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Facilitating energy flows, containing humans: Authoritarian energy transitions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region

cover of TNI's 2024 state of power report
Benjamin Schuetze
Elia El Khazen
Charlotte Mueller
Philipp Wagner
Transnational Institute

Contemporary relations between the European Union (EU) and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region represent an uneasy coexistence of facilitating flows of energy to Europe while also containing the flow of humans. The impressive size of shiny futuristic-looking solar fields portrayed in the brochures for the latest EU-MENA mega-energy projects obscures how they are part and parcel of the same project of deepening existing inequalities and furthering specific connectivities through authoritarian practices. Attempts to achieve an energy transition present a rare opportunity to establish a more democratic, inclusive and sovereign (energy) politics, with renewable energy projects portrayed as being about open flows and connections. Yet the reality both in the MENA region and beyond is characterised by an authoritarian configuration. Efforts to transform the distributed character of renewable energies (unlike coal or oil, the sun shines and the wind blows everywhere, albeit with different intensities) into megaprojects that further consolidate power, and efforts to facilitate selective connectivities between Europe and the MENA region dominate the landscape. Similarly, although the flow of energy and high-skilled labour is strongly encouraged, other forms of South-North migration are firmly repressed. This essay looks at what these authoritarian practices look like in practice, and how different actors from both within and beyond the MENA region are entangled in them.