This not-so-positive prediction will focus on Middle East geopolitics as it relates to climate change between the years 2040 and 2050. As you read on, you’ll see the Middle East in a violent state of flux. You’ll see a Middle East where Gulf States uses their oil wealth to attempt to build the world’s most sustainable region, while also fending off a new militant army numbering in the hundreds of thousands. You’ll also see a Middle East where Israel is forced to become the most aggressive version of itself to fend of the barbarians marching on its gates.
But before we begin, let’s be clear on a few things. This snapshot—this geopolitical future of the Middle East—wasn’t pulled out of thin air. Everything you’re about to read is based on the work of publicly available government forecasts from both the United States and the United Kingdom, a series of private and government-affiliated think tanks, as well as the work of journalists like Gwynne Dyer, a leading writer in this field. Links to most of the sources used are listed at the end.
On top of that, this snapshot is also based on the following assumptions:
Government investments to seriously and sizably limit or reverse climate change will remain moderate to practically non-existent.
By 2040 to 2050, climate change will have progressed to a stage where greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in our atmosphere exceed 450 parts per million. In this scenario, the world is now at least two degrees Celsius warmer, probably more.
You read our intro to climate change and the not-so-nice effects it‘ll have on our drinking water, agriculture, coastal cities, and plant and animal species if no action is taken against it.
Now, let’s get right into it.
No water. No Food
The Middle East isn’t the first place you think about when it comes to water—freshwater especially. And that’s for good reason: the Middle East, along with much of North Africa, is the world’s driest region, with most countries living off of less than 1,000 cubic meters of fresh water per person, per year. That’s a level the United Nations refers to as ‘critical.’ Compare that with the many developed European countries that receive more than 5,000 cubic meters of fresh water per person, per year, or countries like Canada that receive over 600,000 cubic meters, and you realize how dire the Middle East situation already is as of 2015.
By the late 2040s, climate change will only make matters worse, pummelling the Middle East like a punching bag, withering its Jordan, Euphrates, and Tigris rivers to a trickle and forcing the depletion of its remaining water aquifers.
With water reaching such dangerously low levels, traditional farming and pastoral grazing in the region will become next to impossible. The region will become, for all intents and purposes, unfit for large-scale human habitation. For some countries, this will mean extensive investments in advanced desalination and artificial farming technologies, for others, it will mean war.
The Middle Eastern countries that have the best chance of adapting to the coming extreme heat and dryness are those with the smallest populations and the biggest financial reserves from oil revenue, namely Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. These nations will invest heavily in desalination plants, turning seawater into freshwater.
Saudi Arabia currently gets 50 percent of its water from desalination, 40 percent from underground aquifers, and 10 percent from rivers via its Southwest mountain ranges. By the 2040s, those non-renewable aquifers will be gone, leaving the Saudis to make up that difference with more desalination powered by their dangerously depleting supply of oil.
As for food, many of these nations have invested heavily in purchasing farmland across Africa and Southeast Asia for food exports back home. Unfortunately, by the 2040s, none of these farmland purchase deals will be honoured, as lower farming yields and huge African populations will make it impossible for African nations to export food out of the country without starving their own people. The only serious food exporter in the region will be Russia, but their food will be an expensive and competitive commodity to buy on the open markets thanks to the equally hungry countries in Europe and China. Instead, the Gulf States will invest in building the world’s largest installations of vertical, indoor and belowground artificial farms.
These heavy investments in desalination and vertical farms will be just enough to feed Gulf State citizens and avoid large-scale domestic riots and revolts. When combined with possible government initiatives, such as population control and state-of-the-art sustainable cities (see the UAE’s Masdar City), the Gulf States could eke out a largely sustainable existence. And just in time too, as this transition will likely cost the sum total of all the financial reserves saved from the prosperous years of high oil prices. It’s this success that will also make them a target.
