Interview: fossil imperialism and green capital in the Middle East and North Africa

Issue: 182

Hamza Hamouchene

Hamza Hamouchene is an Algerian scholar and activist who is based in London. He spoke to Oisín Challen Flynn about a collection of essays, Dismantling Green Colonialism: Energy and Climate Justice in the Arab Region (Pluto, 2023), which he co-edited with Katie Sandwell.1 They talked about fossil imperialism, the dark underbelly of the green energy sector in the Middle East and North Africa, and what role revolution might play in a just transition towards a sustainable future.

Oisín: What are your main reasons for bringing out this collection?

Hamza: The introduction lays out the main aims of writing the book and making it available in English, Arabic, French and Spanish. The first objective is deepening conversations about the global energy transition from a justice perspective. There are many debates about how to get a just transition that doesn’t perpetuate the same old colonial and neo-colonial dynamics and logics of dispossession and plunder.

The second objective is based on my own experiences and fieldwork in Arab countries on issues of environmental and climate justice. The hegemonic discourse surrounding the environmental crisis and transition to green energy has been dominated by international financial institutions and other neoliberal institutions. These include the World Bank, the agencies of the European Union, international development agencies such as Germany’s Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ; German Society for International Cooperation) and its French and Italian counterparts, and the United States Agency for International Development—you name it.2 The solutions that all these Western international development agencies push are market-based, coming from the top (the so-called experts) rather than the bottom and the grassroots. They fail to prioritise the concerns of local communities, local workers and local society. Instead, they are directed from outside and prioritise the private profits of actors such as corporations and local companies. Their solutions fail to address the root causes of the environmental, climate, energy and food crises. On the contrary, they try to shape the narrative to maintain the status quo and their profits. At the same time, they want to benefit from the system’s crises by making Arab countries fertile ground for renewable energy projects. Countries in the Global North, particularly those within the EU, hope to meet their climate targets for renewable energy generation while externalising the environmental and social costs of energy transition into the periphery—in this case North Africa and the wider Arab region.

Although it focuses on just one region (and, indeed, certain countries within that region), the book’s conclusions have a global significance. What is happening in the Middle East and North Africa—privatisation, commodification of energy, land-grabs, the perpetuation of neo-colonial dynamics—is also happening in other regions. So, lessons can be drawn. Another reason to focus on this part of the world is that it is one of the largest producers of fossil fuels. The region is a nodal point in global flows of capital, trade, logistics, transport and (because it is wracked with war) weaponry, as well as being a critical axis in global fossil capitalism. In 2021, the region produced around 35 percent of the entire world’s oil and petroleum products. Moreover, historically it played an important role in global capitalism’s structural shift from the dominance of coal towards other fossil fuels, which occurred after the discovery of these resources in the region and the subsequent seizure of control over them by British and US imperialism.

Currently, we are also seeing the strengthening of relationships between the Middle East, the Gulf countries (especially Saudi Arabia) and East Asia (especially China). There is a growing consolidation of this set of relationships in terms of flows of capital, commodities and industrialisation. These flows move in two directions, with Gulf capital investing in industries in East Asia while East Asian capital is invested in the Gulf. These relations will affect the fossil fuel industries, both in terms of the export of fossil fuels and their processing. For instance, we are seeing Chinese capital trying to build refineries in the Gulf. Clearly this is not just the old colonial relations that we’ve seen before between the West and the Arab countries, with the Arab states just exporting fossil fuels and importing weapons and protection from the imperialists. Now, a different relationship is emerging.

Adam Hanieh, one of the contributors to the book, argues that this will constitute a formidable challenge to the global climate justice movement and any effort to phase out or move away from fossil fuels. Gulf elites are bent on extracting fossil fuels and have communicated this in public proclamations, such as the famous declaration by Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister: “Every molecule [of oil] will come out”. So, this is a key area for the discussion about energy transition; we can’t ignore what the ruling classes and companies in the Gulf states are doing. It’s not just about Western fossil fuel companies.

Oisín: The Middle East and North Africa is also particularly vulnerable to climate change, which can reveal the unevenness in how climate change affects people even within these countries.

Hamza: Yes. I’ve been working on climate justice issues for ten years now, specifically in the Arab countries, and documenting some of the impacts. Parts of North Africa and the Middle East are among the most vulnerable in the world in relation to the climate crisis. The consequences are already here: droughts, severe heat waves, flooding, wildfires. There are seriously effects on local agriculture, especially for small-scale farmers. We are seeing those impacts play out in the food crisis in the region.

