Hamza Hamouchene and Katie Sandwell (eds.), Dismantling Green Colonialism - Energy and Climate Justice in the Arab Region (Pluto Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?
Hamza Hamouchene and Katie Sandwell (HH & KS): Most of the available literature on climate and energy in North Africa and the Arab region is produced by international neoliberal institutions. Their gaze is biased and imbued with orientalist tropes which maintain and reinforce old colonial relations, even while they adopt new language of sustainability or green transition. Their approaches do not take into account questions of class, race, gender, justice, power, or colonial history. Their recommendations ignore the root causes of the multi-dimensional crisis in the region, and therefore risk exacerbating the problems they are allegedly trying to solve. On the energy crisis, for instance, their plans favor corporate-led and foreign interests at the expense of local and real solutions that respect the environment and local peoples’ rights.
This book is one attempt to challenge these approaches and highlight their dangers. The book is rooted in efforts to resist and dismantle orientalist and (neo)colonial environmental narratives about the Arab region through enabling and building visions of collective climate action, social justice, and socio-ecological transformation that are embedded in the experiences, analyses, and emancipatory visions of the working people of the African and Arab regions and beyond.
When we gathered critical Arab researchers and activists, we also wanted to challenge the eurocentrism that reigns in academia and in the media and show that the region is more than able to produce its own legitimate knowledge on important topics such as climate and energy.
With the climate talks (COP28) taking place in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the international debate on phasing out fossil fuels, sustainability, carbon markets, and loss and damage fund, such critical writings are even more urgent and significant for global audiences.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
HH & KS: This collection consists of essays by mainly researchers and activists from various North African and Middle Eastern countries, including Western Sahara, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar. The contributors focus on energy transition and how to democratize it in a way that benefits the people and economies of the region. The book exposes the many ways in which “green” transitions are going wrong and sketches bold visions of what it would mean and what would need to change for them to go right, instead.
To our knowledge, this is the first collection of essays to directly tackle the question of the energy transition in the Arab region using a justice lens and a just transition framework. This book strives to make an important contribution to evolving global discussions on climate action and just transition by interrogating what these processes will mean in the unique circumstances of different countries in the Arab region.
The book covers various topics including green energy colonialism, unequal exchange and green extractivism, neoliberal adjustments, privatization of energy and the role of international financial institutions, as well as fossil capitalism and challenges to a just transition in fossil-fuel exporting countries.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
HH & KS: Over the last few years we have been observing and studying issues around environmental/climate justice and energy democracy. We have conducted research with regional and international social movements to explore questions of climate justice, extractivism, and the principles of a just transition.
The book builds on grassroots work conducted in North Africa and the Arab region as well as interactions with scholars and activists there. It attempts to consolidate these endeavors by assembling case studies from many countries across the region. It strives to enrich global discussions over energy transition and climate change, while focusing on some specific features of the region, which include (a) authoritarian regimes, (b) oil-dependent economies, (c) past and enduring colonialism and imperialism, and (d) huge potential renewable energy resources.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
HH & KS: We hope that activists, scholars, journalists, students, and policymakers who are interested in energy issues, climate justice, sustainability matters will use and benefit from the book. Scholars and academics of various disciplines (political sciences, anthropology, economics, environmental sciences, development studies, engineering, and so on) would also be able to use the in-depth case studies as teaching/research material. Journalists could also benefit from the book's analyses and build on them in their own investigations or analytical articles. Activists in the region can draw inspiration from the principles of just transition and energy democracy to enrich and consolidate the framing of their social movements and organizations, while climate justice activists based elsewhere can use the insights to better understand how to build collective visions and solidarity with movements in the MENA region.
The book pushes back against energy colonialism and the reinforcement of extractivism that exacerbate the climate crisis in the region and worldwide. It emphasizes the need for holistic analyses and structural change in order to counteract the dominant neoliberal/neocolonial discourse on the “green” transition promoted by various international actors. The book's arguments challenge the “security” discourse by opting for notions of justice, sovereignty, and decoloniality, rather than demands framed around climate security, food security, or energy security. We hope that the book will be able to support progressive forces/movements/grassroots groups in the Arab region to articulate a localized, democratic, and public response to the urgently needed energy transition, incorporating political, economic, social, class, and environmental analyses. This is important since the latest climate talks (COP27 and COP28) took place in Egypt and the UAE.
Last but not least, our collective book aspires to lay the groundwork for international solidarity and collective strategies between movements from the Arab region and transnational climate and environmental justice movements by visibilizing progressive struggles and grassroots proposals for social and environmental transformation from the region.
J: You say in the introduction of the book that its relevance is not just regional but global. Can you explain why?
