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Energy, Rivalry, and Insecurity in the Middle East

Panel IV-12, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
This panel examines the changing economic, security, and humanitarian landscape in the region and how several countries in the region manage this new landscape. It begins with an analysis of the impact of alternative energy in the Gulf with a particular focus on the rise of hydrogen-based alternative fuels in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman. The paper examines how this new technology impacts each country’s economy, enhances its leverage in regional and global affairs, and shapes the region’s energy politics. The second paper examines the emergence of a relatively new international actor in the region – China. It uses the Egyptian case to elaborate how China exercises influence, how Egypt advances its interests in this new relationship, and how the US can navigate the expansion of China’s presence in the region without provoking greater tension in their already fraught relationship. The third paper examines changing practices of warfare and impacts on civilian infrastructures in the Middle East since 2011 through a careful case study of Libya. While parties to the conflict sought to control, capture, divert, and sometimes sabotage critical oil and water infrastructures, these institutions also retained some autonomy from proliferating militias and political groups; the paper outlines the consequences for human security, humanitarian assistance, and governance. The fourth paper examines how a relatively weak actor – Jordan – navigates this new energy, political, and security landscape. It places particular emphasis on how Jordan cultivated an image of stability amidst the growing chaos of the region and harnessed this image to provide greater access to economic support, humanitarian assistance, and military aid.
International Relations/Affairs
Political Science
  • Even though there are still uncertainties regarding hydrogen’s overall climate-friendly impact, low-carbon hydrogen (‘green’ and ‘blue’) is perceived as the ultimate solution to “fix” the climate crisis. Worldwide, countries are positioning themselves to be part of this fundamental energy transformation. Also some countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), above all Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, heavily invest in hydrogen infrastructure and development to become a global hub in future. Instead of discussing economic opportunities or barriers, I turn to the to the political repercussions and argue that low-carbon hydrogen is perceived as the ‘holy grain’ for the Gulf states to remain politically relevant and influential in a climate-constrained world. By using the concept of technopolitics, the paper seeks to assess how this hype around hydrogen perfectly suits the authoritarian, top-down, techno-optimistic approach of the Gulf states’ weak/soft sustainability agenda. Inspired by the idea of framing the Gulf states as “technostates” as Toby C. Jones’ did in his seminal work more than a decade ago, I show the (external) dependence on cutting-edge hydrogen technology and its instrumentalization as means of “political authority and credibility” (Jones 2010, 15). In so doing, the paper adds an important social science perspective to the rapidly growing but mostly apolitical literature on energy transition in the region. Going also beyond the national state level, the paper further sketch out how the quest for hydrogen accelerate regional dynamics that are already in place. Exclusive access and control over hydrogen technology puts these countries in an advantageous position vis-à-vis other neighboring states that will most likely result in greater geopolitical shifts. Ultimately, it will potentially increase intra-GCC frictions and amplify regional inequalities between ‘winner’ and ‘losers’.
  • Co-Authors: Erika Weinthal
    The construction of centralized water and energy infrastructures has profoundly shaped Libya’s political and economic development. Libya’s national oil company (NOC) continues to provide most government revenue, while the Great Man-Made River Authority (GMMR) supplies water from Saharan fossil aquifers to populated areas in the interior and on the coast. Our paper asks how these centralized institutions have navigated the proliferation and decentralization of territorial control and political-military authority since the 2011 collapse of the Gaddafi regime. We find that while parties to the conflict sought to control, capture, divert, and sometimes sabotage these critical infrastructures, they also recognized the continued functioning of these infrastructures as essential in providing revenue, basic services, and supporting their claims to external recognition and sovereignty. We argue that despite increasing fragmentation among political-military factions since 2012, the NOC and the GMMR retained some autonomy from various belligerents and political groups, maintaining a national presence despite political fragmentation. We document that while water and energy infrastructures were not subject to the kinds of widespread destruction found in the Syrian and Yemen conflicts, protracted conflict nevertheless undermined capacities for oil production and safe water delivery. This paper is part of a broader project exploring changing practices of warfare and the targeting of the environment and civilian infrastructures in wars in the Middle East and North Africa since the 2011 uprisings. The paper draws upon a unique dataset constructed by the authors that tracks the targeting of civilian infrastructure in the Libyan conflict from 2011 until 2022. The data incorporates discrete and aggregate incidents of infrastructure targeting from newspapers, UN documents, human rights reports, and draws upon the Airwars and ACLED datasets. The authors utilize interviews with humanitarian and governmental actors in Washington D.C. and Geneva, and Zoom interviews with Libyan figures from civil society and political groups. The paper contributes to our broader understanding of the political economy of rentier states, environmental security and peacebuilding, and the role of natural resources in conflict. We build upon earlier works that examine the importance of oil in the creation of the modern Libyan state and its political economy, but the paper extends this literature to look at the role of centralized oil and water infrastructures under conditions of protracted conflict. We highlight how institutions charged with providing large-scale energy and water infrastructures navigated territorial and political fragmentation, and outline the consequences for human security, humanitarian assistance, and governance.
