A particular world elite seems to take pride in their commitment to sustainability and the well-being of their peoples. Simultaneously, their respective government/businesses invest in those industries leading to the present climate change. It is undeniable that this is changing, with impacts such as extreme weather fluctuations and increased intensity of natural disasters. The hydrocarbon industries are directly involved, if not now, causing climate change. How can concerned citizens hold these elites and other civil societies to their sustainability standards? Divesting is the act of removing any financing of the fossil fuel industry, increasingly found to be an unethical industrial human activity. The fossil fuel divestment movement started gaining traction in 2010. Over 1,200 institutions worldwide have joined forces and proceeded into divesting. This movement could not have started if no palliative industry can procure all that necessary energy. And despite that, questions such as ‘Are Renewables a True Threat to Oil’s Long-Standing Reign?’ are still being posed.
Our question would be whether all this questioning affects these contemporary world trends of renewables combined with divestment from fossil fuels.
Are Renewables a True Threat to Oil’s Long-Standing Reign?
The pandemic has possibly provided the catalyst needed to accelerate a global shift toward renewable sources of energy by bringing this topic to the top of the agenda of discussions held by political leaders and lawmakers as the world witnessed how the atmosphere quickly reacted to a few months of lower carbon emissions.
As a result, the stock price of multiple companies in the clean energy space has taken a quantum leap, while oil prices have also managed to recover most – if not all – of their lost territory during the first quarter of this year.
How is it that the crude oil price keeps booming alongside the valuation of these green energy firms? Will fossil fuels continue to be a part of the future or is this perhaps the last bull run for oil as the world keeps heading to a greener future?
The following article aims to take a closer look at how threatening can these alternative sources of energy can really be for oil’s long-standing reign based on the rate at which these technologies are being adopted in the United States.
How does the United States generate the power it needs?
A study from Washington-based think tank Pew Research Center published before the pandemic struck indicated that petroleum continues to be the leading source of energy in the United States according to data from the country’s Energy Information Administration (EIA).
In the past 18 years, the market share of oil has only retreated 2.3%, sitting at 36.4% by the end of 2018.
Meanwhile, natural gas seems to be advancing as an important source, with its share jumping 6.5% during the same period while currently accounting for 30.7% of the country’s energy consumption.
So, what about biofuels and other alternative sources? According to the EIA, these sources of energy, including nuclear and hydroelectric, covered only 20% of the country’s needs, with coal being the source that has lost the biggest share dropping from 22.9% to 13.1% by the end of 2018.
That said, the rate at which solar power has grown is quite remarkable, jumping nearly five-fold in less than 5 years.
Realistically, it seems that although renewable sources are gaining more and more ground as time passes, it will take decades before fossil fuels, including oil, can be fully replaced by solar, wind, or nuclear energy.
This view is reinforced by a recent report from the Shell Oil Corporation. Although the company has already acknowledged that the world is heading to a future in which fossil fuels will become a smaller contributor to its energy needs, this future is still fairly distant as the required infrastructure that needs to be in place to fully power homes, industries, and other facilities is still in the earliest stages of their development.
In regards to the possibility of a fossil-fuel-free world in short notice the company stated the following: “despite more than a century of progress, electricity makes up only 20% of the final energy that society uses today and the rate of increase has been the same since the earliest days, about two percentage points of final energy share per decade”.
Shell added: “To achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement that pace of growth would need to rapidly increase”.
Therefore, if renewable sources of energy keep advancing at the current pace, chances are that crude oil prices will not be severely affected by the threat of a full-blown substitution of fossil fuels – or at least not in the next five to ten years.
Has the pandemic changed something about this outlook?
The pandemic has affected the public’s view about what has been for a while a seemingly inevitable shift towards environmentally-friendly sources of energy by bringing more attention to a topic that was not necessarily a top priority for lawmakers and political leaders prior to the health emergency.
