Sustainable Development and the Wobbly Middle Eastern Table

 By Dr. Manjari Singh

Sustainable development has become the “catchphrase” in the present times.[i] With the majority of countries in the Middle East adopting Vision’s as part of sustaining their development, discussion on the non-conventional concept has recently taken off.[ii] The growing realisation of diversification of economy due to over-dependence on hydrocarbons, increasing food and water insecurity, environmental concerns and social tensions have drawn the attention of the global and regional actors to opt for an inclusive approach. Moreover,  in October 2015 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) in its resolution passed in the General Assembly gave a statement wherein it was highlighted that “there can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development” (UNDESA 2015: 2).[iii] While the first half of the statement is required to ensure sustainable development, the latter half is crucial for West Asian economies.

What is Sustainable Development?

Developing sustainably does not necessarily imply conservation of environment alone. While conserving the environment was important it was regarded primarily the First World concern; the Third World or the developing countries still need to grow economically and hence could only adopt “softer” approach to sustainable development.[iv] Former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was one of the main proponents of economic prosperity of developing countries and she did not shy away to stress upon the same in her keynote address at the Stockholm Conference in 1972 where she eloquently stated that “poverty is the greatest polluter”.[v] Since then it was realised that developed and developing nations approach to developing sustainably cannot be the same. Hence, sustainable development encapsulates a wide range of dimensions, the environment being one of them.

The concept defined as “one that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own demands” provides a vague understanding. This vagueness facilitates the decision makers to include all aspects of the ecosystem, namely, society, economy and environment. These form the three pillars of sustainability[vi]; politics is the fourth pillar identified in the Middle East due to growing instability, regional disparity and inequalities in the region.

Identification of four pillars seemed like an easy task, however, what might comprise each or what indicators to be used to achieve sustainability in all the realms became a challenge. Added to these, preservation and respect of individual status of the countries was also important. Therefore, in January 2016, UNDESA outlined 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030 for its member states which broadly covers the pillars (See Figure).[vii] While achieving the SDGs is important for development, they only provide directions. Individual characteristics of the member states is maintained based on their level of development and “to each their own” policy. Based on these each country submits its Voluntary National Review (VNR) to the UN agency by the end of each year.[viii] Hence, the SDGs are holistic in nature.

Source: UNDESA, 2016.

SDGs in Middle East Context

Of the 17 outlined goals, the ones important in the regional context are Goal 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 13, 16 and 17 that pertain to ensuring quality education, gender equality, provision of clean water and sanitation, decent work and economic growth, reduced inequalities, climate action, peace, justice and strong institutions and partnerships at the intra-state, interstate, regional and global levels.

While the enrolment rate is high in the region with 95 per cent in primary education by 2015, the quality of education is missing and needs to be focused on.[ix] Prevalence of Madrasa education, segregation and over-dependence on Arabic as the mode of teaching has further constrained the countries to achieve a high quality of education. Moreover, aversion to modernization owing to tribal affiliations has further limited the process.[x]

Gender inequality is rampant and except for Israel, all the other countries in the Middle East rank lowest on the global gender gap index. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report (GGGR), the countries in the region will take one and a half centuries to achieve gender parity, 157 years to be precise.[xi]

The region faces acute water crisis because of few non-perennial rivers, huge evaporation rate due to high temperature, scanty rainfall and growing desertification. World’s rank 1 and 2 water-poorest countries, Bahrain and Jordan respectively, are in the Middle East[xii] with annual per capita water availability of less than 120 cubic metres while international water poverty line stands at 500 cubic metres per capita per year.[xiii]

Based on their economic prosperity, the region has three types of countries, namely, hydrocarbon-rich rentier states, technologically advanced nations and ones which lack both technology and resources and yet owing to the monarchical structure are semi-rentier economies. Such countries are highly dependent on foreign aid and assistance for subsidizing basic amenities such as food, water and electricity.[xiv] The classic example being Jordan.[xv] Moreover, there is a realisation that hydrocarbon-based economy is unsustainable hence diversification of the economy is necessary. Harnessing these requires robust economic growth and thus Goal 8 is important.

Countries in West Asia have a long way to go in terms of reducing inequalities especially vis-á-vis its minorities. According to Minority Rights Group International, the region has six types of minorities, namely, intra-religious, religious, ethnic, national, women and migrants.[xvi] Majority of the intractable conflicts in the region are attributed to intra-religious and religious divides.

Even though West Asia is ‘blessed’ with oil, it is ‘cursed’ with environmental threats and hence is prone to extreme climatic actions. The region is grappled with growing desertification, land degradation and harsh climatic conditions.[xvii]

Added to social, economic and environmental issues, the Middle East is politically unstable and is grappled with intractable conflicts, civil and proxy wars and sectarian rivalries. Conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen are few good examples in this regard.[xviii] The region lacks in existence of strong institutions in form of intro and inter-state co-operation. Therefore, while achieving the above-mentioned goals is a necessity, realising goals 10, 16 and 17 are the most crucial and absence of it pose serious challenges to sustainable development in the Middle East.

Current Status

The countries have linked the SDGs with their ongoing government plans and have addressed the commonalities and differences. Nonetheless, the focus is primarily individualistic in nature and hence on an average not much has been achieved. Moreover, the majority of the nations are in the stage of collecting and updating their basic data with regard to each indicator highlighted in the goals. Furthermore, the 2030 timeline set for the Visions is a very short span for the Middle East keeping in mind that there are unstable conditions in few countries and that some of the economies are trying to recuperate post-Arab Spring.

