Introduction: Just in time The urgent need for a just transition in the Arab region

This introduction extracted from 'Dismantling Green Colonialism: Energy and Climate Justice in the Arab Region,' a book published with Pluto Press, offers a timely reflection on the current state of energy transition in the Arab region.

As the international climate negotiations are stagnating at the same moment as climate change is accelerating, with its effects increasingly deadly and undeniable, this publication offers a collection of critical articles around just transition in the Arab region. This dossier strives to be a critical resource for activists, both in the Arab region and around the world, to help them to continue to pose critical questions and to build coalitions, alliances and popular power in support of their own solutions for a just transition.

Illustration by Othman Selmi

Illustration by Othman Selmi

Illustration by Othman Selmi

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,13 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 2021.14 Historically, these supplies fuelled 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.15 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.16

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.17 The persistence till today of such unequal and asymmetric relations (which some call unequal economic/ecological exchange, or ecological imperialism)18 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.19 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 Gulf20 in this configuration, as a semi-periphery – or even as a sub-imperialist – force.21 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. In this regard, the work of Adam Hanieh (one of the contributors to this book) is enlightening in terms of how 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.22 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?

While governments all over the world are beginning to take climate change seriously, they often see it through a ‘climate security’ lens23 – bolstering defences against rising sea levels and extreme weather events, and too often also shoring up their defences against the ‘threat’ of climate refugees and activists, and against renegotiations of global power. The securitisation and militarisation of the climate response in the Middle East is itself a potential challenge and threat to the climate justice agenda, given that the region plays a pivotal role in the global development of coercive technologies, techniques and doctrines. This role extends beyond the region's status as the world's single largest export market for weapons and military hardware, and includes its crucial involvement in the testing of new security technologies, including emerging forms of surveillance and population control. Several authors have drawn attention to the intricate international networks that support the region's arms trade and surveillance industry, including the flow of War on Terror logics, military technologies, personnel, training manuals, cross-border operations, police forces, and private military and security companies.24 All of these factors combine to make the Middle East an important hub in the global spread of new norms of militarism and securitisation. Moreover, the dynamics of warfare in the region itself are also significantly shaped by these global ties, as are the various ways that militaries have been assimilated into political and economic systems on both a national and regional level.25

It is of the utmost importance and urgency to start looking at the issue of climate change through a justice lens rather than a security one. Seeing the future through the frame of ‘security’ subordinates our struggles to a conceptual and imaginative framework that ultimately re-empowers the state’s repressive power and securitises and militarises the response. More tanks and guns, higher walls and more militarised borders will not solve the climate crisis. At best, they will allow the rich to survive in comfort while the rest of the world pays the price for climate inaction. We need to break with the system of capitalist exploitation of people and the planet that has given rise to the climate crisis, not arm and entrench it.

The colonial gaze and environmental orientalism

Just as economic subjugation and imperialist domination have undermined the political and economic autonomy of the Arab region, knowledge production about, and representations of, Arab people and their environments have equally been used by colonial powers to legitimate their colonial project and imperial goals. Such strategies of domination continue today, as countries in the region are being recast (once again) as objects of development (sustainable or otherwise), echoing the colonial mission civilisatrice (civilising mission).

Refuting the theses of French colonial historians regarding the supposed ‘historical backwardness’ and ‘the state of being frozen in time’ of the Berbers/Amazigh, Arabs and Muslims, and of their civilisations, the Moroccan historian and philosopher Abdallah Laroui argues that the reality of the indigenous populations in the Maghreb in its multiple facets (political, economic, cultural, environmental, etc), and at various historical times, has been deliberately misrepresented in order to advance a false and essentialist narrative that serves a colonial agenda of subduing, dominating and expanding.26 The American geographer Diana K. Davis concurs and argues that Anglo-European environmental imaginaries in the nineteenth century represented the environment in the Arab world most often as ‘alien, exotic, fantastic, or abnormal, and frequently as degraded in some way’. She aptly uses Edward Said's concept of orientalism27 as a framework to interpret early Western representations of the Middle Eastern and North African environment as displaying a form of ‘environmental orientalism’. This environment was narrated by those who became the imperial powers, primarily Britain and France, as a ‘strange and defective’ one, as compared to Europe's ‘normal and productive’ environment. This implied the need for some kind of intervention ‘to improve, restore, normalise and repair’ it.28