Now, with clean energy companies becoming interesting targets for investors around the world as possibly the best next-generation bet, chances are that capital will start flowing to these ventures to help them to further accelerate their efforts.
If that continues to happen, these larger investments made in the technology and infrastructure required to accelerate the adoption of greener sources should perhaps put the world on the right track to achieve its net-zero carbon emission goal even before 2050 – the date set by the Paris Agreement as the milestone for a green world.
Riley Cooper is a UK-born writer and who lives in USA. Her work explores issues related to finance, business psychology, environment, and language.
S&P Global‘s article by Dania Saadi with a statement-title that World oil demand may have peaked in 2019 amid energy transition as per IRENA does not come down however informative as a surprise anymore. Its use will plummet by more than 75%, and its production to have plunged by 85% by 2050. It is even earlier, 2025, for the Natural gas demand.
World oil demand may have peaked in 2019 amid energy transition: IRENA
Dubai — Global oil demand may have hit the peak in 2019 and natural gas will follow suit around 2025, the director-general of International Renewable Energy Agency said March 16, as the energy transition gathers pace, echoing forecasts made by BP last year.
Under a 2050 scenario that meets the Paris Agreement’s commitment to limit global warming to 1.5 C, fuel use is forecast to decline by more than 75% if energy transition policies are enforced now, IRENA said in its World Energy Transitions Outlook.
Under the 1.5 C scenario, global oil production is projected to plummet by 85% to slightly above 11 million b/d by 2050 from current levels, with natural gas remaining the largest source of fossil fuel at about 52% of current levels, the Abu Dhabi-based organization said.
“In the last eight years, the installed capacity of renewables has been outpacing systemically the installed capacity of fossil fuels-related plants,” Francesco La Camera, director general of IRENA, said in a virtual media briefing. “There is a structural change that is already there. The energy transition is already in place, it is unstoppable.”
IRENA’s prediction of peak oil mirrors BP’s projection last year that the world may never return to the pre-pandemic oil demand level of about 100 million b/d. Demand for oil will be the biggest casualty from lower energy demand in the coming three decades as weaker economic growth and a faster shift to renewable energy accelerates the demise of oil-based transport fuels, BP said in its Energy Outlook 2020 published Sept. 14, 2020.
Natural gas will still be needed in the future for power generation and in some industries, IRENA said. Coal will be phased out by 2050, with gas supplying around 6% of power generation and nuclear energy around 4%.
“Fossil fuels still have roles to play, mainly in power and to an extent in industry, providing 19% of the primary energy supply in 2050,” IRENA said. “Around 70% of the natural gas is consumed in power/heat plants and blue hydrogen production.”
IRENA’s bearish view of fossil fuel demand contrasts with predictions from the International Energy Agency and OPEC.
Under the IEA’s last central forecast scenario published in November, world oil demand will rise to 106.4 million b/d in 2040 from 96.9 million b/d in 2018, with growth flattening out by 2030.
Last year, OPEC said for the first time that peak oil demand may be nigh, estimating that the world’s thirst for oil will stop growing in about 20 years.
With the pandemic prompting a re-examination of the oil market and countries becoming more aggressive on their sustainability targets, OPEC on Oct. 8 estimated that global demand would hit 109.3 million b/d in 2040 before declining to 109.1 million b/d in 2045 and plateauing “over a relatively long period.”
S&P Global Platts Analytics sees global oil demand peaking in 2040 at around 114 million b/d before slipping to 109 million b/d in 2050 under a “most likely” scenario, some 5 million b/d lower than pre-crisis forecasts.
Use of fossil fuels is being whittled away by the rising adoption of renewable energy, energy efficiency and electrification, according to IRENA.
“Over 90% of the [decarbonization] solutions in 2050 involve renewable energy through direct supply, electrification, energy efficiency, green hydrogen and BECCS,” or biomass with carbon capture and storage, IRENA said. “Fossil-based CCS has a limited role to play, and the contribution of nuclear remains at the same levels as today.”
