The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is grappling with dangerously high air pollution levels, exacerbated by its extensive fossil fuel production, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW). The analysis, based on data from 30 government monitoring stations in September 2023, revealed that average levels of PM2.5, tiny toxic particles with significant health implications, were nearly three times the daily recommended levels outlined in the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines.
The impact is severe, with an estimated 1,872 annual deaths caused due to outdoor air pollution in UAE, where migrants constitute 88% of the population and are predominantly engaged in outdoor work, facing the highest health risks.
The alarming levels of pollution are particularly concerning given the ongoing expansion of the UAE’s oil and gas operations, aligning with a global trend that disregards the scientific consensus on the need to phase out fossil fuels to mitigate catastrophic climate impacts. The Guardian’s recent revelation that state-run oil and gas fields in the UAE have been routinely flaring gas, despite a commitment made 20 years ago to zero routine flaring, underscores the environmental challenges.
Despite acknowledging the poor air quality, the UAE government attributes it primarily to dust from sandstorms. HRW’s comprehensive review of air pollution data from 2018 to 2023, satellite-derived data, and government reports, along with interviews with migrants, exiled Emiratis, academics, and environmental groups, paints a stark picture. The average concentration of PM10 in 2022, taken from 50 sites, exceeded the yearly WHO recommendation by more than eight times.
Migrant workers, who are on the frontline of exposure, reported experiencing adverse health effects such as burning lungs, breathlessness, and itchy skin. However, they lacked information about the risks and had no avenues for seeking assistance. The report highlights the broader context of governmental suppression of civil society in the UAE, particularly targeting human rights activists, including environmentalists, using legal measures to silence critics. The absence of Emirati climate or environmental activists at Cop28 further emphasizes the challenges faced by those seeking to address the links between fossil fuel expansion, air pollution, and health risks.
Richard Pearshouse, HRW’s environment director, emphasized the detrimental impact of fossil fuels on air quality in the UAE, stressing that the lack of civil society scrutiny and expression of concerns further hampers efforts to address the harm caused. The government’s narrative, attributing poor air quality mainly to sandstorms, overlooks the significant contribution of the fossil fuel industry to air pollution.
The report underscores the urgent need for transparent and open discourse on the connection between air pollution, fossil fuel activities, and public health in the UAE. The suppression of civil society and the absence of meaningful dialogue not only perpetuate preventable health conditions but also hinder efforts to address the environmental and climate impacts associated with the country’s fossil fuel industry.