Sociopolitical Consequences of Severe Heat in Saudi Arabia

Mikaela Bennett

George Washington University, 2017



Scientists have set upper limits for the degree of heat stress humans are able to endure, and have projected likely levels of temperature increase due to anthropogenic climate change in the Middle East. The combined forecast presents formidable findings with implications for Saudi Arabia’s economy, society, and political stability. Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing Gulf states serve as interesting case studies because they possess high adaptive capacity but suffer from paradoxical incentives regarding mitigation and adaptation. However, predicted trends in the incidence of extreme heat suggest that adaptation will be necessary for Saudi Arabia’s survival. These adaptations will reshape the spatialization of Saudi society, facilitate the policing of social activity, and exert asymmetric pressure on particular segments of Saudi society (i.e. marginalized groups, the very young and very old). Further study is recommended to improve understanding of the impact of extreme heat on Saudi Arabia.


In order to maintain large urban settlements in the face of environmental challenges, humans have demonstrated capacity for sophisticated feats of organization and engineering. However, such efforts generally also require significant wealth. Cities such as New Orleans, Las Vegas, and London serve as prime examples of urban locations which utilize massive engineering projects to maintain a habitable urban environment in the face of environmental challenges. Oil producing states on the Persian Gulf, like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), are of particular interest for future studies on urban adaptation precisely because of their substantial wealth. We might therefore expect them to have more adaptive ability compared to other countries facing severe environmental challenges. This would also be an oversimplification of Saudi Arabia’s situation, and adapting to climate change will not be an easy task for any country. Despite its oil wealth, Saudi Arabia may actually derive less adaptive capacity from its oil wealth than its neighbors. Saudi Arabia’s larger population undercuts its impressive wealth, and makes it poorer per capita than a small country like Kuwait. Still, Saudi Arabia’s large territory which encompasses more diverse environmental character may suggest adaptation capacities which are unavailable to Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, or Kuwait. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s landmass is not confined to the Persian Gulf coastline, where severe heat is anticipated to be at its worst.

When the idea of climate change first broke on the scene, research initially focused on average global temperature increase and struggled to explain the complexity of what that would mean to the world in terms of experienced temperatures. Amid the many dramatic consequences which have since been added to the roster of climate change threats (e.g. sea level rise, freshwater scarcity), it is important not to underestimate the continuing challenge of adapting to temperature extremes. While the nature of the problem remains slippery and complex, we now have enough information to expand the discussion beyond climate data trends. Recently introduced predictions for heat trends in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula provide the point of departure for this paper and open up the opportunity to begin analyzing the ways in which anticipated severe heat will affect society and politics in Saudi Arabia. Increased frequency of severe heat in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf will have complex consequences which demand unprecedented adaptation. Modes of adaptation to severe heat in Saudi Arabia raise new questions regarding the implementation of technology, political economy, and spatialization of social activity. These questions illuminate what promises to be an existential challenge for Saudi governance and human survival in the region.