Colonialism is not over

A new book shows how Europe is using the energy transition to exploit and under-develop the Arab world.

Morocco’s Noor-Ouarzazate Solar complex. Image credit Michael Taylor for IRENA via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

In an old French history magazine, an article recounts the first motorized crossing of the Sahara. The Citroën company’s cruise is described in detail: the preparations, the choice of pilots, the mechanics of the five cars, Flossie; the poodle mascot, the ocean of sand, the oases, and the freezing cold at night. One of the photos illustrating the story shows the company’s boss, André Citroën (1878-1935), proudly posing in front of a map of the route that stretches from Algiers to Timbuktu, more than 3,120km. In the caption, it is written that “everything was planned for the crossing of the desert; even the machine gun in the event of an attack by rebellious tribes.” The Saharan cruise took place from December 19, 1922 to January 7, 1923. Algeria and Mali were then under French occupation. For one of the most violent empires, the use of firearms against Algerians or Malians in their lands was more than normal.

In the century that followed this armed cruise that the French describe as “epic,” France was ousted from its colonies after brutalizing their people and stealing their wealth. Colonialism is not over, however. It metamorphoses while keeping intact its DNA.

Even though plain colonialism in the form of mandates and military occupation has almost disappeared, economic imperialism continues to bind its former colonies with a multitude of chains. Unfair free trade agreements, unequal bilateral investment treaties, tied aid, conditionalities, forced privatization, austerity injunctions, and more recently the denial by the wealthy of this world of all responsibility for the climate crisis and shifting the burden of tackling it to those who didn’t cause it in the first place. All means are good for developed countries (the cores of the world system) to maintain and reinforce their economic and political ascendancy over developing and under-developed countries (the peripheries).

Neocolonialism is particularly blatant in the Arab world. Eighteen researchers from multiple backgrounds attempted to shine a light on it through in-depth case studies in countries from both the Asian and African parts of the region.

Their collective book, Dismantling Green Colonialism, Energy and Climate Justice in the Arab Region (Pluto Press, October 2023) is a patchwork made of the unique experience of each of them. The book, which was edited by Hamza Hamouchene and Katie Sandwell, embraces several social sciences, without compartmentalization between political science, economics, geography, or ecology. Its dose of activism differentiates it from purely academic books. It studies the present but does not hesitate to borrow the tools of historiography to explain the backstory to current events. It delivers detailed strategic analysis to predict the position of Arab countries in the ever-shifting landscape of energy and global geopolitics; and alongside tables and statistics, testimonies collected in the field of sociology tell the story of the dominated people of the region. Indeed, the photo on the book cover was taken in Morocco, in the village of Imider, where villagers had stoically organized an eight-year-long sit-in in protest against the silver mine that ruined their environment and seized their water.

It thus seems that the editors have made the conscious choice to vary the angles of attack to understand, and then explain, (neo)colonialism in all its complexity. The region of study is complex too. Most international institutions, think tanks, consultancy firms, and NGOs call it the Middle East and North Africa, or MENA region as if it were a monolith. The region has undeniably many definable common features such as language, culture, and religion, but economic variations within it are sharp. The Yemen-Saudi border, which has been a front of war since 2015, is an example of the most striking contrasts. To its north, 30 million Saudis enjoy a GDP of 646 billion dollars thanks to their oil. To its south, 80% of the 28 million Yemenis need emergency food aid, according to the UN, and the torn country’s GDP is 30 times smaller than the Saudi one.

Despite these disparities, the book nevertheless establishes patterns, differentiating oil and gas-producing countries and their different challenges in terms of the energy transition, such as the Gulf states and Algeria, from other countries where hydrocarbon deposits are less abundant.

Renewable energies: the new bonanza

In the first part of the book, the authors explain how neocolonialism replicated the techniques of hoarding raw materials in the renewable energy market. In the last few decades, in Tunisia, Morocco, and Jordan, for example, the potential of sun, wind, and hydrogen has aroused interest similar to that which accompanied the discovery of oil in the Gulf. European governments often present themselves as equal and benevolent partners that come to help these countries join the international drive for sustainability. They encourage them to take advantage of their abundant renewable resources and vast tracts of available land to realize economic gains while meeting their greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation targets. They closely support them in the development of the regulatory framework, which promotes and liberalizes investment in renewable energy and leads to the much-awaited energy transition. And they work, together, to promote this discourse in the spheres of power and media in Brussels, Berlin, Tunis, Rabat, and Amman.

But every step of this process is problematic, as the book clearly shows.

First, this so-called cooperation between EU countries and their southern neighbors relies in its marketing on the argument of climate mitigation, or GHG reduction. In a region that suffers from the dire effects of the climate crisis, investment in climate action should rather focus on adaptation and projects should tackle extreme weather events, such as lengthy drought episodes, rampant desertification, water scarcity, or torrential rains and floods.

As for the argument of the vast tracts of available land, it is reminiscent of ecological orientalism where colonial powers used a representation of alleged environmental and ecological degradation to justify all sorts of dispossession and control over the local population and environment. One glaring example, as the book points out, is “the current representation of the North African Sahara as a vast, empty dead land that is sparsely populated,” thus constituting “a golden opportunity to provide Europeans with cheap energy so they can continue their extravagant consumerist style and excessive energy consumption.”