At the same time, we are witnessing pushes from external forces to shift the burden of the energy transition onto the Middle East and North Africa. Outside powers are saying, “You need to do more. You need to transition. Let’s do this project and that project.” Here we need to talk about the different responses to the climate crisis: climate adaptation, which is, generally speaking, the priority of countries and communities in the Global South; and climate mitigation, which is the priority of the richest and most economically advanced nations. Obviously, we shouldn’t look at the region as a single, homogeneous bloc. Nevertheless, generally speaking, it is one of the areas most vulnerable to the climate crisis and least responsible for causing that crisis. The responsibility for the climate crisis lies in the industrialised West, but the poorest in the Arab region are being made to shoulder the burden.

Oisín: What do you make of the responses to climate change proposed by international entities such as the United Nations’ COP process?3

Hamza: I’ve been very critical of the COP process for some time. Climate talks have been taking place for three decades now. Despite the escalating climate disaster, the global decision-makers and the corporate lobbyists continue to let the crisis worsen and carbon dioxide emissions increase. Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg described it as “blah blah blah”, and I agree. It’s 30 years of blah blah blah. The only year carbon dioxide emissions actually decreased was 2020, the first year of the global Covid-19 pandemic. So, I think those climate talks are bankrupt and are failing.

At the same time, I understand why some climate activists and organisations still cling to them. They see them as a space in which to engage, hoping to limit the damage. Nonetheless, I feel that most of our energies should be channelled into exercising pressure from the outside, building our movements, strengthening our alliances and shifting the balance of forces. If we do this, we can force capital and its representatives in the COP processes to yield. Otherwise, they never will.

Every time it is confronted with a crisis, capitalism tries to adapt and shift its dynamics to benefit from that crisis. Some describe this as “disaster capitalism”. That’s what capitalism is doing now under the banner of “green capitalism” and “the green economy”. Some say they are pushing false solutions. In fact, they are not solutions at all—they are just ways of profiting, maintaining the status quo and taking advantage of the crisis.

They come up with wonderful names for these solutions: for example, carbon markets and carbon trading. Yet, carbon trading is basically commodifying the air. Imagine! They are commodifying everything: land, water, energy and even resources in the atmosphere. Carbon trading has been going on for over two decades, and it has failed miserably in its declared objective of reducing emissions. Some people have certainly made a lot of money out of it; yet, if it really worked, we should have seen some reduction of emissions. The idea behind carbon trading is to let companies and the rich pollute and emit carbon dioxide if they “offset” these emissions by doing some environmental or renewable energy project somewhere else. Notionally, this should balance out to “net zero”, thus reducing emissions in the long term. However, this is simply not the reality; carbon trading has been debunked by many studies and investigations.

In the past few years, the capitalists came up with new names for the same old mechanisms of dispossession, such as “nature-based solutions”. It’s just a new paradigm of “green” dispossession. Sounds great, right? Then there’s “net zero”. Every firm, including the fossil fuel companies, now has a strategy for net zero. They claim to care about the environment and say they will reduce emissions. French oil giant Total rebranded as TotalEnergies; BP even played with the idea of becoming “Beyond Petroleum”. Yet, they still invest more and more in fossil fuel energies.

Mainstream climate spaces have been hijacked by corporate interests, and it is increasingly obvious that the fossil fuel industry is playing a role in derailing discussions about a serious and just response to the climate crisis. We have seen this at many COP summits. At the COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, lots of organisations warned about the huge numbers of fossil fuel lobbyists present. This increased at COP27, then quadrupled between COP27 to COP28. Even the conference president of COP28 was a fossil fuel executive.4 Next year, the president will also be someone who has been involved in the fossil fuel industry for a long time.5

Oisín: What’s the role of the Gulf states in the logics of dispossession you mention?

Hamza: You can see an example of the role of the Gulf states in one of the false solutions I’m talking about—“carbon offsets” through conservation projects. Companies do conservation work somewhere in the world, for instance, in the forests of Africa or the Amazon, and then sell their carbon credits to big polluters such as Shell and ExxonMobil or to a petrostate in the Gulf.

