Sustainable Development in the Arab region halted by COVID and the Ukrainian war

By Daniil Filipenco

Sustainable Development in the Arab region halted by COVID and the Ukrainian war

For the last 20 years, the Arab region has been plagued by conflict and instability. Modest economic growth and continuous unrest in some countries have slowed the development of the region, with the pandemic and the Russia – Ukraine war disrupting the fragile progress. The outbreak of COVID-19 in 2019 halted data generation which is essential for tracking progress in development and improving the effectiveness of various aid initiatives that aim to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals established in 2015.

While some Arab countries that are rich in fossil fuels are benefiting from rising energy costs, others are suffering food shortages, a fall in tourism, and a drop in foreign aid inflows.

With this in mind, the authors of a recent report, Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals in the Arab region, suggest that the SDGs should be pursued more quickly and with increased effort. This report provides details regarding the region’s performance towards the 17 SDGs and the associated indicators. Let’s delve into it.

See also: Related Progress towards SDGs suffered disruption amid the pandemic – international organization

How many countries are in the Arab region?

According to the majority of definitions, the Arab region includes 22 nations whose residents speak Arabic as their first language.

Egypt boasts a population that surpasses 106 million, making it the most populated Arab nation. In contrast, with only 907,000 inhabitants, Comoros has the smallest population. Algeria holds the top spot among the Arab countries in terms of total area, encompassing a territory of 2,381,741 sq. km (about a quarter of the US land mass). The smallest country is Bahrain which has a surface area of about 785 sq. km.

The richest and poorest Arab countries

In spite of the war in Ukraine delaying the recovery of the global economy after the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy of the region is predicted to expand by 4.5% in 2023 and 3.4% in 2024. However, there are still large gaps between various nations which the war in Ukraine has only widened. While oil-importing nations face a number of socio-economic difficulties, such as increasing costs of energy, food supply deficits, and a decline in both tourism and foreign aid influxes, the Gulf Cooperation Council nations and those that export oil will continue to benefit from higher energy prices.

The World Bank estimates that, as of 2021, the Arab world had a total population of 456 million people and a GDP of US$2.86 trillion. Despite this, in many respects, the region is diversified and has both economically wealthy and economically disadvantaged countries.

Based on data from the World Bank, Qatar’s GDP per capita stands at US$66,838 and it is currently the richest Arab nation in this regard, followed by the UAE with a GDP per capita of US$44,315.

Yemen (GDP per capita US$701) and Somalia (GDP per capita US$447) are among the poorest in the region. A prolonged civil war in Yemen has exacerbated economic issues, unemployment, and scarcity of food, water, and medical supplies. As for Somalia, this country has experienced years of various conflicts such as civil war and clan disputes, including numerous strikes by extremist groups.

Sustainable Development Goals in the Arab region

While the Arab world has achieved a great deal of success towards meeting some of the 17 SDGs, there are still certain areas where much work still needs to be done.

There has been some progress registered regarding access to education and eco-friendly energy. Yet, some problems like gender equality and ensuring environmental sustainability are still to be resolved.

See also: What is sustainable development and which 5 technologies can boost it?

UN’s 17 SDGs include 169 targets and by measuring the accomplishment of 103 of these, the progress of the Arab region towards reaching the goals can already be tracked. However, this monitoring is only possible if there is an adequate amount of data (a minimum of two years).

Depending on the progress made towards achieving the goal, the SDG targets have been grouped into several categories:

  • “On track” (marked green)
  • “In process” (marked yellow)
  • “Off track” (marked red)

Target marked gray means there is a lack of regional measurable targets or there is not enough data to assess and track these.

The status for each of the 17 Goals is shown in the table below

Source: Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals in the Arab region

There is no doubt that, since the introduction of the 2030 Agenda back in 2015, little progress has been recorded in the Arab world. The main causes are the ongoing conflicts and unstable economies in some nations, as well as the effects of COVID-19-related measures. To overcome these obstacles, more funding must be allocated to infrastructure, technology, and innovation, with an important condition of this being an end to the unrest.

Overview of SDG advancement toward the 2030 goal and the 2022 benchmark level, and the strength of evidence

Source: Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals in the Arab region

* Evidence strength is an indicator of how strongly the evidence backs up the assertion or conclusion.

Since 2015, some SDGs have been tracked and have registered modest progress; although they are progressing in the right direction, they have not all attained the required 2022 threshold level of success. Just one objective has fallen short of the 2022 threshold degree of success (Zero hunger).

Even though a varied diet is crucial for people’s physical and mental growth (especially children), not everyone in the region has access to a variety of healthy foods.

Based on the data provided in the UN’s report some of the prevailing issues in the region continue to be the following:


Since the outbreak of the pandemic in 2019, hunger has become a widespread problem. Moreover, continuing crises and conflicts are also taking their toll – according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, in 2021 there were over 53 million people suffering from food insecurity in the region, with a 10% increase in just 12 months. If no significant efforts are made, the Arab region may fall short of achieving the SDGs by the end of the decade.

Water stress

According to the report, water stress is at dangerous levels for more than 80% of people in the region. To solve this issue, water collaboration agreements for transboundary basins must be strengthened.

Urban particulate matter

The level of particulate matter is an important element of air pollution. In recent decades, air pollution in the Arab world has become worse with the levels of carbon dioxide emissions almost doubling. The main cause lies in the increase in energy demand (electricity, transportation) which drives the number of fossil fuels burned.

Forest area and threatened species and habitat

For more than ten years, little to no increase in afforestation (planting new trees) and replanting trees has been registered in the region. Just a small portion of the area’s land has been given legal protection. In addition, the region has issues with safeguarding endangered species and lessening habitat degradation.

Final word

Although the SDGs aim to make the lives of countries and their people better, some nations and regions are still falling behind. The Arab world includes nations that are severely impacted by war and poverty and nations that are taking advantage of the rising energy costs. However, the Arab region has made some progress concerning health and well-being, quality of education and sustainability.