SEATTLE, Washington — Thousands of oil rigs and refineries dot the Middle East’s desert landscape, each promising prosperity. Yet poverty and violence have long plagued the region. Surprisingly, these issues are primarily a result of the Middle East’s extensive natural resources. However, as the global push for sustainability mounts, the prospect of renewable energy in the Middle East offers a green solution to the region’s development challenges.
The Resource Curse: The Dark Side of Black Gold
One of the most baffling paradoxes of the modern world is the “resource curse.” Countries with large natural resource deposits do not benefit from their supply of natural resources. Instead, resource-rich countries are primarily underdeveloped. Rather than fueling economic growth and public welfare, the presence of oil tends to cripple a country’s development by:
- Increasing Poverty: Resource-rich countries tend to be heavily dependent on energy exports, leaving their economies alarmingly undiversified. Moreover, these countries are vulnerable to fluctuations in the international oil market. Even minor downturns can send the Middle East into a severe recession.
- Widening Inequality: Natural resource industries enrich few and exploit many. Aside from a small elite class, most citizens never reap the rewards of the sector, contributing to socio-economic inequalities.
- Fostering Poor Governance and Authoritarianism: Democracy and oil deposits do not get along. According to The Atlantic, all 23 countries reliant on oil and gas for at least 60% of their exports operate under non-democratic systems. Oil-soaked dollars fund much of these countries’ spending, diminishing their reliance on tax revenue. Thus, these governments are less answerable to public opinion.
- Promoting Violence: Lucrative natural resources spark border conflicts and territorial disputes over control of oil-rich regions. Additionally, the poor governance prominent in oil states contributes to public discontent and civil unrest.
Fraught with developmental setbacks, the Middle East struggles to escape the dark underbelly of its oil fields. However, new opportunities in the renewable sector energize the region with hope for a better future.
A New Frontier: Renewable Energy in the Middle East
Growing environmental concerns have ignited the global transition to renewables. Though this shift away from fossil fuels threatens to impoverish oil-dependent states, it has given rise to a promising new investment: renewable energy in the Middle East.
Enjoying year-round sunshine and weathering desert gusts, the region is brimming with untapped solar and wind potential. Moreover, recent technology advances have lowered the cost of renewable energies, making them a viable alternative to fossil fuels. As reducing emissions becomes a global priority, many countries in the Middle East are embracing clean energy.
Backed by influential industry leaders, governments across the Middle East are funding the expansion of renewables. In 2018, 11 of the 17 countries in the region made plans or set targets for renewable energy development.
Numerous local companies and NGOs are also accelerating the shift to renewable energy in the Middle East. Petroleum Development Oman and Sonelgaz, major natural resource extractors in the area, have already implemented clean energy generation plans. More significantly, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) worked with Arab states to initiate the Pan-Arab Clean Energy Initiative, an ambitious commitment to increase its members’ clean energy output by 68 GW by 2030.
Even American companies have recognized the Middle East’s vast renewable potential. In 2017, Tesla’s Elon Musk opened a dealership and service center in Dubai, along with 28 charging stations throughout the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This marks the electric vehicle giant’s Mideast debut and clearly indicates the region’s status as an emerging renewables market.
Renewable energy has a bright future in the Middle East, and many agree that a global shift to clean power is both imminent and inevitable. But renewable energy is more than just an economic asset. It is a driver of development.
How Renewable Energy Breaks the “Resource Curse”
The deployment of renewable energy in the Middle East will help to resolve the crises afflicting the region. According to a 2016 study by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), here are four ways that renewable energy deployment can break the “resource curse.”
- Economic Diversification: As demand for fossil fuels declines, the shift to renewables will create new markets and expand existing construction and engineering industries. These profitable opportunities will give way to economic diversification and stabilize the Middle East’s previously volatile economies.
- Job Creation: Clean power generation requires more labor than its polluting counterparts and thus creates more jobs. Furthermore, the economic diversification caused by renewable energy deployment will generate employment opportunities downstream, particularly in the service sector.
- Increased Energy Access: While fossil fuels require access to a power grid, renewable energy companies can install solar and wind generators virtually anywhere. Thus, the expansion of the renewable sector will equip rural and off-grid locations with power. Increased energy access—a critical step in poverty reduction—fuels businesses and promotes health.
- Better Health and Education: As industries boom, unemployment falls and energy access expands, poverty levels will fall dramatically. Under these improved conditions, Middle Eastern governments will have more tax revenue to fund crucial healthcare and public education programs. These investments in social welfare will drastically improve the quality of life in the Middle East.
Promising economic growth and an end to long-endured suffering, renewable energy is beckoning. Now, more than ever, Middle Eastern governments, local NGOs and international organizations need to grasp this opportunity to reduce global poverty and end the Middle East’s “resource curse.”