This deceptive representation of presumed environmental degradation and ecological disaster was used by colonial authorities to justify all sorts of dispossession, as well as policies designed to control the populations of the region and their environments. In North Africa (and later in the Mashriq), the French constructed an environmental narrative of degradation in order to implement ‘dramatic economic, social, political and environmental changes’.29 According to this perspective, the natives and their environments warranted the ‘blessings’ of the mission civilisatrice and required the attention of the white man.

Narratives are always the product of their historical moment and are never innocent, and therefore one always needs to ask: in whose benefit do knowledge production, representations and narratives work? One glaring contemporary example is the current representation of the North African Sahara, which is usually described as a vast, empty and dead land that is sparsely populated, thus constituting a golden opportunity to provide Europeans with cheap energy so they can continue their extravagant consumerist lifestyle and excessive energy consumption. This false narrative ignores issues of ownership and sovereignty, while masking ongoing global hegemonic relations that facilitate the draining of resources, privatisation of the commons, and dispossession of communities. As in many places where working people’s lives and livelihoods are invisible or ‘illegible’30 to colonising states, ‘there is no vacant land’ in North Africa.31 Even when sparsely populated, traditional landscapes and territories are embedded in cultures and communities, and people’s rights and sovereignty must be respected in any socio-ecological transformation.

It is crucial to analyse the mechanisms by which the other is dehumanised and how the power of representing and constructing imaginaries about them (and their environments) is used to entrench structures of power, domination and dispossession. In this regard, the process Said describes in Orientalism of ‘disregarding, essentializing, [and] denuding the humanity’ of another culture, people or geographical region continues today to be employed to justify violence towards the other and towards nature. This violence takes the form of displacing populations, grabbing land and resources, making people pay for the social and environmental costs of extractive and renewable projects, bombing, massacring, letting people drown in the Mediterranean, and destroying the earth in the name of progress. Naomi Klein put this eloquently in her 2016 Edward Said Lecture,32 in which she described a white-supremacist/racist culture that is increasingly evident in parts of Europe and the United States: ‘A culture that places so little value on black and brown lives, that it is willing to let human beings disappear beneath the waves, or set themselves on fire in detention centres, will also be willing to let the countries where black and brown people live disappear beneath the waves, or desiccate in the arid heat. Such a ‘culture’ won’t blink an eye when it places catastrophic socio-environmental costs onto the poor in these countries.

Resisting and dismantling the orientalist and (neo)colonial environmental narrative about the Arab region will both enable and require building visions of collective climate action, social justice, and socio-ecological transformation that are rooted in the experiences, analyses and emancipatory visions of the African and Arab regions and beyond.

Illustration by Othman Selmi

What is 'just transition'?

As outlined above, discussions of climate action are often narrow and technocratic, neoliberal and market-based, top-down and implicitly focused on preserving the structures of racist, imperialist and patriarchal capitalism. Against this backdrop of proposals that, at best, largely ignore questions of power and justice, the concept of ‘just transition’ has emerged as a framework that places justice at the centre of the discussion. This approach recognises that, in the words of Eduardo Galeano, ‘the rights of human beings and the rights of nature are two names for the same dignity’.33 Where did the idea of just transition come from, and what might it have to offer to the project of developing grounded, bottom-up and anti-imperialist visions of emancipation and climate action in the context of the Arab region?

