Arab States @ HLPF 2023
This year, five Arab States volunteered to report their progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda: Bahrain, Comoros, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Only days before the HLPF, Syria inexplicably withdrew and had its Voluntary National Review (VNR) removed from the websites, leaving the remaining four to go through the process, representing the region.
After each state delegation’s presentation, all accredited parties in the chamber had a change to deliver short 2-min. observations and/or questions to the presenting delegations. The MGOS interventions are summarized below:
An NGO MGOS representative delivered the intervention on behalf of Bahraini civil society, whose representatives could not be present. They welcomed Bahrain’s commitment to the SDGs and to working with the global community to fulfill our shared Agenda, and raised the following points:
“With financial balance as a main objective of both government and society, reducing public debt would improve the economic situation, as well as health and education services.
Reducing unemployment is a key societal concern and demand of citizens. Thus, it remains urgent for government to allocate jobs for, and employ citizens. The VNR notes mismatches between skills and market needs. Inter-generational employment policies are needed, enhancing initiatives such as ‘Khatwa for Economic Empowerment.’
The statement noted that Bahrain is among 10 countries most likely to suffer severe water crises within the next 25 years. It called for expanding underground water basins for emergencies, rainwater-harvest plans to irrigate crops, and rational water use are needed.
While Bahrain’s VNR indicates an SDG16 commitment to a justice system grounded in rule of law, the statement cited Bahrain’s continued use of the death penalty as violating the human right to life. Civil society then appealed to King Hamad to pardon, or commute the death sentences of political prisoners.
The statement also called for granting more supervisory and legislative powers to the House of Representatives as key to reaching SDG16. It noted that “leaving no one behind and engaging civil society as key development actors also require lifting restrictions on CSOs and full adherence to ratified international agreements.”
The Bahraini civil society intervention ended with a request: “Noting the Sustainable Development Ministry’s role, accelerating SDG achievement, with this VNR presentation, we ask for disclosure of its plans and programs in national and sub-national spheres.”
The NGO MGOS speaker observed that Comoros’ VNR on SDG 11 provided exemplary detail, revealing the need to drastically improve the housing stock, but omitted information on tenure types and their legal certainty. Although land title data is uncertain due to many ongoing legal disputes under current legislation, Comoros’ reporting on Indicator 1.4.2 shows that only 42% of households hold title deeds.
Similarly, matrilineal inheritance of land in the Comoros is commendable, but the speaker noted that women’s land tenure is tempered by usage restrictions related to male guardianship required for women to access credit. However, the VNR failed to report on efforts related to indicator 5.a (guarantee women’s equal rights to land ownership and/or control), although the country’s experience could be instructive for all.
The speaker noted that Comoros’ report on Target 1.5 reminds us to reconsider the concept of “resilience” when applied to people, rather than systems and structures. Placing the responsibility for recovery on poor and vulnerable communities can mean a return to the often-dire conditions before a shock or violation. She clarified that such “resilience” falls short of sustainable development and the duty of States to ensure “the continuous improvement of living conditions.”
Finally, the NGO MGOS highlights the VNR’s coverage of local civil action, calling for the reform of laws and social behaviors to address gender-based violence and child marriage, and posed two questions:
1. Zero hunger and food security are laudable goals, but how does the government meet the challenge of pursuing and achieving food sovereignty?
2. What efforts are being made to revise land and housing laws to align them with the SDGs (1.4.2 and 11.1) and human rights treaty obligations?
The Comoros delegation amply covered most of these issues in the rebuttal, instructing the plenary on the progressive attitude and measures to ensure gender-equitable land access, use and control.
The statement delivered by the Children and Youth MGOS expressed appreciation for Kuwaiti government efforts in the last three years to accelerate SDG implementation. Despite progress, she noted the VNR recognizes some continuing challenges:
Chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and TB have decreased in most Arab countries, but are still high in Kuwait, impeding SDG 3 achievement. The education system needs deep reform as net primary enrollment has been decreasing since 2019. COVID greatly affected education and the government did not provide any solutions or even pursue distance-education like other countries, but postponed the whole process.
Toward Goal 5, women in Kuwait still face obstacles: Only one woman was elected in the 2023 National Assembly elections, one of the lowest rates among GCC countries. But we appreciate Kuwait as the first Arab state to report against SDG 5.a.
The prepared statement had addressed SDG 11 (inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities and human settlements), whereas the Kuwait VNR reports no slums in Kuwait (p. 38), but leaves behind some 100,000 stateless Bidoon who live in slums on the outskirts of Kuwait City. However, the speaker unilaterally deleted reference to that contradiction.