HH & KS: North Africa and West Asia/the MENA region must be understood within the context of the larger capitalist world market, which is characterized by the concurrent rise of new zones of accumulation and growth in some parts of the world and the relative decline of long-established centers of power in North America and Europe. The region today plays a major role in mediating new global networks of trade, logistics, infrastructure, and finance. It is also a key nodal point in the global fossil fuel regime and plays an integral role in keeping fossil capitalism intact through the fundamental factor of its oil and gas supplies. In fact, the region remains the central axis of world hydrocarbon markets, with a total share of global oil production standing at around thirty-five percent in 2021/2022. Historically, these supplies fueled a major shift in the global energy regime during the mid-twentieth century, with oil and gas replacing coal as the primary fuel for global transportation, manufacturing, and industrial production. More recently, the resources of the Middle East have been essential in regard to meeting the increased demand for oil and gas fueled by the rise of China, heralding a key structural shift in the global political economy over the last two decades based on closer ties between the Middle East and East Asia. All of this has positioned Middle East oil producers as indisputable protagonists in climate change debates and any future transition away from fossil fuels.
A just transition entails planetary transformation and since the Arab region, which is home to 465 million people, will be one critical locus of that change, we believe that the book’s relevance is global, not (just) regional. Through strengthening the emerging study of energy transitions through a political economy lens, the book aims to articulate and explore concepts and political ideas that can help guide and galvanize transformative grassroots-led change.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
HH & KS: After the timely launch of the book, a few weeks before the COP28, we will engage in a series of events around it, such as conferences and workshops, in order to disseminate the ideas and enrich regional and global discussions around climate justice and energy transition.
We recognize that this collective book has some lacunas—such as the impact of ongoing war and conflict (and the resulting devastating cross-border displacement of populations) on questions of just transitions in countries like Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. This is partly due to our own limitations and time constraints. However, we are planning to extend the scope of this book in the coming years to include other countries in the region. This may not be another book but a collection of online essays or long reads.
In 2024, we will also publish a primer on climate reparations/climate debts exploring ongoing discussions around loss and damage, climate finance, and the urgent need to equitably share wealth and technology in the global responses to the climate crisis. We will continue to work with transnational climate and environmental justice, food sovereignty, labor, and other movements to deepen our analysis of just transition and to strengthen radical proposals for the social and environmental transformation necessary to meet the demands of the climate crisis.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction)
The reality of climate breakdown is already visible in the Arab region, undermining the ecological and socioeconomic basis of life. Countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt are experiencing recurrent severe heat waves and prolonged droughts, with catastrophic impacts on agriculture and small-scale farmers. Ranked as one of the world’s five most vulnerable nations to climate change and desertification, Iraq was hit in 2022 by many sandstorms that shut down much of the country, with thousands of people hospitalised because of respiratory problems. The country’s environment ministry has warned that over the next two decades Iraq could endure an average of 272 days of sandstorms a year, rising to above 300 by 2050. In the summer of 2021, Algeria was struck by unprecedented and devastating wildfires; Kuwait experienced a suffocating heat wave, registering the highest temperature on earth that year, at well over 50ºC; and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Yemen, Oman, Syria, Iraq and Egypt all experienced devastating floods, while southern Morocco struggled with terrible droughts for the third year in a row. In the years ahead, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that the Mediterranean and Gulf regions will see an intensification of extreme weather events, such as wildfires and flooding, and further increases in aridity and droughts.
The climate crisis was not an inevitable fact: it has been, and continues to be, driven by the choice to keep burning fossil fuels – a choice made predominantly by corporations and Northern governments, together with national ruling classes, including in the Arab region. Energy and climate plans in that part of the world are shaped by authoritarian regimes and their backers in Riyadh, Brussels and Washington DC. Rich local elites collaborate with multinational corporations, and international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Despite all of their promises, the actions of these institutions show that they are enemies of climate justice and of humanity’s very survival.
Middle Eastern and North African states, with their national oil and gas companies, alongside the big oil majors, are doing their best to maintain their operations, and even expand and profit from the remaining fossil fuels they possess. Sisi’s Egypt is aspiring to become a major energy hub in the region, exporting its surplus electricity and mobilising various energy sources, such as offshore gas, oil, renewable energies and hydrogen, to satisfy the European Union’s (EU’s) energy needs. And this is of course inextricable from the ongoing efforts at political and economic normalisation with the colonial state of Israel. The Algerian regime, for its part, is also benefiting from the oil price bonanza and taking advantage of the EU’s scramble for alternatives to Russian gas in order to expand its fossil fuel operations and plans. The Gulf countries, such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar, are no different. The ruling classes across the region have been talking about the ‘after oil’ era for decades, and successive governments have paid lip service to the transition to renewable energies for years without taking concrete action, apart from some grandiose and unrealistic plans and projects, such as the proposed, and controversial, futuristic mega-city of Neom in Saudi Arabia. For these ruling classes, the iterations of the COP process represent a golden opportunity to advance their greenwashing agenda, as well as their efforts to attract and capture funds and finances for various energy projects and purportedly ‘green’ plans.