It’s not just Western companies doing this. One key player is an Emirati firm called Blue Carbon. The president of the company is close to the Emirati royal family and has been involved in fossil fuel operations. Blue Carbon has purchased huge tracts of land in Africa, and I’m sure they are exploring other land deals in other parts of the world. In Liberia the land they acquired amounts to 10 percent of the country; in Zimbabwe, this figure is 20 percent; and similar amounts have been bought in Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia. Millions of hectares of forests and land have been taken away from local communities and indigenous groups in order to develop conservation projects, generate carbon credits and sell them to big polluters. Basically, these are pollution permits. Most of the benefits and the profits go to these companies, with some crumbs falling to local governments, which say: “Okay, we need some foreign currency; we need some foreign direct investment. So, it’s a win-win situation.” It’s not a win-win situation. Most of the profits are accumulated by Blue Carbon, and there are social and environmental costs that are not taken into account. The costs are externalised through land-grabs, the dispossession of local populations and the undermining of their livelihoods.

The entire continent of Africa is only responsible for 4 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Some 600 million people there do not have access to electricity. However, they are shouldering the burden of addressing the climate crisis. Who is pushing for that? Foreign entities, Gulf capital and Western capital. That’s neo-colonialism. You can call that “accumulation by dispossession”, you can call it “ecological imperialism” or you can call it the “reproduction of relations of plunder between core and periphery”. I just call it colonialism, albeit with a different face and by different methods.

I would like to emphasise again that the Arab region is not a homogenous one. There is a deep inequality that is inherent in the region. If you compare Saudi Arabia with Yemen, the United Arab Emirates with Lebanon, and Kuwait with Tunisia, you are talking about countries in completely different leagues. Personally, I would call the Gulf states a sub-imperialist force or, at best, a sort of semi-periphery of global capitalism. In any case, we need more nuance in our analyses and to go beyond just seeing the world as divided between the core of the imperialist capitalist system in the Global North—the EU, the US, Japan, Canada and Australia—and the Global South or “periphery”. There are countries that are much more economically advanced than the others in the “periphery” and have already started reproducing some of the core-periphery relationships in certain contexts. This includes China, some of the other BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa) and the Gulf states.

It is clear that the Gulf countries are reproducing neo-colonial, core-periphery relations of plunder, domination and dispossession, for example, by engaging in land-grabs. We can see this when we look at what the Gulf states are doing in the other Arab countries, East Africa and across the entire African continent. I have already mentioned Blue Carbon, but you may be surprised that Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are also purchasing huge swaths of land in Egypt and Sudan for their own agricultural and food production needs. Again, this is basically about externalising the social and environmental costs of their economic needs into another region and other countries.

In terms of renewable energy, we are also seeing the involvement of Gulf capital and companies in the renewable energy sectors of the other Arab countries. ACWA Power, a Saudi Arabian company, is present in several Arab countries, including Morocco and Egypt. In Jordan we can see the presence of another Gulf energy company, Masdar, which is owned by the Emirati state. These companies, among others, are intervening in local economies in sectors such as food and energy as well as construction, transport, banking and logistics.

Oisín: The book pays a lot of attention to large-scale renewable energy projects. Can you say more about the problems with these?

Hamza: Well, where these projects are being carried out in North Africa—for example, in Morocco, which is much more advanced in terms of the transition than neighbouring countries—we need to ask an important question: are we really seeing technology transfer? The answer is “no”. Instead, foreign companies are benefiting via so-called public-private partnerships, a euphemism for privatisation of the profits and socialisation of the losses. Private companies’ profits are always guaranteed. They build the project and run the operation, so there is no real technological transfer. They don’t create industrial or technological value chains inside the country to produce items such as solar panels. Everything is imported.

It’s the same in Tunisia, where projects are now being proposed that would see lots of foreign companies involved, including Chinese, Norwegian and even Moroccan firms. They all want a share of the Tunisian market. That is part of the “green colonialism” that we are highlighting. These projects are taking place on our lands, but they remain in the hands of the private sector, including foreign capital.

In any case, countries such as Tunisia have much more urgent priorities and pressing issues, such as climate adaptation and local development needs. Tunisia is responsible for just 0.07 percent of carbon dioxide emissions; it’s clearly not responsible for the climate crisis. So, why should it focus on climate mitigation and renewable energy projects? I’m not saying that it shouldn’t do these things. I’m just saying that there are much more urgent priorities, such as food sovereignty. Tunisians are facing protracted droughts, excessive water stress and water poverty. So, maybe Tunisia should focus on finding new water resources, initiating new desalination projects and radically transforming its agricultural model, which is extractivist and oriented on exports, consuming huge amounts of water to support its exports of tomatoes, oranges, citrus fruits, dates and olives to European markets. Instead, Tunisia and other states in the region are being pushed by their international “partners” to build massive renewable energy projects based on solar and hydrogen power.