Middle Eastern report card as of December 2018 is not very promising and the emerging complexities have further put a dent on it.[xix] Few steps that the countries have taken to realize sustainable development are introduction of affirmative action (Provision of special quotas) especially for women, in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Morocco and Jordan[xx]; diversification of economy by inclusion of non-hydrocarbon sector to the GDP[xxi]; indigenisation of labour to tackle unemployment[xxii]; and International Monetary Fund (IMF) induced austerity measures (cutting down subsidies on basic items) in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt and Bahrain etc.[xxiii] These are just baby steps and much is to be done, moreover, each will have socio-economic and political implications and have the capacity of further add to the complications.[xxiv] Hence, for countries in the region, while the social, economic and environmental pillars of sustainable development are weak, the political pillar is the weakest. Thus, the Middle Eastern table is wobbly! Until and unless there are intra and inter-state, regional and international co-operation for peace and stability, sustainable development is improbable.



[i]Sharachchandra M. Lele (1991), “Sustainable Development: A Critical Review”, World Development, Vol. 19, No. 6, pp. 607-621.
[ii]War-torn and conflict ridden countries like Syria, Yemen and Iraq are the only ones in the region which do not have sustainable development planning as of now because of instable situations.
[iii]UN (2015), Resolutions Adopted by the General Assembly on 25 September 2015, Seventieth Session, Agenda Items 15 and 116, 21 October, Available at:, (accessed on 5 January 2019).
[iv]Ahmet Ucakturk et al. (2013), “Power Perception of Developing Countries in Their Sustainable Growth and Innovation Strategies”, Procedia- Social and Behavioural Sciences, No. 99, pp. 112-121.
[v] Jairam Ramesh (2018), “Poverty Is the Greatest Polluter: Remembering Indira Gandhi’s Stirring Speech in Stockholm”, The Wire, 19 November, Available at:, (accessed on 5 January 2019).
[vi], The Three Pillars of Sustainability, Available at:, (accessed on 5 January 2019).
[vii]UNDP (2016), Sustainable Development Goals, Available at:, (accessed on 5 January 2019).
[viii] UN Sustainable Development Knowledge Platforms, Voluntary National Review Database, Available at:, (accessed on 5 January 2019).
[ix]Faisal Odeh Al-Rfouh (2018), Personal Interview with former Minister of Culture and Social Development and Professor at University of Jordan in Amman, Jordan on 18, 20, 25 March 2018.
[x]Mutasim Al-Kilani (2018), Personal Interview with Head of Sustainable Development Division, Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation in Amman, Jordan on 24 March 2018.
[xi]World Economic Forum (2006-2017), Global Gender Gap Report (GGGR), Available at:, (accessed on 5 January 2019).
[xii]FAO (n.d), “World Water Resources By Country”, Available at, (accessed on 5 January 2019).
[xiii]UNDESA-UN Water (2005-2015), Water for Life, Available at:, (accessed on 5 January 2019).
[xiv]Curtis Ryan(2018), “Why Jordanians are Protesting”, The Washington Post, 4 June, Available at:,(accessed on 5 January 2019);
[xv]Sean Yom (2018), “Jordan‘s Protests Are a Ritual, Not a Revolution”, Foreign Policy, 11 June, Available at:, (accessed on 9 January 2019).
[xvi]Minority Rights Group International (n.d), “Overview of Middle East”, Available at:, (accessed on 5 January 2019).
[xvii]Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (WRMEA) (2013), “Environmental Concerns in the Middle East”, Available at:, (accessed on 5 January 2019).
[xviii]Al Jazeera (2008), “Timeline: The Middle East Conflict”, Available at:, (accessed on 5 January 2019); Mrutyuanjai Mishra (2018), “The Complexity of Conflicts in the Middle East”, The Times of India, 17 October, Available at:, (accessed on 5 January 2019).
[xix] Complexities referred here hint towards Qatar crisis, Yemen war and domestic situation in Saudi Arabia and murder of Jamal Khashoggi and its after effects.
[xx] Aili Mari Tripp (2012), “Do Arab Women Need Electoral Quotas”, Foreign Policy, 19 January, Available at:, (accessed on 5 January 2019).
[xxi] Rabah Arezki (2018), “How to Diversify Oil-Producing Economies”, Economic Research Forum, 9 January Available at:, (accessed on 5 January 2019).
[xxii] Sanket Mohapatra (2011), “Implications of ‘Nitaqat’, Saudi Arabia’s Indigenisation Program, Likely to be Modest for Migrants”, World Bank, 28 September, Available at:, (accessed on 5 January 2019).
[xxiii] The Express Tribune (2018), “Middle East: IMF Chief Calls for Austerity Measures”, 11 February, Available at:, (accessed on 5 January 2019). 
[xxiv] Introduction of austerity measures have met with popular protests in some countries such as Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait etc and affirmative action taken have angered the hardliners and conservative sections of the government.
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Dr. Manjari Singh is an Associate Fellow at Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) and she obtained her doctorate from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi for her thesis on Sustainable Development in Jordan: A Study of Social, Economic and Environmental Dimensions. Dr. Singh is a Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (SYLFF) Fellow and is specializes in sustainable development and the Middle East. Her research papers have appeared in international journals such as Contemporary Review of the Middle East, Mediterranean Quarterly, and Migration and Development. She has co-authored Persian Gulf 2018: India’s Relations with the Region (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan) and has co-edited Islamic Movements in the Middle East: Ideologies, Practices and Political Participation (New Delhi: Knowledge World) and Challenges to National Security: Young Scholars Perspective (New Delhi: Pentagon Press)She also serves as Assistant Editor of Contemporary Review of the Middle East (Sage Publications) and Managing Editor of CLAWS Journal (KW Publishers).