Under the 1.5 C scenario, electricity would become the main energy carrier with 50% of direct share of total energy use, up from the current level of 21%, IRENA said. Nearly 90% of electricity needs will be provided by renewables, up from 7% in 2018, with the remainder coming from gas and nuclear.
Wind and solar photovoltaic will constitute the biggest part of the power generation mix, supplying 63% of total electricity needs by 2050, with installed renewable generation capacity growing to 27,700 GW from 2,500 GW currently.
Electricity demand is forecast to grow over two-fold between 2018 and 2050 with the use of electricity in industry and buildings doubling and in transport jumping from zero to over 12,700 TWh, according to IRENA.
Hydrogen and its derivatives will make up 12% of final energy use by 2050 and 30% of electricity use will be dedicated to green hydrogen production and its derivatives, it said. The world will need almost 5,000 GW of hydrogen electrolyzer capacity by 2050 from just 0.3 GW now to achieve this level of hydrogen.
To achieve the 1.5 C scenario, the world will need to spend $33 trillion on top of the $98 trillion currently earmarked for energy systems investments. Some $24 trillion invested in fossil fuels need to be rerouted to energy transition technologies over the period to 2050, IRENA said.
NATURAL GAS NEWS‘ Geopolitical Implications of Global Decarbonization for MENA producing countries by Pier Paolo Raimondi and Simone Tagliapietra, Oxford Institute for Energy Studies (OIES) is an expert’s hindsight in the foreseeable future of the region.
Endowed with half of the world’s proven oil and gas reserves, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region represents a cornerstone of the established global energy architecture. As the clean-energy transition gains momentum worldwide, this architecture might shrink—challenging the socio-economic and geopolitical foundations of the region in general, and of its oil and gas-producing countries in particular.
Geopolitical Implications of Global Decarbonization for MENA producing countries
February 21, 2021
This challenge has two dimensions: domestic and international. Domestically, a decline in global oil and gas demand would reduce revenues for producing countries. Considering the profound dependency of these countries on oil and gas rents (the ‘rentier state’ model), this could have serious economic and social consequences. Internationally, the global clean-energy transition might push producers towards a fierce competition for global market share, exacerbating geopolitical risks both regionally and globally.
In 2020, MENA oil and gas producers experienced a situation that some observers have described as a preview of what the future might look like for them beyond 2030, as global decarbonization unfolds. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an unprecedented crash in global oil demand. At the same time, oil prices collapsed (for the first time in history, the benchmark West Texas Intermediate entered negative territory) due to a lethal combination of falling demand and OPEC+ coordination failure. All this generated a perfect storm for MENA oil- and gas-producing countries, which led to unprecedented macroeconomic imbalances.
The evolution of oil markets, national stability, and prosperity as well as international influence are closely linked in the MENA region, but MENA oil- and gas-producing countries are far from homogenous. Different countries are likely to experience different impacts from the global clean-energy transition, depending on a number of domestic and international factors.
MENA producers are likely to be affected by the differences in the trajectories for oil and gas markets, the speed of the energy transition in different world markets, increased competition between energy producers, and increasing penalties for carbon intensity in production.
While gas is set to play a role in the global energy mix for decades, oil is expected to lose relevance as a result of decarbonization policies and technological developments in electric vehicles. BP’s 2020 Energy Outlook warned about the imminence of peak oil demand. In its business-as-usual scenario, oil demand is set to recover from the pandemic by 2025 but drop slowly thereafter. In its rapid-energy-transition scenario, oil demand drops from around 100 million barrels per day (mb/d) in 2019 to 89 mb/d in 2030 and just 47 mb/d in 2050. Such a scenario would represent a challenge for MENA oil producers. By contrast, in the business-as-usual scenario, gas demand is expected to increase from 3.8 trillion cubic meters (tcm) in 2018 to 5 tcm in 2040, underpinned by a massive coal-to-gas switch in Asia and elsewhere. Such a scenario would be beneficial for MENA gas-producing countries such as Qatar and Algeria, which could remain geopolitically relevant by providing an important transition fuel to a decarbonizing world.