The origin of the concept of just transition is usually traced back to the US in the 1970s, when pathbreaking alliances between labour unions and environmental justice and indigenous movements emerged to fight for environmental justice in the context of polluting industries. In the face of environmental regulations which were being implemented for the first time or tightened during this decade, companies claimed that policies to protect the environment would require them to lay off workers. Unions and communities rallied against this attempt to divide and conquer, arguing that workers and communities – especially black, brown and indigenous communities, who were (and remain) the most impacted by polluting industries – had a shared interest in a liveable environment, and in decent, safe and fairly paid work.

Over the decades that followed, the concept of just transition was taken up, explored and elaborated by a range of different movements, initially in the US and Canada, but subsequently also around the world, and especially in South America and South Africa. Labour and environmental justice movements, working with indigenous nations, women’s movements, youth, students and other groups, have built coalitions and shared visions of what a just transition would look like: transformative solutions to the climate crisis that tackle its underlying causes, and that put human rights, ecological regeneration, and people’s sovereignty at the centre.

As the framework has gained in popularity, corporations and governments have increasingly tried to advance their own visions of just transition which lack class analysis and deny the need for radical transformation. With the inclusion of the term ‘just transition’ in the preamble of the Paris agreement – a hard-won victory for global labour and climate justice movements – this co-optation has intensified. Today, just transition is not a single concept but a field of contestation, a space where struggles about what responses to the climate crisis are possible and necessary are playing out. The term does not automatically imply progressive or emancipatory politics, and many actors use it to describe and defend proposals which are basically business as usual or intensified green extractivism. Nonetheless, far more than rhetoric about ‘sustainable development’ or the ‘green economy’, the idea of just transition still provides a space that movements can use to insist on the primacy of justice in all climate solutions. Despite attempts at co-optation, the centrality of ‘justice’ in the term itself is an important strength of the concept of just transition.

Just transition proposals being advanced by progressive social movements are driven by a conviction that the people who bear the heaviest costs of the current system should not be the ones who pay the costs of a transition to a sustainable or regenerative society, and, at the same time, should be the leading actors in shaping such a transition. Different movement dynamics have explored different dimensions of this, seeking to better understand the costs of the current system, the possibilities for transformation, and the likely costs of proposed alternatives. From feminist and indigenous perspectives to regional and national programmes, movements are advancing their own definitions of both ‘justice’ and ‘transition’ in their diverse contexts.34

A meeting of environmental justice and labour movements from three continents that took place in Amsterdam in 2019 (which incidentally laid the foundations for the present book) sought to identify key principles of just transition: (1) just transition looks different in different places; (2) just transition is a class issue; (3) just transition is a gender issue; (4) just transition is an anti-racist framework; (5) just transition is about more than just climate; and (6) just transition is about democracy.35

While not claiming to be an exhaustive definition or final set of permanent principles, this analysis lays out the contours of a position that recognises that discussions of just transition must respond to the reality of unequal development caused by imperialism and colonialism; that just transition must include radical shifts that increase the power of working people in all their diversity (see below) and reduce the power of capital and governing elites; that environmental issues cannot be addressed without addressing the racist, sexist and other oppressive structures of the capitalist economy; that the environmental crisis is much broader than just the climate crisis, encompassing loss of habitats and biodiversity, and a fundamental breakdown in human relationships with the ‘natural world’; and that a just transition cannot be achieved without transformations of political, as well as economic, power towards greater democratisation.

A second important strength of just transition is its history as a tool or framework for unifying diverse movements by overcoming differences and potential divisions. As mentioned above, the term emerged originally as a response to the ‘divide and conquer’ tactics of businesses resisting environmental regulation. These tactics continue to be used as corporations push for policies that protect profits regardless of the costs for communities, workers and the planet; and that pit different regions and different kinds of working people against each other. International climate justice movements, national and regional coalitions, and local alliances around the world recognise that virtually all of us benefit from a liveable and flourishing environment, and suffer when wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite who count on being able to protect themselves from the worst effects of the climate crisis. Yet building shared campaigns and common visions, cultivating trust and solidarity, and developing and fighting for shared proposals is slow and politically challenging work – but necessary, as any shortcuts that try to side-step this process are likely to compromise the justice that must be at the heart of any just transition. The concept of just transition, and the growing body of experiences of working and campaigning with it around the globe, can help to provide some guides and waymarks on this difficult path.

