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Developing Adaptive Capacity for Responding to Desertification and Climate Change in the GCC: 
Uncertainties and Constraints to Linking Ecosystem Conservation, Sustainable Development
and Society in Authoritarian Rentier Economies

Andy Spiess

GCC Network for Drylands Research and Development (NDRD)
University of Hamburg, Department of Economics and Policy, Center for International Relations
e-mail: spiess (at)



Global Environmental Change, of which desertification is only one key element, will not only alter living conditions for future generations, but presents a serious threat to human well being as well as social justice and therefore remains a crucial contemporary policy issue. While a set of biophysical transformations, driven both by human activities and natural processes, affect the quality of human life on a worldwide scale, the socioeconomic and environmental consequences of progressive land degradation in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region are profound. Research on the human consequences of drylands ecologies shows that they are due at least as much to the social systems that produce vulnerability as to environmental changes themselves. It has demonstrated that anthropogenic causes, such as overexploitation of natural resources are determined by population growth, demographic shifts, economic and technological development, cultural forces, values and beliefs, institutions and governance structures as well as the interactions among all these underlying driving factors. A more integrated understanding of the complex interactions of human societies and ecosystems is therefore essential if we are to identify vulnerable systems and pursue options that take advantage of opportunities and enhance adaptive capacities. Understanding these mechanisms and conditions is a prerequisite for developing successful conservation policies that will reach their stated objectives.

However, especially when it comes to the oil monarchies in the Gulf region little is known about the human dimensions, or the contexts in which they operate. Undeniably gradual environmental governance in the GCC states is taking place, however, general consensus has also stressed that the extent of these changes are somewhat limited and perhaps subject to suspension or reversal as a result of potential changes in domestic, regional or international circumstances. Policies that implicitly subsidize or support a wasteful and environmentally destructive use of resources are still pervasive, while noteworthy environmental improvements still face formidable political and institutional constraints to the adaptation of the necessary far reaching and multisectoral approach. The situation is further aggravated by typical institutional weaknesses, such as multiplication, overlap and low level of integration of various state agencies, absence of effective coordination and participatory decision-making processes, lack of collaboration and partnerships, shortsighted budgetary planning, dysfunctional legal frameworks, lack of well-defined national research strategies as well as inadequate institutional capacity building and enabled society. Despite considerable fiscal resources, sufficient physical infrastructure and a large state apparatus, the region is moreover still characterized by an extremely low monitoring and information-gathering capacity. The established rentier mentality in theses economies results in a low performance level of state employees who often view their posts as entitlements and informal patronage networks that prevent equitable and predictable administrative behavior. Procedures often loose momentum when they are transmitted to lower levels of the administration, over which the leadership only has very indirect control. Yet policy, institutional and administrative failures have the effect of reducing the value of environmental resources to society through wastage, poor pricing and outright lack of means of conservation.

Regardless of the fact that international organizations are certainly aware that the political and socioeconomic framework conditions are the major determinants when it comes to resource distribution and environmental degradation and have accepted that the local sociocultural context must be considered in finding appropriate policy recommendations, little efforts have been made to adopt to the realism of many countries in the developing world. Policy recommendations for mitigating environmental threats such as desertification are conceptualized around the assumption that Western-derived standards of conduct, in other words the normative concept of "good governance" and "democracy", be adopted in non-Western politico-cultural contexts.

The principal aim of this paper will be to identify some of the major political and institutional constraints within the special context of the GCC sociocultural environment in light of formulating appropriate recommendations to drylands ecosystem management.
Conclusions highlight the importance of systematically incorporating cultural, religious and historical peculiarities of the recipient countries, when formulating feasible responses to various cumulative as well as systemic environmental concerns as well as recognize the challenge for international agencies and drylands researchers to shift from a conventional to a complex sociocultural framework perspective. If the real problems encompassed by drylands degradation and desertification are to be solved within a sustainable development approach, the issue needs to be reframed and we need to take an objective look at the impediments and find feasible recommendations.


Desertification, Adaptive Capacity, Institutional Framework, Policy, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)

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Paper presented at the "Climate Change and Desertification - Monitoring, Modeling and Forecasting - Wengen Workshop on Global Change Research - Edition 2007", Wengen, Switzerland, September 10-13, 2007