In the MENA region, Qatar seems to be the best positioned to preserve its geopolitical role, thanks to its significant liquified natural gas (LNG) capacity and its geographical location between Europe and Asia. Nevertheless, gas-producing countries will not be immune to the challenges posed by decarbonization policies in the long run. Gas demand is especially difficult to predict starting in the second half of the 2030s, as a result of increasing cost competition in power generation from renewables, as well as stricter environmental regulations (e.g. the EU Methane Strategy). It will thus be of paramount importance for MENA gasproducing countries to cut emissions in their gas value chain, in order to preserve their position and geopolitical influence.
The speeds of the energy transition in different world regions will also affect MENA geopolitical shifts. For instance, Europe’s oil and liquids demand is expected to decrease from the current 13.3 million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe) to 8.6 Mtoe in 2040, according to the International Energy Agency’s stated-policies scenario. By contrast, Asia-Pacific countries’ oil and liquids demand is set to increase from the current 32.5 Mtoe to 37.9 Mtoe in 2040. Thus, MENA producers more exposed to the European market are likely to suffer more—and earlier—from the global decarbonization process than others more exposed to Asian markets. That is, energy demand will increasingly dominate energy geopolitics, especially in an oversupplied energy market.
In such a scenario, export portfolio composition and diversification will determine the evolution of geopolitical influence for MENA oil and gas producers. Exporters that depend heavily on European markets will see their geopolitical position erode and their revenues fall. For example, Algeria, which mostly exports gas via pipeline to Europe, has been an essential element of the European gas supply architecture. Unless it manages to decarbonize its gas exports, this important role will shrink as the European Green Deal is implemented. In 2019, 85 per cent of Algeria’s total gas exports flowed to Europe, 62 per cent via pipeline (mainly to Italy and Spain). By contrast, LNG provides more flexibility to gas exporters, which will enable them to respond effectively to the geographical shifts of the energy demand. Qatar is the world’s top LNG exporter. In 2019, Qatar exported 83 per cent of its total gas exports via LNG. Of this volume, 67 per cent was directed to Asia Pacific countries. Asian markets are expected to drive energy demand growth in general and LNG in particular until 2030. Oil and gas producers will increasingly try to gain market share in such growing energy markets.
While energy demand will be crucial in the future, energy supply issues will not disappear. Competition among producers will persist, and even increase in the foreseeable future. The peak of oil demand will create a harsher world of more intense competition and tighter revenues for MENA oil producers. Regional oil and gas producers are likely to pursue different supply strategies, which will need to deal with the consequence of the global energy transition.
The transition indeed raises an existential dilemma—requiring a choice between maximizing production, which would weaken higher-cost exporters, and coordinating production cuts to increase prices, which could deprive governments of vital revenues. These are not trivial issues, as maximization of production would put into question established assumptions about saving reserves for future production and avoiding stranded assets. An intensification of competition among producers could thus undermine coordinated actions (e.g. OPEC agreements), which are important to oil price stability. This was illustrated by the collapse of OPEC+ talks in March 2020—spurred by disagreements between Saudi Arabia and Russia on the introduction of production quotas, as the two were also competing for market share with US shale oil producers—and the consequent fall in oil prices.
Another example of the growing competition among producers is the growing opposite visions between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia that emerged openly during OPEC talks in late 2020. Although they managed to reach an agreement within OPEC, the UAE’s ambitious plans to increase its oil capacity from about 4 mb/d to 5 mb/d by 2030 puts further pressure on the traditional alignment among Gulf OPEC producers. Moreover, in late 2020 the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company announced a $122 billion investment plan for 2021–2025, suggesting that the UAE had abandoned its more cautious approach to the oil sector. The plan suggested that MENA national oil companies might gain a growing share of world oil and gas production in the future. That is also due to (Western) oil companies’ decisions to cut their capital expenditure and other investments. Such decisions are motivated mostly by low oil prices and their commitment to decarbonization.