The concept of just transition has been shaped partially by labour movements, so the question of decent work remains central to many articulated proposals for just transition. This is of particular importance for the MENA region, which the International Trade Union Confederation has dubbed the worst in the world for workers’ rights, with systematic violations across the area.36 Millions of non-citizen migrant workers (from both in and outside of the region) are also located there. In the Gulf Arab states, for example, more than half of the labour force is made up of non-citizens, with more migrants working in the Gulf than in any other region in the global South.37 At the same time, across the Arab world, youth unemployment is almost twice the global average38 and in North Africa about two-thirds of workers are employed in the informal sector.39

In this context, what does it mean to talk about decent work, and how should we understand working people? Inspired by the Guyanese historian and political activist Walter Rodney’s political mobilisations of ‘working people’, Tanzanian scholar Issa Shivji has argued that ‘under neoliberalism, primitive accumulation assumes new forms and becomes generalized in almost all sectors of the economy, including the so-called informal sector. The producer self-exploits him or herself just to survive while subsidising capital.40 Following this, he argues that we need a new understanding of working people that recognises the common exploitation faced by organised industrial workers; informal, precarious, temporary, or migrant workers; unpaid or underpaid workers (usually women) doing domestic, care and social reproductive work; and nominally self-employed or independent small-scale peasant farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk working directly for their own survival.

Today, the vast majority of humanity, regardless of the kind of work they do, are giving up some part of their essential daily consumption, their human rights, or their ability to live a dignified life in order to keep propping up the super-profits of transnational corporations. Whether this is the case because their food, health, energy and care systems have been privatised, putting the full burden of care on the family unit; because they have lost or are at risk of losing access to their traditional lands, territories or fishing grounds; or because they are unable to find work and must struggle to make ends meet in an informal economy where they have no political means to demand a living wage, the effects are the same. It is no coincidence that this precarious and exploited majority is also the group most at risk from climate change, and least able to protect themselves from its effects.

Taken together with the concept of just transition, we can use this definition of ‘working people’ when developing our vision of who should be in control of the energy transition, and the response to the climate crisis more generally. Together, these concepts provide a basis for asking what justice in climate action would look like, and what concrete steps we need to take to achieve it in different contexts. It is these questions that this book seeks to answer. It does so by drawing together the diverse perspectives of many different kinds of working people across the Arab region and by illuminating some of the possibilities for building alliances and coalitions.

Why this collection? Why now?

Much writing on climate change, the ecological crisis and the energy transition in the Arab region is dominated by, or reproduces the perspectives of, international neoliberal institutions. The analyses put forward by these institutions are biased and do not include questions of class, race, gender, justice, power or colonial history. Their proposed solutions and prescriptions are market-based, top-down, and do not address the root causes of the climate, ecological, food and energy crises. The knowledge produced by such institutions is profoundly disempowering and overlooks questions of oppression and resistance, focusing largely on the advice of ‘experts’, to the exclusion of voices ‘from below’.

This collection of articles is one attempt to remedy that. It is a collection of essays by writers from various North African and Middle Eastern countries focusing on dimensions of the energy transition and how to make this process equitable and just. The chapters cover a wide range of countries, from Morocco, Western Sahara, Algeria and Tunisia to Egypt and Sudan, and from Jordan and Palestine to the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The collection of articles also includes contributions with a regional perspective: on agricultural transitions and the neocolonial scramble for various energy sources (including green hydrogen) in North Africa, as well as the challenges and contradictions of the energy transition in the Gulf.