Humanity’s survival depends on both leaving fossil fuels in the ground and adapting to the already changing climate, while moving towards renewable energies, sustainable levels of energy use and other social transformations. Billions will be spent on trying to adapt – finding new water sources, restructuring agriculture and changing the crops that are grown, building sea walls to keep the saltwater out, changing the shape and style of cities – and on trying to shift to green sources of energy by building the required infrastructure and investing in green jobs and technology. But whose interest will this adaptation and energy transition serve? And who will be expected to bear the heaviest costs of the climate crisis, and of responses to it?
North Africa and West Asia as a key node in global fossil capitalism
North Africa and West Asia/the MENA region must be understood within the context of the larger capitalist world market, which is characterised by the concurrent rise of new zones of accumulation and growth in some parts of the world and the relative decline of long-established centres of power in North America and Europe. Not only does the region today play a major role in mediating new global networks of trade, logistics, infrastructure, and finance, it is also a key nodal point in the global fossil fuel regime and plays an integral role in keeping fossil capitalism intact through the fundamental factor of its oil and gas supplies. In fact, the region remains the central axis of world hydrocarbon markets, with a total share of global oil production standing at around 35 percent in 2021. Historically, these supplies fueled a major shift in the global energy regime during the mid-twentieth century, with oil and gas replacing coal as the primary fuel for global transportation, manufacturing and industrial production.
More recently, the resources of the Middle East have been essential in regard to meeting the increased demand for oil and gas fuelled by the rise of China, heralding a key structural shift in the global political economy over the last two decades based on closer ties between the Middle East and East Asia. All of this has positioned Middle East oil producers as indisputable protagonists in climate change debates and any future transition away from fossil fuels.
The historical, political and geophysical realities of the Arab region mean that both the effects of and the solutions to the climate crisis there will be distinct from those in other contexts. From the mid-nineteenth century to the second half of the twentieth century, the region was forcibly integrated into the global capitalist economy in a subordinate position: colonial/imperial powers influenced or forced the countries of the region to structure their economies around the extraction and export of resources – usually provided cheaply and in raw form – coupled with the import of high-value industrial goods. The result was a large-scale transfer of wealth to the imperial centres/cores, at the expense of local development and ecosystems. The persistence till today of such unequal and asymmetric relations (which some call unequal economic/ecological exchange, or ecological imperialism) preserves the role of Arab countries as exporters of natural resources, such as oil and gas, and primary commodities that are heavily dependent on water and land, such as monoculture cash crops. This entrenches an outward-looking extractivist economy, thereby exacerbating food dependency and the ecological crisis, and it also maintains relations of imperialist domination and neocolonial hierarchies.
However, it is important to avoid the tendency to see the region as an undifferentiated whole, but rather to be aware of its inherent unevenness and deep inequalities. A closer look reveals the underlying role of the Gulf in this configuration, as a semi-periphery – or even as a sub-imperialist – force. Not only is the Gulf significantly richer than its other Arab neighbours, it also participates in the capture and syphoning off of surplus value at the regional level, reproducing core–periphery-like relations of extraction, marginalisation and accumulation by dispossession. Economic liberalisation in the Middle East over recent decades (through various structural adjustment packages in the 1990s and 2000s) has been closely bound up with the internationalisation of Gulf capital throughout the wider region. Gulf capitalists now dominate key economic sectors of many neighbouring countries, including real estate and urban development, agribusiness, telecommunications, retail, logistics, and banking and finance.
Crucial questions therefore need to be raised when talking about addressing climate change and transitioning towards renewable energies in the region: What would a just response to climate change look like here? Would it mean the freedom to move across, and to open the borders within the region, and to open the borders with Europe? Would it mean the payment of climate debt, restitution, and redistribution – by Western governments, by multinational corporations, and by rich local elites nationally and regionally? Would it mean a radical break with the capitalist system? What should happen to the fossil fuel resources in the region that are currently being extracted by national companies and foreign corporations? Who should control and own the region’s renewable energy? What does adapting to a changing climate mean here, and who will shape and benefit from these adaptations? And who are the key agents and actors that will fight for meaningful change and radical transformation?