We and other authors have focused on a key question that rises from this: how do we break from the chains of technology dependence? I think this is a matter grappled with by some of the post-colonial elites, that is, the nationalist elites that fought colonialism in the 1950s and 1960s. How do we acquire enough industrial expertise and technology to be able to break the chains of imperialist and capitalist domination? Some of these leaders engaged in what Marxist political economist Samir Amin called “delinking”. One delinks from the imperialist capitalist system not by becoming an autarky—that is, becoming completely independent of the global markets—but by creating a strong local economy that is focused on local priorities, rather than just on exporting what is needed by others. In this way, one can create an inward-looking local market, industrialising and integrating sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing and services. In this way, the project becomes a truly sovereign one. Yet, this necessitates the acquisition of technology. If the region’s countries, communities, and environmental and socio-economic justice movements fail to take these issues seriously, there will be no just energy transition.

Oisín: How does the expansion of green energy projects relate to imperialist rivalries over resources in the Middle East and North Africa?

Hamza: We can’t talk about decolonisation, green colonialism, energy and climate justice in the Arab countries without talking about the direct colonial dynamics that we are still witnessing, especially in Palestine, the Golan Heights and Western Sahara. These are crucial arguments—especially, given the genocide in Gaza, for Palestine. It’s not just about the military side of the war in Gaza; it’s also about the political economy of the genocidal Israeli offensive. During its bombing of Gaza, Israel has issued licences to various multinational fossil fuel corporations to explore the neighbouring gas reserves in the Mediterranean Sea. Some of these exploration areas are not even in Israeli maritime territory. All these multinationals are only interested in one thing: their bottom line. This makes them complicit with the genocide of the Palestinians in Gaza, since they are part of entrenching Israel’s settler-colonialism, apartheid and occupation.

Let’s also look at Egypt. After the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the EU attempted to wean itself off Russian gas by going to various parts of the world, including the Arab countries, in search of other sources of fossil fuels, mainly natural gas. Italy managed to convince Algeria to pump more gas through the Trans-Mediterranean pipeline, and the EU struck a deal with Qatar to ship liquefied natural gas into Europe. The EU also made a deal with Israel and Egypt, whereby Israel will transport its gas to Egypt so that it can be liquefied before being exported to Europe. Israel and Egypt both want to do more of this in order to present themselves as important energy hubs and reliable partners that can play a key role in safeguarding the EU’s energy security. Of course, these deals with Israel are happening at the expense of Palestinians.

It’s not just about fossil fuels. It’s also about renewable energy and water. The book’s chapters on Palestine and Jordan look into the planned Prosperity project between the Jordanian and Israeli states, which was agreed with Emirati mediation and the involvement of Masdar. There are two components of the project: Prosperity Blue and Prosperity Green. Prosperity Blue is to do with Jordan’s water crisis, which is the result of both the climate crisis and the decades-long plunder of water resources by Israel. Of course, nobody points out this latter cause, and the project allows Israel to present itself as an environmental steward, helping its neighbours to solve their water problems by sending water from Israeli desalination plants on the Mediterranean. Prosperity Green is the energy element of the project. A solar plant is to be built by Masdar in Jordan, and the electricity from this will be sold to Israel, some of which will be used in the desalination plant.

The negotiations for the Prosperity project stopped due to the war and genocide in Gaza, and I don’t think it’s going forward, at least in the short term. The Jordanians are understandably hesitant. However, such projects clearly demonstrate the colonial and neo-colonial dynamics of dependency at play. Palestinian climate activist and scholar Manal Shqair refers to these sorts of projects as the “eco-normalisation” of Israel. Normalisation is not just happening at the political level but also at the economic level and, increasingly, in the environmental sphere with deals over renewable energy and water. This makes it really hard for the region’s regimes to criticise or break relations with the Israeli state, since they are dependent on Israel for water and energy security.