Until now, no widely available writings by critical North African and Middle Eastern researchers or activists on a just energy transition has been published in Arabic, English or French – either as a book or an online resource. While important books on various Green New Deals and on the needed energy transition are gaining increasing attention, writings by critical authors from the global South remain marginal, including in the Arab region. Given the critical importance of challenging eurocentrism and the need for a class-conscious approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation (including an urgent move towards renewable energies), as well as the importance of critically reflecting on, and challenging, the role the governments and elites of the region play in the current fossil energy regime, we think there is a massive gap to fill.

This collection of articles adopts an explicit ‘justice’ lens. It aims to expose policies and practices that protect political elites, multinational corporations and authoritarian/military regimes. It seeks to recognise and contribute to processes of knowledge production and resistance against ‘extractivism’, land/resource grabbing and neocolonial agendas, and aims to support a move towards transformative sustainability from the ground up, based on the assumption that this offers the greatest potential for dealing with environmental, food, energy and social crises.

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 collection of articles strives to make an important contribution to evolving global discussions on climate action, and just transition more generally, by interrogating what these processes will mean in the unique circumstances of different countries in the Arab region that are characterised by their (a) authoritarian regimes, (b) oil export-dependent economies, (c) histories of colonisation and imperialism, and (d) potentially immense green energy resources. Because a just transition entails planetary transformation, and since the Arab region will be one critical locus of that change, we strongly believe that the relevance of the collection is global, not (just) regional. 

The collection of articles aims to do the following:

  • To advance a deeper analysis of where we are now in terms of energy transition in the Arab region. This is important because having a better understanding of the current situation, the actors involved, and the potential winners and losers, is crucial for any efforts to bring about a just transition ;
  • To increase the emphasis on structural critiques in ‘green’ transition debates, by centring the voices of activists, scholars and writers from the Arab region ;
  • To highlight the urgency of the climate crisis in the Arab region and to push back against the entrenchment of extractivism and energy colonialism, emphasising the need for holistic analyses and structural change ;
  • To counteract the dominant neoliberal/neocolonial discourse on the ‘green’ transition that is promoted by various international actors in the region ;
  • To overcome the dominance of a ‘security’ discourse. The collection of articles avoids demands framed around ‘security’, like climate security, food security or energy security; instead, it promotes notions of justice, sovereignty and decoloniality ;
  • To support progressive forces/movements/grassroots groups in the Arab region to articulate a localised, democratic and public response to the urgently needed energy transition, incorporating political, economic, social, class and environmental analyses.
Illustration by Othman Selmi

Summary of the collection's chapters

In his paper, Hamza Hamouchene shows how renewable energy engineering projects tend to present climate change as a problem that is common to the whole planet, without questioning the capitalist and productivist energy model, or the historical responsibilities of the industrialised West. As he argues, this tends to translate, in the Maghreb, into ‘green colonialism’, rather than into the search for an energy transition that benefits working people. He takes as an example the new green hydrogen hype and argues that green hydrogen projects constitute neocolonial schemes of plunder and dispossession.

Joanna Allan, Hamza Lakhal and Mahmoud Lemaadel, in highlighting how extractivism operates today in the part of Western Sahara currently occupied by Morocco, focus principally on renewable energy developments. Morocco is widely celebrated on the international stage for its commitments to the so-called ‘green energy transition’, but they offer a different story that emphasises the voices of the Saharawi population, and they argue that current renewable energy projects in Western Sahara simply sustain and ‘greenwash’ colonialism, undermining a just transition that could truly benefit local communities.

In her paper, Manal Shqair shines a light on Arab eco-normalisation with the state of Israel. She presents eco-normalisation as the use of ‘environmentalism’ to greenwash and normalise Israeli oppression, and the environmental injustices resulting from it in the Arab region and beyond. She investigates how eco-normalisation undermines the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle and hampers a just agricultural and energy transition in Palestine, which is inextricably linked to the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. She introduces the concept of eco-sumud (steadfastness) in the face of Israeli oppression, and its role in countering the greenwashing function of eco-normalisation.