With regard to Goal 14, she asserted that Kuwait ranks second in the Gulf region (after UAE) in generating plastic waste, and the last in the region in sustainable waste management and recycling.
On SDG 5, the speaker noted that, despite the 2020 Family Protection Law, the Ministry of Kuwaiti Affairs revealed that 53.1% of Kuwaiti women have been subject to some form of violence during their lives, while the VNR claims near zero (p. 58) and civil society reports numerous complaints of violence against women and girls per day.
In this context, the Children and Youth representative asked: “What are Kuwait’s plans to accelerate progress on SDG 5?”
The Children and Youth MGOS delivered observations on Saudi Arabia’s VNR, noting that, as last time (2018), this year’s VNR does not specify SDG targets and indicators. Still, the statement hailed this 2nd Saudi VNR and progress made in some SDGs.
It noted positively the “Qatrah” water-rationalization program, which aims to reduce daily per capita consumption 57% by 2030. Combatting Covid, new digital health services and a 24/7 hotline relieved pressure on health care facilities. The speaker the kingdom’s VNR references to the rights of future generations (p. 20). However, the Group observed that, despite efforts on some SDGs such as Goal 16-related anti-corruption measures, several challenges remain.
Toward Goal 5 the kingdom notes progress on women’s empowerment through increased workforce participation and leadership. However, the speaker pointed out that the Global Gender Gap Index continues to rank the country lower by the year, currently at 131 out of 146 countries.
Toward Goal 11, building new cities and developing existing ones, using the best urban-planning practices with UN-Habitat (p. 138), has also seen destruction of living communities, as UN Human Rights Special Rapporteurs have noted.
Amid the 2021 Middle East Green Initiative toward SDG13, Saudi Aramco has announced increasing crude output to 13 million barrels a day by 2027. Thus, despite domestic advances, Saudia’s extraterritorial performance contrasts, including by military involvements.
The statement ended with two questions:
- How does the kingdom reconcile these apparent contradictions?
- We would like to understand how the kingdom defines civil society, so often cited in the VNR.
In other UN forums, seemingly apart from the supposedly unitary UN System, the Saudi Arabia’s SDG 11 and 13 performance was raising serious concerns. The kingdom’s efforts at building new cities especially caught the attention of six human rights Special Procedures, who communicated with the CEO of the Saudi Investment Fund Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in April 2023 over the arbitrary arrest, trial, torture and death sentences imposed upon al-Huwaitat tribe members for resisting the much-touted Neom new cities project on their lands. The Saudi Mission in Geneva replied on 10 July, asserting unsubstantiated charges of the defendants terrorist activity, specifying that one was charged with possession of weapons.
Reflecting the same SDG 13 concerns, five UN Human Rights Special Procedures addressed the Saudi Arabian Oil Co. over Saudi Aramco’s business activities, with funding by Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, JP Morgan, Citi, HSBC, SMBC, Crédit Agricole, Morgan Stanley, BNP Paribas, Goldman Sachs, Mizuho, Société Générale and EIG Global Energy Partners, which appear to be “contrary to the goals, obligations and commitments under the Paris Agreement on climate change and which are adversely impacting the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change, including through Saudi Aramco’s maintained crude oil production, exploration for further oil and gas reserves, expansion into fossil fuel gas, and misrepresentation of information.” Saudi Aramco, which is directly overseen by the Government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, has not responded to date.
From a regional perspective, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) submitted a Report of the Arab Forum for Sustainable Development (AFSAD) to the HLPF. This year’s Forum deliver key aspirational messages on ten themes: Water security, Energy, Cities, Data, Financing, The private sector, and Youth.
See related articles in Land Times/أحوال الأرض:
The Crime of “Democide”
Green-transition Finance in Egypt
CSOs Assess Sustainable-development Policies
Humanitarian, Economic & Social Situation in Syria
Arab States in Green Transition
Green Transition in MENA
See related article on HIC-MENA:
Neom Megaproject, 13 April 2020, MENA, Saudi Arabia, Neom2.pdf, Forced eviction, Dispossession/confiscation, Privatization of public goods and services
Photo: Rola Dashti, Executive Secretary of ESCWA, Hisham Al-Sheikh, Deputy Governor of the Shared Services Sector in the Digital Government Authority of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Ambassador Omar Helal, Permanent Representative of Morocco to the United Nations at the side event held by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) under the title Breaking Borders: Technology and Artificial Intelligence to Accelerate the Sustainable Development Goals in the Arab Region” during HLPF 2023 activities in NY. Source: Egyptian Ministry of Planning and Economic Development.