Targets for War
The relatively optimistic scenario outlined above assumes the Gulf States will continue to enjoy the ongoing investment and military protection the US has offered them for the past half century, though that support won’t necessarily be a given by the late 2040s. By then, much of the developed world will have transitioned to cheaper electric-powered transportation alternatives and renewable energy, devastating the demand for oil globally and removing any dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
Not only will this demand-side collapse push the price of oil into a tailspin, draining revenues from Middle East budgets, but it will also lower the region’s value in the eyes of the US. By the 2040s, Americans will already be struggling with their own issues—regular Katrina-like hurricanes, droughts, lower farming yields, a growing Cold War with China, and a massive climate refugee crisis along their southern border—so spending billions on a region that’s no longer a national security priority will not be tolerated by the public.
With little to no US military support, the Gulf States will be left to defend themselves against the failed states of Syria and Iraq to the north and Yemen to the South. By the 2040s, these states will be ruled by networks of militant factions who will control thirsty, hungry, and angry populations of millions who expect them to provide the water and food they need. These large and disparate populations will produce a massive militant army of young jihadists, all signing up to fight for the food and water their families need to survive. Their eyes will turn to the weakened Gulf States first before focusing toward Europe.
As for Iran, the natural Shia enemy to the Sunni Gulf States, they are likely to stay neutral, not wanting to strengthen the militant armies, nor support the Sunni states that have long worked against their regional interests. Moreover, the collapse in oil prices will devastate the Iranian economy, potentially leading to widespread domestic rioting and another Iranian revolution. It may make use of its future nuclear arsenal to broker (blackmail) aid from the international community to help resolve its domestic tensions.
Run or Crash
With widespread droughts and food shortages, millions of people from across the Middle East will simply leave the region for greener pastures. The wealthy and upper middle classes will be the first to leave, hoping to escape the regional instability, taking with them the intellectual and financial resources needed for the region to overcome the climate crisis.
Those left behind who are unable to afford a plane ticket (i.e. most of the Middle East population), will try escaping as refugees in one of two directions. Some will head toward the Gulf States who will have invested heavily in climate adaptation infrastructure. Others will flee toward Europe, only to find European-funded armies from Turkey and the future state of Kurdistan blocking their every escape route.
The unspoken reality many in the West will largely ignore is that this region will face a population collapse should massive food and water aid not reach them from the international community.
Assuming a peace deal isn’t already agreed to between the Israelis and Palestinians, by the late 2040s, a peace deal will become unfeasible. Regional instability will force Israel to create a buffer zone of territory and allied states to protect its inner core. With jihadi militants controlling its border states of Lebanon and Syria to the north, Iraqi militants making inroads into a weakened Jordan on its eastern flank, and a weakened Egyptian military to its south allowing militants to advance roughshod across the Sinai, Israel will feel like its back is against the wall with Islamic militants closing in from all sides.
These barbarians at the gate will evoke memories of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War throughout Israeli media. The Israeli liberals who haven’t already fled the country for a life in the US will have their voices drowned out by the extreme right wing demanding for greater military expansion and intervention across the Middle East. And they won’t be wrong, Israel will face one of its biggest existential threats since its founding.
To protect the Holy Land, Israel will shore up its food and water security through large-scale investments in desalination and indoor artificial farming, thereby avoiding outright war with Jordan over the diminishing flow of the Jordan River. It will then secretly ally with Jordan to help its military fend off militants from the Syrian and Iraqi borders. It will advance its military north into Lebanon and Syria to create a permanent northern buffer zone, as well as retake the Sinai should Egypt fall. With US military support, Israel will also launch a massive swarm of airborne drones (thousands strong) to hit advancing militant targets across the region.
Overall, the Middle East will be a region in a violent state of flux. Its members will each find their own paths, fighting against jihadi militancy and domestic instability toward a new sustainable equilibrium for their populations.
Reasons for Hope
First, remember that what you’ve just read is only a prediction, not a fact. It’s also a prediction that’s written in 2015. A lot can and will happen between now and the 2040s to address the effects of climate change (many of which will be outlined in the series conclusion). And most important, the predictions outlined above are largely preventable using today’s technology and today’s generation.
To learn more about how climate change may affect other regions of the world or to learn about what can be done to slow and eventually reverse climate change, read our series on climate change via the links below:
WWIII Climate Wars series links
WWIII CLIMATE WARS: NARRATIVES
Southeast Asia, Drowning in your Past: WWIII Climate Wars P9
South America, Revolution: WWIII Climate Wars P11