Green Power Politics in North African Countries: Continuity or Change?

In 2023, environmental and climate issues will again be at the top of the policy agenda in the Middle East and North Africa. The upcoming COP28 climate conference in Dubai and the rapid growth in the renewables sector in Egypt and North Africa both point to the growing power of MENA states within global climate politics. This has been backed up by these countries’ ambitious renewable energy targets. Morocco aims to produce 52 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030 and Egypt has a 42 percent renewable electricity target for 2035.

How, though, will renewable energy reshape the region’s politics? And to what extent do renewables represent a continuity of older energy politics dynamics at the domestic, regional, and international level? Too often, energy policies remain siloed from other policy areas. It is necessary to situate energy politics within the broader economic, political, and social sphere that it both reflects and constitutes. As was previously the case with oil and gas, green energy technologies are being used to reinforce hegemonic geopolitical relations in the MENA region.

Extraction in the Maghreb

In 2009, Morocco launched a national energy strategy that aims to transition to domestic renewable energy sources. Historically an “energy poor” country, Morocco has turned to renewables as a means to transform its energy security and dependencies, setting the goal of generating more than half of its power from renewable sources by 2030.

Morocco has set a goal of generating more than half of its power from renewable sources by 2030.

The solar energy mega project, Noor Ouarzazate, located in southeast Morocco at the foot of the High Atlas mountains, is made up of four solar plants covering an area of 3,000 hectares and possessing a 580 megawatt capacity to produce around 6 percent of Morocco’s total energy supply. It also includes the world’s largest concentrated power plant. This public-private partnership was partly funded by the EU Neighboring Investment Facility (NIF), which put up €106.5 million, as well as the European Investment Bank, the French Agency for Development, the German Development Bank, and others. It was built and is operated by a consortium consisting of ACWA Power (based in Saudi Arabia), the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (Masen), Aries, and three Spanish companies: TSK, Acciona, and Sener. Meanwhile, Noor II and Noor III were built by Chinese company Shandong Electric Power Construction.

The Noor Ouarzazate project is a feat of solar technology, bringing together a constellation of international engineering, construction, and financial knowledge and means. Its infrastructural monumentalism, however, belies local political and social dynamics. As anthropologist Sarah Ryser has pointed out, mega projects such as Noor Ouarzazate are justified via colonial discourses that view desert zones as unproductive “wastelands” in need of external economic intervention.

The Noor solar complex is located in one of the poorest and most water-stressed regions of southeast Morocco and is built on land previously held in common by a Moroccan Amazigh community. While the project included a $6.8 million fund for local development projects, it offered no compensation to local pastoral farmers, and there are fears that its high water requirements will increase water pressures.

Morocco has also looked to the potential to develop wind capacity in the disputed territory of Western Sahara, which was invaded and occupied by Moroccan and Mauritanian troops in 1975, and which has since witnessed a protracted conflict between Moroccan forces and the territory’s national liberation movement, the Polisario Front. Currently, there are three operational wind farms in Western Sahara, constructed by a consortium of Siemens Wind Energy, Enel Green Energy, and Nareva, a Moroccan company. An additional 300 megawatt windfarm is under construction in Boujdour, and is expected to be brought fully online by the end of March. Social scientist and former President of Western Sahara Resource Watch Joanna Allan has argued that Morocco’s exploitation of the renewable energy resources of the Western Sahara has worked to “entrench the occupation,” tying the territory into the kingdom via renewable energy infrastructure. In turn, the Polisario Front has accused Morocco of “greenwashing” and has released its own climate plan.

Morocco has been viewed as a possible solution to Europe’s energy requirements.

Russia’s now year-old war in Ukraine and the ensuing global energy crisis jumpstarted a search by European states for alternative energy supplies that would reduce reliance on Russian gas. Morocco—and the wider Maghreb—have been viewed as a possible solution to Europe’s energy requirements. The EU has thus redoubled its efforts to invest in green energy in North Africa. In 2022, the European Union and Morocco signed the EU-Morocco Green Partnership, which “aims to advance the external dimension of the European Green Deal through action on the ground.” Existing interconnectors between Morocco and Spain that since 2019 have been exporting electricity to Spain could easily be used to link Morocco to the European grid. More ambitious still, green energy startup Xlinks plans to lay an Atlantic submarine cable connecting Morocco with the UK at a cost of $22 billion. As of January 2023, it remains unclear whether the project will draw energy from solar and wind farms in the Western Sahara.

Such green energy projects and interconnectors are being replicated across North Africa. In Tunisia and Algeria, there are similar plans to connect solar plants to Europe. As such, some have argued that the world is now witnessing a new form of environmental colonialism that is powering Europe at the expense of North Africa’s indigenous populations. While this is certainly true, it is necessary to focus on the different and varied forms this colonialism is taking, including Europe’s exploitation of its North African neighbors.

Egypt and Geopolitics in the Eastern Mediterranean

In the eastern Mediterranean, Egypt has been looking to become a regional hub for liquefied natural gas (LNG), green hydrogen, and ammonia, and has the potential to become a significant global energy hub. As in Morocco, Egypt’s energy infrastructure is closely entwined with regional political relations reinforcing the eastern Mediterranean’s geopolitical hierarchies.

The discovery of the Tamar field in Israel’s waters in 2009, followed by the Leviathan field in 2010, the Aphrodite field in Cyprus’ waters in 2011, and the Zohr field in Egypt’s waters in 2015 have together turned the eastern Mediterranean into a global gas player and an LNG exporter. LNG, which is greener than coal and oil, has been sold as a “transition fuel” that can act as a bridge between high-polluting fuels and green technologies. Moreover, since the start of the war in Ukraine, it has been touted as a viable replacement to Russian gas.