In a more competitive world, some MENA producing countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have the economic advantage of vast oil reserves (298 and 97 billion barrels, respectively), the lowest production costs (under $4 per barrel), and the least carbon-intense production. In the next years, due to expected higher carbon prices, carbon intensity will play a key role in determining which oil and gas producers will be able to preserve their geopolitical influence. MENA oil producers with higher production carbon intensity, such as Algeria and Iraq, might thus lag behind.
The global energy transition can also impact MENA oil- and gas-producing countries’ governance, due to their heavy dependence on revenues from these resources. To address this issue, regional oil and gas producers have launched several strategies (referred to as Visions) aimed at economic diversification (e.g. by increasing productivity, strengthening the private sector, and developing non-oil sectors), as well as increasing the share of renewables in the energy mix. These Visions were largely developed as a response to the 2014 oil price drop; COVID-19 and the acceleration of the global energy transition make it necessary to accelerate them. A country’s chances of success at this are likely to be affected by domestic factors including population size, government capacity, and financial ability to implement diversification measures.
Countries with a large, young, and growing population (Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq) will encounter significant obstacles to the transformation of their rentier-state model. By contrast, countries with a smaller population, like the UAE and Qatar (9.7 and 2.8 million inhabitants, respectively) are likely to find it easier to adjust.
The ability to govern and finance major domestic socio-economic transformation will also be crucial. For example, North African countries could exploit their geographical vicinity to Europe and become major clean-electricity suppliers. In this sense, the recent EU Hydrogen Strategy considers imports of 40 GW of green hydrogen from the EU’s eastern and southern neighbours. However, countries like Algeria and Libya are experiencing major social and political instability, which undermines such scenarios and discourages the needed foreign investments. Thus, countries with major governance issues like Algeria, Libya, and Iraq are expected to lag behind on energy and economic diversification. The risk is that these countries will focus political energies on an intensifying fight for a share of the diminishing global oil and gas market, rather than on a strategy to reorient their economy. By contrast, countries with stronger governance are better equipped to transform their economies, bear the negative consequences of the transition in the short term, and navigate the geopolitical evolution.
The availability of large foreign exchange reserves will be crucial for the transformation of MENA producing countries. With such reserves, countries could offset the negative economic effects of lower oil demand and revenues in the short term, while investing in renewable energy projects for the medium and long term. Thus, countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar (with $500, $108 and $38 billion of foreign reserves, respectively) are potentially well equipped to manage the negative effects of lower revenues and foster economic transformation. Additionally, countries with large sovereign wealth funds could use them as an integral part of the diversification effort, for example to finance research and development and renewable-energy projects in MENA countries.
Producers with large foreign exchange reserves, sizable sovereign wealth funds, and small populations to appease are potentially the best placed to navigate the uncharted waters of the global energy transition.
MENA oil and gas producers have also considered developing their high renewable-energy potential, especially solar. This could help them pursue several goals, including economic diversification and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. It could also free additional oil and gas volumes, currently used to meet fast-growing domestic energy demand, for sale abroad to produce additional revenue—thus avoiding the negative economic effects of growing energy consumption and positioning themselves as major renewable powers in a low-carbon future.
More recently, MENA oil and gas producers have begun to consider the growing interest in hydrogen as a way to preserve their geopolitical influence and remain pivotal actors in the future energy system. Given the region’s abundant renewable energy and carbon capture and storage potential, MENA countries could be at the forefront in both the green and blue hydrogen markets. In the short and medium term, blue hydrogen could benefit from its cost advantages. In the longer term, the MENA countries could exploit their excellent solar conditions and low-cost renewables in order to produce and export green hydrogen. Three MENA oil producers (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman) have announced major hydrogen plans. For example, in July 2020 an international consortium announced plans for a $5 billion green renewables and hydrogen plant in Saudi Arabia, which aims to begin shipping ammonia to global markets by 2025. In September 2020 Saudi Arabia shipped 40 tons of blue ammonia to Japan in a pilot project undertaken by Saudi Aramco and the petrochemical giant Sabic.