Even if the Prosperity project fails to get the go-ahead, at least 20 percent of Jordan’s energy mix and 50 percent of its electricity generation is based on gas imported from Israel’s Leviathan and Tamar fields. This implies a huge level of dependency. The Israeli state, and Israeli companies such as NewMed Energy and Enlight Energy, are doing as much as they can to deepen these ties. In Morocco, for example, there are a lot of agreements over fossil fuels and renewable energy projects. There’s even talk of Israel doing green hydrogen projects. The more economic rapprochement there is between Arab states and Israel, the more difficult it will be for these countries to prioritise and support the Palestinian cause in concrete ways.

Beyond these direct colonial and imperialist dynamics, there are other examples of green neo-colonialism. Britain is seriously considering a project known as Xlinks, which involves importing solar energy from Morocco. A recent Financial Times article envisioned Xlinks forming part of the British state’s energy security strategy. It’s a big project, costing around £20 billion, and I wonder where the money will come. Will it come from the British government? Or will some of it come from the Moroccans? Again, we are seeing the externalisation of responsibility for tackling the climate crisis through an imperial spatial fix—from Global North to Global South, from the core to the periphery.

This is not about being against commercial deals and exports as such. We live in a globalised world, so there has to be trade and exchange. Nevertheless, we need a fundamental redistribution of wealth at the global level. Deals need to be done in a fair and equitable way. That means radically transforming trade agendas and trade agreements. Currently, these are neo-colonial in nature, because the agenda is dictated by the powerful—usually the EU, the US and the other major powers.

I don’t think the Xlinks project will end up transferring technology into North Africa. Will it create durable jobs in Morocco? No. The project requires more than 180 thousand hectares. What will happen with the local communities that will be displaced after this land is grabbed? Moreover, why does Morocco need to export green electricity to Europe in the first place? Doesn’t it make more sense to produce that affordable green electricity for the domestic population, especially since only 20 percent of Morocco’s electricity comes from renewables? If Global North countries want these sorts of projects, they should pay for them. Instead, we’ll just end up with more debt in the Global South. Rather than the richest countries paying their climate debts and reparations for centuries of colonialism and slavery, they want the poorer countries to absorb the social and environmental costs and put their own money into those projects.

Oisín: The book also aims to empower movements challenging the exploitative dynamics you mention. The concept of “just transition” is used a great deal. What do you mean by this?

Hamza: Some of the ideas in the book came out of a meeting that took place in Amsterdam in 2019. This event involved environmental organisations, trade unions and indigenous communities from Latin America, Southern Africa, Europe and the US. The meeting came up with some key principles that outlined what we mean when we talk about a just transition.

Just transition is a class issue. Just transition is a gender issue. It’s an anti-racist framework. Just transition is not simply about energy and the climate but also about radically transforming the economic and social structure. Furthermore, just transition is about democracy—not democracy in the liberal sense, but radical democratisation. We need to democratise societies and systems, including in the Global North. I don’t believe that Western countries are really democracies in the sense of being radical participatory and oriented on people. They are democracies in the bourgeois sense, where one class rules over the others in the name of capital. I would add one more principle too. Just transition is about people’s sovereignty. It’s a sovereignty project. So, in that sense, it is also decolonial and anti-imperialist.

Oisín: What forces and actors do you see as responsible for bringing about this process of democratisation and just transition?

Hamza: I think it depends on the context in each country, but I’ll try to paint a general picture of the key actors. One is the labour movement, which is extremely important. The concept of just transition emerged in the US during 1970s, when there was the convergence of three forces: the labour movement, the environmental movement and the struggles of indigenous communities. Labour rights are a crucial part of this discussion, especially in countries that are fossil fuel producers. What are you going to do with the workers in the fossil fuel industry in those countries? These are questions that we need to grapple with seriously. Just saying “leave the oil in the ground” is very simplistic. How can we make green jobs? How can we engage in green and just industrialisation policies? How can people get decent work in those environments? These are real questions that deserve serious attention and analysis.

We need to grapple with the reality—in the Arab countries as well as other parts of the African continent, Asia and Latin America—of informal work, migrant work and the rights of these toiling classes. In Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco 50 to 60 percent of the local labour force work in the informal sector. They have neither social security guarantees nor contractual protections. These workers are very vulnerable. In Gulf countries, such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, the majority of the workforce is made up of migrants. In certain places this can be as much as 80 to 90 percent. These people have no rights since they are not considered citizens of these countries. I’ve already talked about the role of the Gulf ruling classes and capital, as well as about the need to challenge their power and influence at the national, regional and global level in order to secure a just transition. Yet, how can we do it when the labour force in the Gulf is made up of repressed and constrained migrant workers? I don’t have the answer. This is something that we need to seriously grapple with in the labour, social justice, economic justice and environmental movements.

