There are green shoots of corporate social responsibility in the desert. During the last twelve months, BSR has been working on a number of projects throughout the Persian Gulf region. And while there is still much to be done in regards to the protection and respect of the human rights of thousands of migrant laborers—not to mention energy usage and GHG emissions—we are seeing CSR taking root throughout the region.

One of our observations is that government is playing a key role in driving CSR. In Dubai, government is taking a proactive approach by improving building standards and establishing laws to protect migrant workers in the construction sector. New buildings in the Emirate are now constructed according to a local version of LEED, while a robust labor inspectorate with 300 new inspectors seeks to ensure that all construction activity is halted for three hours during the hottest part of the day. Further north in Jordan, the government is in discussions to require apparel factories to join the ILO/IFC-led Better Work factory programs that seek to improve labor standards. In Saudi Arabia, the government is pushing companies to look at ways to catalyze youth entrepreneurship. The inauguration of KAUST (referred to as “the MIT of the Middle East” and built by the state-run Saudi Aramco) allows male and female students to be taught side by side for the first time. Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson sits on KAUST’s board.

Privately held companies in the region are also increasingly reporting and engaging on CSR performance issues. The luxury hotel group Jumeirah Group recently published its first CSR report, showing robust performance in several areas. Last week, BSR conducted a training on responsible supply chain management with the Dubai Chamber of Commerce that received strong interest from local companies. And in May, BSR will co-facilitate a workshop on CSR with member companies of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce.

Yet, we still see the most common interpretation of CSR in the Gulf region through the lens of philanthropy: community investment, employee volunteering, and humanitarian relief efforts. However, this too is starting to change. Abu Dhabi, for example, continues its construction of the eco-city, Masdar, while Agility, the Kuwaiti-headquartered logistics company (and BSR member), is now supporting its customers in understanding the CO2 emissions of their cargo flows through a new carbon calculator.

And challenges remain on all fronts. A recent MIT survey found that Middle Easterners are most concerned about societal pressures, political security, and population growth. But as per capita GHG emissions, water scarcity, and energy usage in the region continue to increase, it seems likely that environmental pressures will continue to expand the Middle Eastern interpretation of CSR.