As the West Shifts Away From Fossil Fuels, MENA Pays the Price

By Giorgia Piantanida

Extinction rebellion supporters march down Constitution Hill towards Buckingham Palace and the River Thames. 

Image: Flickr

Increasingly, our reliance on fossil fuels and global conflict are connected. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, a part of the world that nations often value for their fossil fuel reserves. With many countries in the region having a significant portion of their economies based on oil and natural gas exports, the fossil fuel market directly impacts the stability of their governments and communities. Looking ahead, the United States must assist MENA in dealing with a global shift away from fossil fuels to prevent further conflict and instability.

Fossil Fuel Dependent Economies

The MENA region is overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels. The World Bank estimates the region has around 57 percent of the world’s oil reserves and 41 percent of natural gas resources. Countries such as Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iran, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, and Congo are particularly reliant on fossil fuels, where oil exports make up to 70 percent of their GDPs.

A significant problem for these countries is the global communities’ shift away from fossil fuels. Though this shift has been slow, it still poses a considerable threat to the well-being of these countries’ economies and social stability. As demand for fossil fuels decreases, so will their costs and exports, disrupting the economic welfare of many fossil fuel-reliant countries in the region. Any downturns in the market will create immense job loss, wage stagnation or cuts, and a diminished quality of life.

As people lose their jobs and their economic stability, they are more likely to act in increasingly desperate manners to meet their needs. This will increase their likelihood to engage in conflict, whether with neighbors or with their government that is displaying an inability to provide help. When individuals cannot meet basic food needs, riots, protests, and instability will all increase.

The conflicts and crises usually begin on local, small-scale levels and eventually build up to cities, which ultimately cascades to entire countries. One outcome of this will be increased refugee flows as people try to escape to safer environments where they can meet their basic needs.

Not Just MENA’s Problem

But economic instability will not be limited to the MENA region—it will spread to the entirety of the global economy. The economic system is immensely interconnected, and it is challenging to keep one part healthy if another begins to crumble. These conditions create an environment ripe for revolution, instability, and conflict. 

Conflict in the MENA region could also require military and humanitarian intervention on behalf of the United States government. Nations often send militaries to complete humanitarian missions as militaries are well organized, equipped, and trained. There may also be a triggering of the responsibility to protect, which would occur if a state were not safeguarding its people. In such a case, other countries (typically the United States and allies) intervene to ensure the safety of citizens.

The intricate ties worldwide will mean that distant economic downturns will directly impact the United States, and there will be little ability to react with force once it is too late. Therefore, preventative action is key.

Looking Ahead

As the United States moves forward, there are several actions it can and should take, but it should act quickly. The United States must help governments, and more specifically communities and businesses, transform their economies. The United States can provide necessary assistance by incentivizing green energy and ensuring that economies diversify so they do not rely solely on the export of one energy source.

Action must be taken from the ground up rather than top down. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) and government agencies that provide preventative assistance must engage with communities and understand how their needs can best be met. Often, NGOs go into countries assuming they know what’s best, generating little positive change. 

Conflicts and instability in one part of the world will inevitably impact the rest—nothing remains contained to one region. The world is immensely interconnected, and the globalized nature of the food chain has caused immense downwind effects. The war in Ukraine exemplifies this phenomenon—given that Russia and Ukraine are significant exporters of wheat, major importers like Nigeria or Egypt are facing severe shortages.

As a region of interest for the United States for economic and national-defense reasons, not assisting MENA in reducing its reliance on fossil fuels is dangerous. By aiding in the region’s shift to renewables, it would gain security and stability. With a focus on grassroots action, community building, and empowerment of civil society, the United States will ensure a more secure MENA region and, therefore, a more secure United States.

Giorgia is a current graduate student in International Security at the Università di Trento and Scuola Superiore di Sant’Anna Pisa in Italy. She is interested in the intersections between climate change and human security, focusing on people flow and global justice. 

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