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Dubai's record rainfall spotlights Gulf’s troubled relation with water

The Gulf’s longterm love–hate relationship with water lies behind a year and a half's worth of rain that fell on Dubai in 24 hours. It includes climate change-induced shifting rainfall patterns, groundwater extractions and unsustainable consumption.
A man walks past a stranded car on a flooded street in Dubai following heavy rains on April 18, 2024.

This is an excerpt from the Gulf Briefing, Al-Monitor's weekly newsletter covering the big stories of the week across the Gulf. To get it directly to your inbox, sign up here.

Vehicles submerged on roads that had turned into rivers, people kayaking across residential neighborhoods, and a kerosene-powered aircraft battling across a waterlogged runway at the world’s busiest international airport are some of the unusual scenes that unfolded this past week in Dubai, after the Gulf region’s business hub got more than 142 millimeters (5 inches) of rainfall over a 24-hour period. 

The deluge inundated a city southeast of the Arabian Peninsula, where temperatures cross a scorching 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer. The Khatm Al Shakla area in the emirate of Al Ain saw 254 millimeters (10 inches) on April 16, while some areas in neighboring Oman received over 230 millimeters of rainfall in the span of five days. For context, Oman received 106 millimeters of rain in 2021 and just 31 millimeters in 2022.

In Bahrain, which received nearly the equivalent of a year’s worth of rain in two days, a government official at the meteorological department said the situation across the arid region this past week was “very abnormal, especially in terms of depth and intensity of rainfall.” Gulf cities are better equipped to deal with extreme heat rather than sudden flash floods, as they lack the appropriate drainage systems to handle them.

The Arabian Peninsula is the most water-stressed region in the world. Annual precipitation in the region over the period of 1991-2020 ranged from 54 millimeters in Oman to 120 millimeters in Kuwait, according to data published by the World Bank’s Climate Change Knowledge Portal.

The Dubai flash flood is not an isolated event; rather, it is reflective of a long-term trend. Human-driven climate change has affected rainfall patterns across the globe, which is expected to cause an increase in the intensity and frequency of extreme rainfall events in the Arabian Peninsula. Scientists at the UAE’s National Center of Meteorology (NCM) found in a Nature journal study in January that the intensity of extreme rainfall events in the Arabian Peninsula is expected to range from -5 to +25% toward the end of the century — depending how quickly humanity reins in emissions of planet-warming gasses — compared to the 1985-2014 period. Meanwhile, days with at least 10 millimeters of rainfall are projected to become up to 50% more frequent.

As seen with the deluge in Dubai this past week, Gulf countries are victims of extreme weather events that are exacerbated by climate change. However, they have also served as large contributors to global warming for decades by exporting fossil fuels to consumer markets, where their combustion releases greenhouse gases into Earth's atmosphere.

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