The geographic proximity of these eastern Mediterranean gas fields has led to economic cooperation between Egypt, Israel, and Cyprus. States have looked to take advantage of economies of scale, pooling gas infrastructure such as Egypt’s LNG facilities at Damietta and Edku and existing pipeline infrastructure. These economies of scale have also produced political effects, precipitating new bilateral and multilateral relations across the eastern Mediterranean and entrenching conflict. Economic cooperation was instituted through the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum in 2019. This regional intergovernmental organization, which includes Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Greece, Italy, and Jordan, reflects a realignment of states in the region and is notable for those states it excludes, namely Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon.

Eastern Mediterranean gas discoveries have also rearranged the direction of the flow of gas— and political power—in the Arab Gas Pipeline.

Eastern Mediterranean gas discoveries have also rearranged the direction of the flow of gas— and political power—in the Arab Gas Pipeline. Originally commissioned in 2003 to export gas from Egypt to Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, a branch to Israel was added in 2008. In 2016, a deal was signed to transport gas from Israel to Jordan, and in 2022 an agreement was signed in Cairo to allow for the transport of two billion cubic meters of gas per year from Israel to Egypt before it is turned into LNG and sent along to Europe.

The European Union acknowledged this tripartite relationship officially when it signed a memorandum of understanding with Egypt and Israel to establish a framework for the export of natural gas to Europe via Egypt. As some analysts have noted, economic cooperation on gas exports between Israel and Egypt is leading to ever closer political alliances and to the normalization of Arab countries’ relations with Israel.

In the longer term, Egypt aims to turn the Suez Canal Economic Zone into a global hub for the production of green hydrogen and ammonia. During COP27, Egypt took advantage of its host status to sign eight framework agreements for green hydrogen and ammonia projects, including with Indian renewables company ReNew Power and Dubai-based AMEA power. While recent reports hype the transformational effects of hydrogen on energy geopolitics, such positive effects may have been overstated. Indeed, it is revealing that hydrogen movers are often those states—such as Egypt—that wish to further secure their positions as energy powers. Green transitions are overlaid upon older global energy inequalities, and energy powers are able to capture new green technologies so as to maintain their geopolitical positions and interests.

Egypt’s emergence as an energy hub was by no means certain, but required putting in place economic, legal, political, and economic infrastructure that would make Egypt a hinge point for the transport of energy. This was both partly reliant upon and has sped up Arab countries’ normalization of relations with Israel and the creation of a new political bloc in the eastern Mediterranean.

War, Post-conflict Reconstruction, and Green Energy

War and energy politics are intimately tied together. Historically, conflict has been both triggered by and sustained through energy. But might it also intervene in the transition from war to a post-conflict situation? Libya, which possesses the largest known oil reserves in Africa, has experienced more than ten years of civil war since the overthrow and killing of Muammar Qadhafi during the country’s popular uprising in 2011. During this period, control of the country’s oil and gas infrastructure has become a key battleground as different factions struggle over smuggling routes, oil and gas production facilities, and export infrastructure.

Libya now sits at the heart of a Mediterranean “great game” as competing parties vie to control the trade routes and hydrocarbon infrastructure that connect Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Libya now sits at the heart of a Mediterranean “great game” as competing parties vie to control the trade routes and hydrocarbon infrastructure that connect Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Four of the Mediterranean’s most significant countries—Egypt, Turkey, France, and Italy—have all displayed an interest in securing the trade and energy transit routes that pass through and beside Libya, and have all directly or indirectly influenced the conflict.

In October 2022, Libya’s National Oil Corporation signed an agreement with BP and ENI to begin extracting natural gas from an offshore gas field that is thought to be bigger than Egypt’s Zohr field. This appears to signal business (and politics) as usual in Libya; BP and ENI were two of the few foreign oil companies that enjoyed exploration and production licenses during the Qadhafi era, which suggests that Libya’s post-conflict economy will be driven by the further exploitation of natural resources.

That being said, some analysts have recently suggested that a green transition might allow for Libya’s economy to be rebuilt on sustainable grounds. Like other countries in North Africa, Libya has been pointed to as a potential supply of reliable green energy for Europe. This could produce something of a virtuous circle, with the jobs and growth that the sector creates further stabilizing the county.

Such a green post-conflict transition is a supremely tall order, and is without precedent. The devastation of war and the collapse of Libya’s bureaucratic apparatus and state institutions mean that any attempt to twin the country’s political rebuilding with its green transition will require a root-and-branch approach that develops formal state institutions at both the domestic and state levels, draws up new legal frameworks, attracts economic investment, and pulls in the knowledge pool required to build a renewable energy sector. It does, however, demonstrate the possibility to think about the relationship between energy and politics outside of tried and true frameworks.

Complex Geopolitics

It sometimes appears that the geopolitics of the green transition are both inevitable and natural, a reflection of the global distribution of wind, solar, and tidal resources. But the green transition then becomes solely a technical matter of connecting together energy producers (such as Western Sahara) with energy consumers (the cities of Europe). This narrative, however, obscures the politics of renewable energy infrastructure. Wind farms, solar plants, electricity interconnectors, and LNG pipelines are all, in important ways, imbricated in the region’s geopolitics, reinforcing, renewing, and occasionally challenging geopolitical hierarchies in the region.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: shutterstock/Abriendomundo