Another key force is the nascent youth-led environmental and climate justice movement. There are a lot of organisations and activists getting interested in these issues. Feminist and women-led organisations need to come into the discussion too, as well as organisations that work on migration issues. Then there’s the food sovereignty movement. As I said, just transition is not just about energy. Given that 20 to 30 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions are caused by industrial agriculture, issues of food sovereignty are vital. We need a transformation of the local food systems so they work for local populations, small-scale farmers, small-scale food producers, agricultural workers and pastoralists. Working with these sections of the population is especially vital if we want to break away from the dependencies imposed on us by imperialism. Moreover, these people are some of the most vulnerable to climate change, and they are already affected terribly by agribusiness and by land grabbing.

I think a constellation of these people, with some organic intellectuals, is important to push the discussion forward.

Oisín: One difficulty is that creating democratic processes that can guide just transition requires space within which the groups you mentioned can get organised. That’s hard to do in authoritarian states such as Egypt, Algeria and the Gulf monarchies. However, such space does open during revolutionary upheavals, and the region has seen two major waves of revolution since 2010. What is the role that revolutions can play in shaping the transition away from fossil fuels?

Hamza: I often get asked an important question—what is to be done? My short answer is that there is no blueprint. Revolutionary programmes and emancipatory visions are forged through struggle. When people organise and resist, they come up with their own solutions. When there is a convergence of different forces, of struggles against injustices and oppression, then a vision and a plan get made.

That doesn’t mean we should just wait for those upheavals or revolutionary moments. We need to keep organising all the time, even in the bleakest moments. In Egypt, Algeria, the Gulf and Palestine people continue to resist in inspiring and formidable ways. They are no passive victims. Obviously, it’s hard, and change may take decades. We’ve seen that most revolutions failed. Yet, that doesn’t mean we should give up hope. As you said, there have been two waves of uprisings in the Arab countries. People thought nothing would change and things would be like this indefinitely: just dictatorships and repressive regimes. However, the people rose in two successive waves.

Of those countries that experienced the first wave, Tunisia is, relatively speaking, the most successful. Yet, looking at what’s happening now, I think the counter-revolution is winning. There is a kind of reintegration of Tunisia into the global capitalist economy in a very subordinate position and a push for more neoliberal policies, neo-colonial agendas and debt-choking of Tunisians.

For me, just transition is a revolutionary project. I think we should say this clearly; it’s not just an agenda of reform. Nonetheless, you need strategies for the short, medium and long terms. Maybe, in the short and medium term, we could push for what some people call “non-reformist reforms”, that is, reforms that open up spaces for more revolutionary dynamics and give people more room to organise.

As I said above, it’s not just about the Global North and the Global South; it’s about class at the national, regional and global level. So, we also need to challenge the dominance of local predatory capital and the comprador ruling classes, who are complicit in the plunder of their own societies. If you look at the Gulf, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, you see ruling classes benefiting from the robbery of their own countries. It’s not just a battle against the imperialists of the Global North, but against their local agents and accomplices. Our struggle is an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist one—as well as an anti-authoritarian one. As you said, how can somebody talk about popular sovereignty over resources, the economy, energy and food in a military dictatorship? You simply cannot without endangering your own life. Of course, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of saying that we first need to democratise before we can talk about social, environmental, energy and food justice. These struggles must happen in parallel. You should push for democratisation as much as you can but, at the same time, you need to marry the social, economic and political questions. This is challenging organising work that can take decades, but I’m hopeful. Even in these bleak times, with the horror taking place in Palestine, people are resisting and will continue resisting. Change will come.

Another missing element is international solidarity. La Via Campesina (“The Peasant Way”), an international agrarian movement, has called for us to globalise the resistance. We are fighting a single world system, even if its local manifestations differ. We need solidarity between labour movements in the Global North and South, as well as with environmental movements.

Oisín: What are the main lessons from the book?

