Wealthy Gulf states have huge ambitions. Will extreme heat stop them?

The rich oil states of the Persian Gulf have big plans for the future. They want to attract more and more tourists and investors, organize major sporting events, build new cities and diversify their economies and make them less dependent on oil.

But they face a looming threat from which they cannot easily escape: the extreme and sometimes deadly heat that burns their countries every summer, and which climate change is expected to worsen in the coming decades.

Scorching temperatures drive up energy demand, wear out infrastructure, endanger workers and make even simple outdoor activities not just unpleasant, but potentially dangerous. All this will impose a significant long-term burden on the Gulf states’ huge ambitions, experts say.

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“We keep thinking that we want to keep getting bigger, but we don’t think about the implications of climate change in the future,” said Aisha Al-Sarihi, an Oman-based researcher at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore. “If we keep expanding and expanding, it means we need more energy, more water, more electricity, especially for cooling. But there are limits, and we are seeing those limits today.”

The threat of extreme heat was highlighted this week when Saudi Arabia announced that more than 1,300 people had died during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, including at least 11 Americans. Saudi officials said most of those who died made the journey without permits that would have given them access to heat protection, leaving them vulnerable to temperatures that sometimes exceeded 120 degrees.

The deaths raised questions about how Saudi Arabia managed the event, which drew more than 1.8 million Muslims to the holy city of Mecca.

The kingdom and other Gulf countries are pouring huge amounts of their oil revenues into efforts to boost their economies and climb the list of popular global destinations.

Saudi Arabia is building super-luxury resorts on the Red Sea coast and a futuristic city known as Neom in the northwestern desert. Qatar hosted the men’s World Cup last year and has also hosted other international sporting events and trade fairs. The United Arab Emirates has hosted a lavish World Expo, and its business-friendly policies have turned the country into a playground for the hyper-rich.

But these countries face significant environmental problems.

All have long experienced extremely hot summers, but scientists say climate change has already made the season longer and hotter — a trend expected to accelerate in the coming decades. Some forecasts warn of weeks-long heat waves with temperatures as high as 270 degrees Fahrenheit in the second half of this century. Temperatures this high could endanger human life.

Gulf countries, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, are among the most water stressed countries in the world, meaning available water can barely keep up with demand. To do this, they have to import water or remove the salt from seawater, an expensive and energy-intensive process.

Many Gulf countries have announced environmental initiatives aimed at reducing carbon emissions, greening major cities and developing climate-friendly technologies. They have also invested heavily in efforts to limit the dangers of extreme heat – often with measures that other Middle Eastern countries struggling with high temperatures, such as Egypt, Yemen and Iraq, cannot afford.

But money is not always enough.

This month, sudden power outages hit parts of Kuwait, a major oil exporter. In some areas, traffic lights went out and people became stuck in elevators as temperatures rose to 125 degrees.

Authorities blamed rising energy demand, which overwhelmed power plants. To ease the load, the government imposed rolling blackouts during the hottest hours of the day, forcing people to seek alternative air-conditioned spaces.

The summer heat drastically limits life in Kuwait. People work and sleep at different times and those who can afford it stay in air-conditioned spaces.

Fatima Al Sarraf, a family doctor in Kuwait City, said she would go for long-distance runs in the winter, but in the summer she had to run on a treadmill or go to the mall to get her daily steps.

“I don’t go outside at all,” says Al Sarraf (27).

She fears for the future.

“If temperatures continue to rise, especially during summer periods, Kuwait is expected to be uninhabitable,” she said. “This change will certainly impact future generations.”

Other countries appear to be coping better with the heat, even though they still face challenges.

Qatar has used the wealth generated by its status as one of the world’s largest exporters of liquefied natural gas to cool outdoor areas even during the hottest hours of the day. Stadiums it built for the 2023 World Cup were equipped with outdoor air conditioning so they could be used all year round. One city park in the capital, Doha, features an air-conditioned running track, and an outdoor cooling system was recently unveiled at a popular open-air market.

“There is a cooling ecosystem,” said Neeshad Shafi, a Qatar-based non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute. “Everything has to be cooled. Every day there are more refrigerated parks, more refrigerated gardens, more refrigerated shopping areas and more refrigerated souks.”

But these technologies are expensive – and even more so to deploy over large areas.

“You can’t cool everything in a country,” Shafi said.

The protections such technologies provide are also not routinely available to the most vulnerable, including the millions of migrant workers who do everything from construction work to gardening in the Gulf. Many have no choice but to work outside, and studies have shown that working in extreme heat increases the risk of accidents and can damage the body.

To protect outdoor workers, Qatar and other Gulf states have banned most outdoor work during the hottest parts of summer. This year, Kuwait extended that protection to motorcycle delivery drivers, who had been grilling in their helmets on the scorching asphalt.

But temperatures are also stifling at night and as countries warm, governments may need to extend work bans or take further measures.

“These countries are moving fast, but the temperature is moving faster than them,” Shafi said.

Rising temperatures could also hamper Saudi Arabia’s dramatic development plans. Will tourists flock to new luxury resorts when it’s too hot to swim comfortably in the Red Sea? Will enough people want to move to the capital Riyadh to double the population, when daytime temperatures there already regularly exceed 100 degrees for much of the year?

And as the kingdom warms, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the hajj safe.

The pilgrimage and its associated rituals involve spending many hours outdoors and walking long distances. Since the timing of the Hajj is based on the lunar calendar, it progresses gradually throughout the year and cannot be rescheduled.

The Saudi government has invested billions of dollars to protect pilgrims. Extensive parasols, water mist fans and air-conditioned shelters have been made available to provide protection from the heat.

But scientists warn that temperatures will be even higher the next time the hajj takes place in summer, rising from the mid-40s. A recent study warned that future pilgrims would be exposed to heat exceeding an “extreme danger threshold” unless “aggressive adaptation measures” are taken.

Tariq Al-Olaimy, director of 3BL Associates, a sustainable development consultancy in Bahrain, said he sees this year’s pilgrimage deaths as a wake-up call because they demonstrate both the successes of heat protection and the risks to those without protection.

“The lesson of the Hajj is that if this is not a priority for the entire population, there will be fatal consequences,” he said. “But there is also the lesson that if there is good and adequate thermal management, we cannot thrive, we can survive.”

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