Karen Rignall shows how solar energy is embedded in a long history of extraction in Morocco and reveals some of the striking continuities between fossil fuel commodity chains and those of renewable energies in the country. These continuities raise questions about how to work towards a just transition not only in Morocco but also in other countries around the world that are seeing a surge in renewable energy projects, often in areas with long histories of mining. She considers how to advocate for new forms of energy that do not reproduce the same economic and political inequalities inherent in carbon-fuelled capitalism.

Sakr El Nour, in his paper on the needed just agricultural transition in North Africa, argues that countries in the region are subjected to unequal exchange with the global North, particularly the EU, through trade agreements that enable the North to benefit from North African agricultural products at preferential rates. He contends that North Africa needs to recast its agricultural, environmental, food and energy policies. He convincingly advocates for alternatives that are locally centred and that are able to flourish autonomously, independent of European interests.

Mohamed Salah and Razaz Basheir, in their contribution on the electricity crisis in Sudan, chart the evolution of the energy sector in the country since colonial times, and attribute Sudan’s uneven development to policies from that era and to their continuation in the post-colonial period. They put forward a critique of hydro-electric projects in Sudan in terms of their socioeconomic and environmental costs, deepening of existing inequalities, and negative impacts on livelihoods. They also challenge the World Bank’s agenda in liberalising and privatising the energy sector in the country and show how these plans would only pauperise more people and limit access to energy. This paper provides a segue to the second section of the book.

Mohamed Gad documents Egypt’s response to massive power outages in 2014 in terms of the liberalisation of electricity production and the move away from subsidising electricity prices for a wide range of income groups. He debunks the World Bank’s claim that the liberalisation of electricity prices ended subsidies to the rich and redirected resources towards the poor. Instead, he shows how it paved the way for the entry of international finance, at the expense of the poorest – radically transforming a basic service into a commodity.

Asmaa Mohammad Amin delves into the various policies that have generated successive crises in the Jordanian energy sector. She shows how the disruption of gas supplies from Egypt between 2011 and 2013 revealed that such policies, starting with the privatisation and liberalisation agenda pushed by the World Bank and IMF, were not only short-sighted but also not fit for purpose. She also challenges the celebratory view of Jordan as one of the leaders of renewable energy in the region and argues that beyond the shiny statistics lies the bleak fact that huge profits have been syphoned off by the private sector while the state has continued to register significant losses. This in turn has exacerbated the country's debt burden and increased its dependence on external lenders, at the expense of the most vulnerable in society.

In their contribution on Tunisia, Chafik Ben Rouine and Flavie Roche show how the country’s energy transition plan relies heavily on privatisation and foreign funding, while neglecting democratic decision-making, situating the country firmly within the global neoliberal scheme for the development of renewable energy. They argue that instead of chasing private profits, a just transition in Tunisia would give households and communities the means to produce their own electricity, which would reduce dependency and promote the development of local industry and the creation of decent jobs.

Jawad Moustakbal, in his paper on the energy sector in Morocco, asks a number of very important questions: Who benefits from, who pays the price for, and who decides on Morocco’s so-called energy transition? He argues that public–private partnerships guarantee high profits to private corporations, while the poor have to pay ever-higher prices for energy. He asserts that there will be no just transition as long as Morocco’s energy sector remains under the control of foreign transnational companies and a local ruling elite that is allowed to plunder the state and generate as much profit as it wishes.

Adam Hanieh argues that the rise of the Gulf needs to be understood in the light of the significant changes that have taken place in global capitalism over the last two decades. Key to this is a new hydrocarbon axis linking the oil and gas reserves of the Middle East with the production networks of China and Asia, which serve to locate the Gulf at the core of contemporary ‘fossil capitalism’. For him, the character of any ‘green transition’, both in the Middle East and globally, will be significantly determined through the actions and policies of these states. He thus argues that without understanding the changes to the control and structure of the oil industry – and strategising effectively around them – it will be impossible to build successful campaigns to halt and reverse the effects of anthropogenic climate change.