  • China’s expanded global presence has increased the flashpoints where its interests are at odds with those of the United States. As the broader US-China relationship moves in a more adversarial direction, these areas of friction could easily escalate into conflict. This paper begins by documenting the dramatic growth in Chinese investment, construction, and trade in the Middle East. This expanded presence is driven by China’s core interests in the region, including access to oil; security of the region’s trade routes, which are essential for Chinese commerce with the EU (which is China’s largest trading partner); protection of economic and military assets in the region; and protection of over 600,000 Chinese nationals who work in the region. The paper then focuses on China’s expanding presence in Egypt, where its investments have concentrated on the logistical corridor around the Suez Canal and the New Administrative Capital. China has also provided general concessionary financial support to the Egyptian state as well as military assistance. When controlling for size of GDP, Egypt has received more resources from China than any other Middle Eastern country. The paper examines the Egyptian case in detail to identify the key features of China’s strategy to expand its influence, and compares this strategy to China’s strategy elsewhere in the developing world. It also considers the responses of Egypt to the opportunities and risks of greater engagement with China and identifies Egypt’s sources of leverage in its relationship with China. Finally, it considers the options available to the US to respond to this new type of major power competition. The paper proposes a path toward structured competition and selective cooperation between the US and China in Egypt and the broader Middle East. The paper utilizes a variety of sources including strategy statements by the Chinese government, contracts between Egyptian firms and their Chinese counterparts, statements by Egyptian officials, reporting in Chinese and Egyptian media, investment data, financial data, and data on weapons transfers.
  • What has guided Jordan’s foreign policy since the uprisings in 2011? Plenty of observers have discussed how the Hashemite Kingdom survived the unrest despite civil war in Syria and Yemen; revolution in Egypt and Tunisia; and serious instability in Iraq, Bahrain, and Morocco. After securing its position in Amman, however, the regime remained aloof from counter-revolutionary politics spearheaded by Saudi and Egyptian officials and minimized its footprint in neighboring countries. How did the uprisings shape this external approach? I argue that Amman dodged revolution at home and avoided foreign adventurism due to a discourse of stability. In the uprising’s early days, the regime eroded support for its protest movement with reforms and by allowing protesters a peaceful outlet to vent frustration. As nation-states crumbled around the Kingdom, its experience spawned a discourse which lauded Jordan as a pillar of stability in a chaotic region. Jordanian consensus was to prevent Amman from becoming Damascus, thus drying-up demand for upheaval. As a result, Jordanian officials did not perceive unrest abroad as a threat to domestic serenity. They were therefore uninterested in supporting revolution-crushing ventures, such as the coup in Egypt (2013) or Saudi intervention in Bahrain (2011). Though Jordanian officials committed resources to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen (2015-), they did so under public pressure from an Arab coalition with counter-Iranian (not counter-revolutionary) motivations and repeatedly stated their goal was “stability” in Sanaa. In short, Jordan’s domestic tranquility seeped into its regional dealings. Preliminary research for the study is based on fieldwork (August 2015-June 2016). Interviews with Jordanian officials and policy analysts will be conducted in Amman in June and July 2023.