Hamza: The book has some limits and lacunas, and the contributors disagree about strategies and solutions. Some of us think that small, localised projects are the solution; others think that the state needs to play a preponderant role, which then raises the issue of democratisation and a transformation in the nature and class composition of the state. The book aims to enrich discussions of climate justice, energy democracy and just transition while asking critical questions about political economy. Who owns what? Who gets what? Who does what? Who wins, and who loses? Whose priorities are being served, and at whose expense? So, the first lesson is this: if you scratch below the language of sustainability and renewable energy, you find patterns of dispossession, plunder, marginalisation and exclusion. This can be seen everywhere, including in Europe, but especially in the Global South.

The second lesson is that energy shouldn’t be a commodity. Global financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, are pushing for privatisation and commodification of the renewable energy sector. We should reject this. Energy is a public good. We need to push for strong public services in the energy sector—as well as in water, health, education, transport and housing. We shouldn’t let the corporate sector lead the green energy transition for its own benefit; the transition should be planned by the public and for its own good.

A third lesson is about the need to avoid the neo-colonial or colonial dynamics that emanate from both Global North actors and rising forces such as the Gulf states. The book warns clearly about these dynamics, including those linked to new hypes around green hydrogen.6 Some actors—often the richest states and corporations—claim they are decarbonising and contributing to conservation renewable projects and conservation while they are simultaneously dispossessing workers, indigenous communities and others.

The fourth lesson is what Adam Hanieh has said in the book—take the Middle East seriously, because it’s a key node in global fossil capitalism.

For me, the lesson of the revolutionary movements in the region is this: “Organise, organise, organise!”. In the case of many uprisings or revolutions in the Arab countries in the past 15 years, there has been a tendency to rely on spontaneity, leaderlessness and horizontality. This is a global trend, not just a characteristic of Arab revolutionary movements. Vincent Bevins’s recent book, If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution (Hachette, 2023), is interesting in this regard. It focuses on the notion of a “missing revolution”, looking at how mass movements during the 2010s failed to achieve their aims in various parts of the world: the Arab region, Turkey, Hong Kong, Brazil and Chile. In the first days or months of these rebellions, they brought together the various classes, movements and sections of society; everybody was out on the streets. Yet, without a strong, organised revolutionary movement that has a coherent strategy and programme, counter-revolution will prevail. Politics cannot sustain a vacuum. Somebody else will always fill the emptiness created by spontaneity and horizontality. Other forces will take the lead—either the counter-revolutionaries of the old regime, the fascists or the more organised neoliberal forces.

So, there is a need for revolutionary left-wing forces. The current conditions in the region are very difficult: the counter-revolutions, the military dictatorships, the wars, the imperialist destruction in Libya, Iraq, Yemen and Palestine, and the ongoing dominance of the Gulf states. Yet, this doesn’t foreclose the emergence of the nucleus of a future revolutionary left that can bring about strong alliances. I think we need to avoid sectarian mentalities: “I know it all. Only I have the correct line.” We need a convergence of different elements to shift the balance of forces, but without losing the autonomy and political independence of revolutionary actors.

We can learn from past experience, especially from anti-colonial struggles in the Middle East and Africa. Why did these struggles succeed in their initial stages? Why did they later fail and suffer defeat? What lessons can we learn so that we do better? That’s how revolutions work. You need to learn from the mistakes of the past; a lot of the mistakes made in the current times have been made before. Studying the history of revolutions—and learning in order to make a kind of a synthesis—is important. Revolutionaries in the region need to do that.

Hamza Hamouchene is an Algerian scholar and activist. He is the editor, with Katie Sandwell, of Dismantling Green Colonialism: Energy and Climate Justice in the Arab Region (Pluto, 2023).


1 The interview was carried out in January 2024. It has been edited for length and clarity. All footnotes are by the editors. A dossier on the themes discussed here is available in four languages from The full book is available in open access at

2 GIZ is the main German development agency, mobilising aid from the state as well as other donors.

3 The Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change is an international convention of political figures and non-state actors that meets annually in various locations around the world.

4 The COP28 conference was held in the United Arab Emirates in November 2023. The event was presided over by Sultan Al Jaber, who is a minister in the Emirati government and the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

5 The COP29 conference will be held in November in Baku, Azerbaijan, with natural resources minister Mukhtar Babayev as its president. Babayev is a former vice president of the State Oil Company of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

6 For instance, some estimates from the British state claim that 50 percent of the country’s energy needs could be met by hydrogen by 2050. Nonetheless, harvesting hydrogen is an extremely energy-intensive process that can itself produce large qualities of emissions.