Moreover, the electricity generated through renewable energies is mainly intended for export, just as phosphates and other primary commodities are chartered to European markets. For example, most of the Tunisian-Italian cooperation revolves around the Elmed project, an underwater electrical interconnection between the two countries. This bridge which should link the grids of the European and African continents follows the same deadly route along which thousands of African migrants die each year in search of a better life. Instead of feeding genuine local development, every asset in underdeveloped countries seems to be intended for the development of countries that are already developed, as a result of several centuries of slavery and colonization.

But what is preventing Arab countries from taking their destinies into their own hands and moving beyond the subordinate status of simple primary commodities and energy suppliers to Europe?

The traps of international finance and “cooperation”

If the Tunisian, Moroccan, Egyptian, or Jordanian governments struggle to benefit from their own natural resources, renewable or not, it is because they do not have control over their finances. They desperately need eurodollars generated from their exports of energy, agricultural products, and other primary commodities to cover the chronic deficits of their budgets and their balance of payments. This subordinate status is not accidental. It was designed in international financial centers that are located in developed countries, according to a founding principle: The importance of loans granted to underdeveloped countries is proportional to their integration into the international market, that is to say to their inclination to completely surrender to the neoliberal doctrine and open up their markets to foreign capital

In Egypt, for example, international finance has impacted the formulation of energy policy without taking into account the social repercussions. The electricity liberalization process, as described in the book, has been taking place in conjunction with austerity measures that worsened the social crisis in the country. The World Bank has argued that traditional subsidy policies through electricity tariffs were a waste of resources and called, therefore, to end them and redirect funds toward social benefits for lower-income groups. However, these groups, along with the middle class, have suffered the full brunt of the repercussions of liberalization.

Subsidies, which are denounced as an ultimate evil in developing countries by international financial institutions, are nevertheless widely popular in European countries, where authorities use them often to protect consumers during energy crises—like in the ongoing war in Ukraine, to support farmers in the face of competition, or to protect their textile industries.

Tunisia is another example of total submission to the orders of foreign powers. The Tunisian energy transition is promoted by international actors, some of whom are connected to previous projects that aimed to develop renewable energy in North Africa for export to Europe, such as the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii).

Patient and steady, foreign influence has gone so far as to shape domestic policies in renewable energy. In the framework of the 2012 German–Tunisian partnership on energy, Berlin has been providing technical and financial support to Tunisians through industrial investments and the establishment of local institutes and foundations. Within the framework of this bilateral cooperation and Desertec, the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) has been formulating recommendations on how to develop the full potential of renewable energy in Tunisia. Many of the German recommendations seem to have anticipated some of the measures contained in the 2015 law, relating to the production of electricity from renewable energies, as shown in the Tunisian chapter of the book. 

A green smoke screen over the Gulf

Far from the simplistic decolonial vision that reduces the former colonies to the status of passive victims and places the colonizers in the dock, the book analyzes the role of Arab governments and states in maintaining hegemonic relations of dispossession.

The authors examine the underlying role of the Gulf states as “a semi-periphery—or even as a sub-imperialist—force.” “Not only are the Gulf states significantly richer than their other Arab neighbors,” they write, “but they also participate in the capture and siphoning off of surplus value at the regional level, reproducing core–periphery-like relations of extraction, marginalization and accumulation by dispossession.”

The book studies the diligent efforts of the Gulf States to remain at the center of the global energy regime, which entails the formulation of a dualistic policy: one that allows them to benefit from both fossil fuels and renewable energies. These efforts also involve accelerating the pace of normalization with the brutal Zionist Israel Occupation, at the expense of the oppressed Palestinians in the West Bank and the battered population of the besieged Gaza Strip who are currently undergoing genocide and ethnic cleansing. 

Projects, such as Prosperity (Blue and Green), Enlight Renewable Energy or NewMed Energy, where the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia or Bahrain lend a strong hand to the Zionists, are hidden by a thick green smoke screen. As for the cries of distress of Palestinians and the Jawlani Syrians (Syrians of the Golan Heights) under fire and occupation, they are eclipsed by a deafening media noise made up of benevolent words, like “sustainability” and “clean energy” and oxymorons such as “decarbonization of fossil fuels.”

The cacophony around sustainability will reach its climax during this year’s international climate talks, COP28, taking place until December 12 in Dubai, under the patronage of ADNOC, the Emirati national oil giant. This COP will be just one more forum where social movements and activists are made invisible for the benefit of technocratic experts, lobbyists, governing elites, and fossil and non-fossil energy giants.

Presented in the introduction and recurrent throughout the chapters, the concept of just transition is defined by the authors as a framework for reflection and struggle which puts the interest of people and the rights of the environment at the center of any change project. Dismantling Green Colonialism Energy and Climate Justice in the Arab Region, as a collective intellectual project that challenges the dominant neoliberal and imperialist discourse, fits into this framework.

In their introduction, the editors apologized for not being able to explain everything, as major countries such as Iraq, Libya, or Syria were not covered in the book. But the 300-page document is a first and important step in thinking about the future of the 465 million Arabs who remain prisoners of neocolonialism and its local vassals.

Further Reading