Resource stress, pollution and climate change all threaten to aggravate instability and inequality in the Gulf, but have so far failed to capture public imagination. Now a wave of grassroots initiatives is trying to change this. Springing up in response to local problems, often employing Islamic narrative and spreading through Facebook, the movement is characteristic of the Gulf’s new generation and its rapidly evolving approach to ecology.
“It’s growing like crazy” says the effusive Khayra Bundakji of the environmental movement in Saudi Arabia’s coastal city of Jeddah. A surprising fact, perhaps, in a country not known for its ecological values. What’s more, women are leading the movement. Of the 17 groups Bundakji found active in Jeddah on environmental issues شركة نجوم الخليج, 15 of them were initiated by women.
Bundakji, a computer science major and internet blogger, founded Faseelah, Effat University’s first Islamic environmentalism organization in 2010. She also works with Naqa’a (purity), the brainchild of two nursing students, which calls itself a youth driven “environmental enterprise.” Naqa’a’s educational campaigns emphasize “the three Rs”-reduce, reuse, recycle-of the western mantra, the Islamic duty of stewardship over the environment, as well as concepts of purity and reining in excessive consumption.
Despite these examples, the environmental movement is still a small world, composed mainly of the educated middle class. Exposure to ecologically conscious societies in the West and efforts in other Gulf cities are the most commonly cited influences feeding the Gulf’s environmental movement, according to Bundakji, who lived in the US and Dubai for 11 years.
Environmental campaigns in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are at least a decade ahead and have been impacted by the large expatriate community (over 80 percent of the population). A former government official, Habiba Al-Marashi, established the Emirates Environmental Group in 1991 and has become a one-woman tour de force in railing against over consumption and engaging the private sector in sustainability drives. The international World Wildlife Fund (WWF) opened its first office in a Gulf State in Abu Dhabi in 2001, where it conducts conservation projects and tracks the heavy environmental footprint of UAE citizens. High-profile events such as the Sharjah Art Biennale, initiated by Sheikh Qasimi whose 2007 theme was ecological art, have also raised awareness in the region.