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Dynamic Causal Patterns of Desertification in the GCC countries – Implications of cross-scalar dynamics and typical pathways of drylands ecosystem change in Saudi Arabia

Andy Spiess
Associated with
University of Hamburg
Department of Economics and Policy
Center for International Relations


In recent decades, land degradation in more arid regions of the world such as the Arabian Peninsula has become a serious concern. The threats, manifest as both desertification and land degradation in general, are caused primarily by anthropogenic activities, such as deforestation, excessive cultivation due to inappropriate agricultural projects, proliferation of invasive aliens, overgrazing, and other forms of land resource exploitation such as and oil and gas surveys. Inadequate irrigation practices, persecution and socio-economic changes, the latter apparent in the decline of traditional farming and land-use practices exacerbate this process severely.

Generally it can be said that desertification is driven by a set of recurrent core variables, of which the most outstanding at the basic level are economic factors, national policies, institutional framework, population growth, and remote influences. Identifiable regional patterns of synergies among causal factors, in combination with feedback mechanisms and land-use systems, constitute specific pathways of an ecosystem change for a particular geographic region within a similar institutional and cultural milieu.

Desertification should however be reviewed in the context of sustainable development, since it is directly connected to human challenges such as poverty, social and economic well-being, as well as environmental protection. Since land degradation caused by desertification processes affect the ability of the soil to sustain agricultural production, they concomitantly contribute to poverty. As population increases and demographic concentrations shift towards uncontrolled urbanization, the extent of land subject to stresses by those seeking to wrest subsistence from it has inexorably risen. Broader environmental issues, such as climate change, biological diversity, and freshwater supplies, are indirectly related, so any effort to resolve this environmental challenge must entail coordinated research efforts and joint action. The failure to act now will greatly compound the cost and complexity of later remedial efforts, and because environmental degradation is beginning to pose a major threat to human well-being, especially among the poor in the region.

The aim of this paper is to review and reassess the land degradation and desertification problem in the GCC countries in respect to the implications of cross-scalar dynamics and typical pathways of drylands ecosystem change. In so doing, we will attempt to outline the fundamental environmental constraints and opportunities that characterize the region. In this context, the study will try to illustrate the nature, extent and geographical distribution of the major forms of soil and vegetation degradation due to anthropogenic influences. While trying to identify the principal causes of this type of degradation considering the institutional framework, special emphasis will also be given to the urgent necessity to install a network mechanism to monitor the degradation in this region and to define and implement suitable measures towards a sustainable environmental policy. In this respect, an iterative, integrated evaluation framework should be developed to identify potential indicators of degradation in the GCC countries.

Finally, the paper will aim to outline some important environmental policy issues, which will need to be addressed in the near future. Yet understanding the dynamic causal patterns is crucial for appropriate policy interventions, which have to be fine-tuned to the region-specific dynamic underlying pathways associated with desertification.