In her paper on Algeria, Imane Boukhatem contends that the country faces a triple challenge in its energy sector: economic dependence on hydrocarbon revenues, growing domestic electricity demand, and long-term fossil fuel export agreements. She highlights the opportunities, challenges and potential injustices facing the green energy transition in Algeria, and argues that Algeria must rapidly transform its energy sector, with a core focus on social justice. She lists several socioeconomic, institutional and policy obstacles that need to be overcome to achieve a just transition in Algeria.

In his paper, Christian Henderson challenges some reductionist assumptions about the Gulf put forward by various mainstream reports and analyses, which portray the Gulf states as being simply victims of climate change and facing demise due to the potential decline in demand for oil and gas. According to him, rather than being powerless producers and passive actors in the politics of climate change, the Gulf countries are working to ensure they remain at the centre of the global energy regime. This entails the formulation of a dualistic policy: one that allows them to benefit from both fossil fuels and renewable energies.

In guise of a conclusion

Through these essays, the authors aim to initiate a deeper discussion of what just transition means in the context of the Arab region. The dynamics are complex and obviously differ across the countries and sub-regions, yet many shared challenges and questions also emerge from these explorations: Whose needs and rights should be prioritised in an energy transition? What model of energy production, and of extraction, can deliver energy to all working people in the region? How are Northern countries and international financial institutions pushing the region into shouldering the burden of the energy transition, and what would a more just solution look like? What role should states play in driving a just transition, and what are the possibilities for a democratic reclaiming of state power for this goal? What alliances of working people, environmental justice movements and other political actors within the region are possible and necessary, and what role can international solidarity and resistance play in supporting these?

It is increasingly clear that a just transition for the Arab region will require a recognition of the historic responsibility of the industrialised West in causing global warming, but also of the role of emerging economic powers – including the Gulf states – in perpetuating a destructive global economic order. It will also need to acknowledge the role of power in shaping both how climate change is caused, and who carries the burden of its impacts, and of ‘solutions’ to the crisis. Climate justice and a just transition will mean breaking with ‘business as usual’ that protects global political elites, multinational corporations and non-democratic regimes, and a radical social and ecological transformation and adaptation process. The imperatives of justice and pragmatism are increasingly converging on the need for climate reparations or debts to be (re)paid to countries in the global South by the rich North. This must take the form not of loans and additional debts but of transfers of wealth and technology, cancelling current odious debts, halting illicit capital flows, dismantling neocolonial trade and investment agreements like the Energy Charter Treaty,42 and stopping the ongoing plunder of resources. The financing of the transition needs to take into account the current, ongoing and future loss and damage, which is occurring disproportionately in the South. At the same time, inequalities exist not only between North and South, but also within all countries of the world, including those in the Arab region. This being so, there is a need to consider how a programme of climate reparations can be combined with the creation of a just, democratic and equitable energy system within these countries.

These questions are increasingly urgent. International negotiations on climate action are stagnating at the same moment as climate change is accelerating, with its effects increasingly deadly and undeniable. This book is intended as a tool for activists, both in the Arab region and around the world, to help them to continue to pose critical questions and to build coalitions, alliances and popular power in support of their own solutions for a just transition.

Obviously, this collective book has some lacunas – things that are not addressed, such as the impact of ongoing war and conflict (and the resulting devastating cross-border displacement of populations)43 on questions of just transitions in countries like Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. This is partly due to our own limitations. Nonetheless, although we would not pretend, or seek, to be fully comprehensive when discussing such a vast region, we hope we offer here an important glimpse, and contribute to the emerging study of energy transitions through a political economy lens which investigates the relationships between fossil fuel industries, the renewable energy sector, regional elites and international capital. Ultimately, the goal is to articulate and explore concepts and political ideas that can help to guide and galvanise transformative grassroots-led change in the region. We hope that this collection will spark more and deeper conversations and explorations about the role of the Arab region in a global just transition.


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