The global energy transition will inevitably affect MENA oil- and gas-producing countries, both macroeconomically and geopolitically. However, not all MENA countries will see their geopolitical influence change in the same way. Some countries are better equipped than others to offset the negative effects domestically and internationally. Internationally, MENA oil and gas producers will start to focus more on energy demand differences among world regions. MENA countries with lowest-cost and least-carbon-intensive production are better positioned to preserve their geopolitical influence. Moreover, export portfolio composition and diversification will crucially define whether a country will lead or lag behind in the energy transition. Oil and gas producers are also endowed with an abundant renewable potential, another possible route to future energy leadership.
Nevertheless, competition among producers will remain or even increase, potentially undermining coordinated efforts to stabilize oil prices. Due to the strong link between hydrocarbons and the nature of the state in the MENA region, the domestic sphere will be a key element in the geopolitical shifts. Population size, strong governance, and the financial ability to adapt to change will help some MENA oil and gas producers to preserve their geopolitical role, while managing domestic socio-economic transformation.
Even today and despite all that, oil, coal, and gas provide about a lot of our energy needs but we are gradually aware that:
Using fossil fuels has an enormous toll on humanity and the environment—from air and water pollution to global warming and certainly the COVID-19. That’s not taking the negative impacts of petroleum-based products such as plastics and chemicals.
And all agree that it’s time to move toward a clean energy future. In recent years, the divest movement from fossil fuels has grown to a multi-trillion dollar movement involving more than 350 institutions worldwide. And thanks to stricter policies to address the climate crisis, fossil fuels are gradually becoming yesterday’s energy source. Since 2016, renewable power is slowly replacing fossil fuels usage at all levels.
In the meantime, it looks as if the following is ongoing as per local media.
Around 400 million people could see their livelihoods affected as a result of lower revenues from declining fossil fuel sales
Oil-exporting countries stand to lose nearly $13 trillion in revenue by 2040 as global economies continue to decarbonise their power systems, according to a report by Carbon Tracker.
As countries around the world lower their carbon footprint and energy companies set net-zero emissions targets over the coming decades oil exporting economies will face an existential crisis.
Around 40 oil exporters surveyed by the UK-based think tank will require $9tn to bridge the gap in income shortfalls amid structural changes in energy consumption.
Around 400 million people could see their livelihoods affected as a result of lower revenues from declining fossil fuel sales. The most affected will be oil exporters based in Africa. Nigeria, the continent’s biggest producer, will be the hardest hit as a 70 per cent drop in oil revenues will slash government income by a third. Angola, a southern African country will also stand to lose over 40 per cent of government revenue, endangering the standard of living of nearly 33 million people.
“Government oil revenues will shift dramatically as the market shakes out during the energy transition,” said Andrew Grant, the head of climate, energy and industry and a co-author of the report.
The key to tackling the looming crisis for populations living in oil-exporting nations would be to understand the scale of the challenge.
“Cushioning the landing for hundreds of millions will deliver better outcomes for both climate and human development,” he added.
An orderly drawdown of fossil fuel production would prevent a hard landing for populations living in producer economies, while quick monetisation of resources and oversupply is likely to destroy value for crude, the report said.
Several Middle Eastern exporters such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia have already set in motion efforts to diversify their rentier economies. The UAE derives revenues from tourism and manufacturing and is looking to generate three quarters of its electricity from clean sources by 2050.
Abu Dhabi also has a substantial renewable energy industry, which has recently pivoted towards the production of hydrogen. The country’s leading industrial and financial players, including the national oil company, formed an alliance earlier this year to manufacture hydrogen.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of crude, is undertaking plans for a multibillion dollar, carbon-neutral city, as it plans to phase out fossil fuels from its utilities and become an exporter for hydrogen.
