Arabian Gulf are heading toward superheated uninhabitability. By some calculations, the per capita availability of water in the Middle East will be cut in half during the next thirty years. In Morocco, to cite one example related to food production, wheat, barley, and olive production is expected to plummet. 

In some areas, desertification will increase rapidly; in others rain will fall in much greater and perilous quantities. This inequity reappears as well in the advantages that some countries enjoy — advantages that paradoxically contribute to the global warming that is so harmful to the region.

These advantages rise out of Middle Eastern soil in the form of petroleum. Oil has brought some countries riches worthy of the Croesus, an ancient king in what is now Turkey. Dubai has a five-acre indoor ski facility that requires, by one estimate, 1.3 million barrels of oil a year to keep snow on the fake slopes from melting. The resulting CO₂ emissions are equal to those of the entire country of Sudan. 

The tiny association of nations in the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part, ranks ninth in total global CO₂ emissions. Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain — other wealthy oil-producers in the region — rank higher on the list.

Saudi Arabia has wisely used its oil treasure to improve agriculture. Many of the techniques were pioneered years ago in the Negev. But what of poorer countries? With little money available to finance advanced techniques for water desalination, they must passively watch the skies hoping, often in vain, for the rain. In due course, many of their citizens will become climate refugees, a term that does not have legal recognition but should, given its significance. 

The Power of Deserts reads like a policy paper. Its 174 pages are packed with data, much of it stunning, that are nevertheless as dry as the Negev. The book would enjoy the wider readership it deserves if it were written and edited with more verve. It also is sadly missing an index. 

Rabinowitz offers a breakthrough insight that deserves discussion. That insight is that a partial solution to global warming lies in getting the oil-rich nations to see that they will prosper by abandoning that asset. 

The fight against climate change, Rabinowitz argues, is led by environmental activists in liberal democracies. He suggests turning this around by appealing to the interests of the Middle Eastern petroleum oligarchs on the grounds that at some point their wealth, as grand as it may be, will not protect them adequately from climate change. This is not simply a matter of the earth becoming hotter. The other factor is that renewable energy production will cut deeply into the market share of oil-driven energy. By some calculations solar and wind could possibly account for 50% of global electricity needs by the middle of the century.

Rabinowitz argues the six countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman — are well suited to produce solar energy. They have vast sun-drenched lands; they have lots of money to invest; and they have “a good track record of integrating innovation into civil infrastructures.” With regard to this last advantage, Rabinowitz takes issue with a commonly held view that democracies are best positioned to deal with climate change. Authoritarian governments, he argues, have much more room to act when they choose to do so.

This is a daring plan that runs into the same problems that Negev scientists faced when locals stole their rain gauges, self-interest. The transition to renewable energy production may seem a long way off. Why should GCC countries change their ways when they account for 28% of oil production and 29% of oil reserves?  There are a lot more petrodollars to earn. Besides, the Middle Eastern leaders who have the most control over decision making know they won’t be around when the environmental bills have to be paid.

But Rabinowitz believes that the GCC may be more amenable to shifting their economies as a result of Covid. First, the pandemic taught us the need for global preventive action on any number of levels. Second, the pandemic reduced energy demand and depressed fossil fuel prices, and this hiccup in energy use may give an added boost to renewables as the world economy recovers. Furthermore, the GCC nations may determine that they can acquire considerable, long lasting geopolitical power by being solar leaders, which will have the effect of reducing the effects of climate change on poorer countries in the region.

A fitting coda to Rabinowitz’s plan comes from David Ben-Gurion. Israel’s founding father and first prime minister settled in a Negev kibbutz after retiring in 1963. He believed that the development of the Negev was crucial to Israel’s survival. “If the state does not put an end to the desert,” Ben-Gurion wrote, “the desert will put an end to the state.”

Dan Rabinowitz recasts Ben-Gurion’s vision on a global scale.