The Middle East and its $13 Billion Sandstorm Crisis

By Bhavya Surapaneni

Castle Pines, Colorado

Sandstorm in Baghdad, Iran. (Thaier al-Sudani / Reuters, via Al Jazeera)

In the middle eastern countries of Iraq, Syria, Iran, and others, worsening sandstorms facilitated by human-caused climate change threaten the health and livelihood of millions. The storms cost the Middle Eastern economy $13 billion yearly.


Sandstorms are a common occurrence in the Middle East, which is located within a so-called ‘dust belt’, but climate change has worsened the conditions that are conducive to them, namely higher temperatures, a drier climate, and shifting weather patterns. In the past two decades, the number of ‘dust days’ per year in Iraq has increased from 243 to 272, and the Iraqi environmental ministry warned that this number is expected to reach 300 days by 2050.


The impact of increasingly frequent sandstorms has been orange skies from dust and sand in the air throughout the entire Middle East. The poor air quality forced thousands of civilians into hospitals due to the resulting inability to breathe. In May, an Iraqi hospital counted 4,000 individuals being treated for respiratory ailments in just one day in addition to the 5,000 that had also been treated for similar conditions earlier that month. The state of civilian health has only worsened since then and health ministries have even resorted to stockpiling oxygen canisters.


The economic impacts of the sandstorms are equally detrimental and even more far-reaching than the health consequences. Banafsheh Keynoush, a foreign affairs scholar and fellow at the International Institute for Iranian Studies, wrote that, “Climate change causes the storms, and the storms exacerbate the impacts of climate change. Socio-economic life revolves around weather patterns, so livelihoods are severely threatened.” This was seen with schools and businesses closing down operations, flights being canceled, and maritime operations ceasing throughout the region.


Sandstorm approaching Kuwait City in May, 2022. (AFP, via Arab News)

The ramifications of economic struggles in the Middle East are great, as the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, and the Bab el-Mandeb are all strategic waterways for which closures would affect oil supply to other countries and thus, global trade as a whole. The Strait of Hormuz is considered “the world’s most important choke point” by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The successful functioning of the waterway is critical for not only the Middle Eastern economy but the world economy. A March 2021 closure of the Suez Canal served as a forewarning for possible outcomes of the storms, with a ship blocking the waterway for six days after it was blown off-course from a storm. The obstruction in the canal costed $60 billion for global trade. As the sandstorms worsen, the potential for similar incidents and therefore, the potential for significant interference in trade increases greatly.


The new increased frequency of sandstorms due to climate change presents a several problems for the future of Middle Eastern countries, especially in terms of economic activity. In an interview with CNN, Mohammed Mahmoud, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, stated that Gulf states, including Egypt and Libya, are at risk to be affected by the storms. These countries could suffer from what Iraq, Iran, and Syria have been experiencing, namely shut-down of infrastructure, loss of agricultural capability and crops, and port closures. Officials and scholars have identified major climate change events that may have worsened the storms in recent years, including desertification of land and dry topsoil, poor land management through draining wetlands for agriculture, and armed conflict and excessive warfare. In addition, atmospheric scientist Diana Francis of the Environmental and Geophysical Sciences Lab in the United Arab Emirates found that Arctic ice melting, a consequence of increased global temperatures from climate change, changed the movement of weather in the Middle East slower, resulting in prolonged and more frequent sandstorms.


Countries in the region have put forward efforts to combat the effects of these worsening weather events, but critics worry that these plans are not sufficient and claim that the outlook for dust storms is bleak. Iraq announced they would rehabilitate ten oases in the Western Desert, Saudi Arabia announced they would plant ten billion trees to combat desertification, and the United Arab Emirates launched a dust forecasting system in 2016 to predict dust storms. However, if dust storms continue at this frequency long-term, the future is sure to present more economic and public-health issues to the countries of the Middle East.