Mexico, Iran and Russia are vulnerable and could lose up to a fifth of their revenues.
Angola and Azerbaijan could see a hit to 40 per cent of government income from oil. However, Norway and Malaysia, which have diversified economies, are less exposed to energy transition risks and will face losses of up to 5 to 10 per cent of crude income.Published: February 11, 2021 06:34 PM
Michael Young in an interview, with David Linfield who argues that international donors are benefiting existing power structures in the Middle East. It is all about Colluding With the Corrupters.
Corruption spread deep and for some time in the MENA region with social, political, and economic implications, but with differing penetrations rates. All because the area can divide into two types of governance. The autocratic monarchies live with side by side with the so-called republics. Few of these latter countries know a higher degree of corruption than the first-mentioned countries. In any case, all have made the fight against corruption a priority by passing laws and adopting strategies to combat crime. But in vain. Colluding with the Corrupters could quickly summarise a situation where such deviant behavioural attitudes originators can be traced back out of the region.
January 29, 2021
David Linfield is a visiting scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program. He is on sabbatical from the U.S. Department of State, where he is a career foreign service officer. Linfield recently wrote a commentary for Carnegie, titled “International Donors Are Complicit in Middle Eastern Elites’ Game.” In mid-January, Diwan interviewed him to discuss his article, and more generally to examine the anti-elite feeling that has permeated protests throughout the Middle East in the past year, notably in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. The views expressed by Linfield are his own and not necessarily those of the U.S. government.
Michael Young (MY): You’ve just written a commentary for Carnegie, titled “International Donors Are Complicit in Middle Eastern Elites’ Game.” What is your argument in the piece?
David Linfield (DL): My argument is that the United States and other international donors have put significant clout and resources behind promoting economic liberalization in the Middle East, while they have been hesitant to put similar emphasis on political reforms. By political reforms I mean boosting transparency, combating corruption, and empowering elected officials. International actors have partly justified this approach by suggesting that economic reforms are a better way of promoting stability and less risky than political changes. But I contend that recent events in the region suggest that these policies are making violent, sudden change in the region more likely, not less so.
When adopted in the context of authoritarian political systems, economic reforms such as privatization have tended to benefit existing power structures, exacerbating economic inequality and citizen-state tensions. The World Inequality Database now ranks the Middle East as the most unequal region in the world. While economic inequality has decreased worldwide since the 1990s, it has remained constant in the Middle East.
By supporting policies that have inadvertently led to such entrenched inequality, while neglecting political reforms, international donors have contributed to citizens’ frustrations with their relative economic status while leaving them without peaceful institutional means of expressing their grievances. This is all a recipe for instability, which is the opposite of what donors want.
MY: You write that “[e]merging solidarity among previously competing groups, grounded in [economic inequality]” is a feature of the growing resentment of elites in the Middle East. Are you suggesting, to borrow from Marxist jargon, that we are seeing the emergence of a sort of class consciousness in certain countries that may have revolutionary potential?
DL: Most of the protests in the Middle East since 2018 have focused on economic inequality and corruption. Whereas previous demonstrations in the region tended to consist of a homogeneous ethnic group—whether from a particular religious sect, region, or group of tribes—these recent protests have been more diverse.
Common frustrations with inequality appear to have led people from lower-income communities to demonstrate in common cause—albeit sporadically and tentatively—against what they see as a corrupt and multisectarian elite that has failed them. We have seen this happen most explicitly in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon.
Some of the slogans used in recent protests in these countries do indicate the emergence of class consciousness. When the Jordanian Teachers Union threatened to strike in summer 2020, they framed their plight as a class struggle against those who had “looted the country.” The 2019 Lebanese protests included slogans like “down with the rule of the thieves.” Iraqi protestors in 2019 and 2020 told media outlets that their struggle was about taking the country back from “thieves.”
MY: In light of your assessment, how have the traditional fault lines among Middle Eastern populations that regimes have manipulated to retain power—things such as sectarian, tribal, or regional divisions—fared in what you describe as a changing environment?
DL: The traditional fault lines in Middle Eastern societies are still very much present. Emerging class-based tensions have not fully supplanted preexisting divisions based on ethnicity, religion, and tribalism, but rather now coexist alongside them more than before. That said, the trendlines I described earlier suggest that class-based divisions will continue to grow in relative importance and have the potential to reshape existing political alliances and divisions.
In addition to the demonstrations I mentioned earlier, another indicator of the power of class solidarity is a 2019 experiment by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. The study, which assigned hundreds of Lebanese people into different conversation groups having varying compositions based on sect and class, found that when Lebanese people gathered with other members of the same class, they exhibited markedly less support for sectarian politics.
It’s too early to craft a comprehensive assessment of how emerging class-based tensions will interact with longer-standing societal divisions in the Middle East. One reason that we’ll have to observe for a longer period is that Covid-19 shifted the focus dramatically from political and economic challenges to the health crisis. But given that the pandemic exacerbated economic inequality, with lower-income communities bearing the brunt of related economic disruptions, we probably won’t have to wait long before class discussions reemerge.
MY: If the problem is that economic liberalization has reinforced elites, what are you recommending as an alternative approach by Western donors? And what makes you think that such an approach would have any chance of working?
DL: The alternative approach I’m recommending is for international donors to incorporate measures to promote transparency and combat corruption into existing economic liberalization efforts. These political reforms are also good for business and economic growth—as noted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank reports I cite in my article. The IMF’s recent insistence that Lebanon address corruption before receiving additional loans is a positive step to putting teeth behind their analysis.
Other helpful steps would include pushing to empower the many weak legislatures across the region beyond their current rubber-stamp roles, which would provide an alternative to protests for frustrated publics. If international donors put the same clout behind good governance that they have behind economic liberalization, they’ll make peaceful and durable progress more likely in the Middle East.
MY: Are you not reading too much into anti-elite solidarity? Ultimately, states in the region have shown that they will resort to violence in order to survive and societies have often gone back to being silent. Why will this change?
DL: Ruling elites in the region have demonstrated that they are willing to go to extreme measures to maintain their benefits. I am not suggesting that elites will somehow decide that they should altruistically begin to share resources with the rest of society. Rather, as your question implies, I am arguing that the elite behavior of concentrating power and resources is an unsustainable strategy that will ultimately foment violence and harm everyone’s interests, including those of the elite.
Autocratic regimes tend to resort to violence when they feel they have run out of other options, but rely more often on nonviolent coercion and intimidation to maintain daily control. By the time regimes turn to violence, it tends to be a prelude to their loss of control—or a stage where they are nearing that.
The strategy of international donors focusing their influence and resources on economic liberalization instead of good governance has not succeeded in bolstering stability and strengthening citizen-state relations. Instead, the policy has exacerbated class-based tensions and increased the prospects of unrest.
These trends are not linear: demonstrations in the region against economic inequality and corruption have ebbed and flowed. Ruling elites remain intent on doing everything they can to outmaneuver these latest challenges to their vested interests. Longer-standing societal tensions based on sect, region, and tribe also continue to simmer and remain exploitable by elites. But the overall direction of the region is still toward economic liberalization in the midst of authoritarian entrenchment. As long as that remains the case anti-elite solidarity is likely to build. International donors are inadvertently contributing to these increasing citizen-state tensions. Instead, they could be fostering more durable change that would make the region more stable and prosperous for everyone.
Originally posted on RobinAndrew: An initially-slight tale, which grows and grows right up to its end, as slight lives desperately try to grow themselves into something important without completely relinquishing the comforts to which they have accustomed themselves. Emerson writes with an almost nineteenth-century reserve which aptly suits her characters and relates as well to…
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