Electricity Access and the Potential of Renewable Energy in the Middle East and North Africa

Examining the electricity and renewable energy share of countries in the Middle East provides an interesting analysis for assessing the disparities that perpetuate barriers between less developed countries and highly developed ones. These barriers are especially prominent in developing countries such as the non-oil producing states of the Middle East, with the difference being their ability to profit off of their natural resources. However, this difference also affects the ability to access simple necessities such as electricity. In this paper, we aim to explore the relationship between energy consumption and natural resources such as oil and gas, and those countries without them. We expect to find that countries with abundant oil resources tend to have better access to electricity but lower shares of renewable energy consumption, while those without such resources have limited access to electricity but higher shares of renewable energy consumption.

Promoting universal access to electricity and encouraging states to transition towards the production of renewable energy is one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), both captured in Goal 7.1 and 7.2.1 respectively. Using data archived by the World Bank, we find that Arab populations have historically had better access to electricity relative to the world average. Figure 1 demonstrates that the Arab world had a rate of access to electricity at about 80%, compared to the world average of roughly 76%.

Interestingly, we note that the graph captures a slight downward trend. We believe that this effect is likely explained by the intensification of conflicts in the region. For example, a recent academic article finds that Libya’s civil war has cut the country’s power generation capacity by close to half. This could explain why in 2020 only 69.7% of the population had access to electricity, a 30% decline from 2000. In the same vein, data from twenty-two years ago indicated that 93% of Syria’s population had access to electricity. However, the most recent figures estimate that only 89% of Syrians currently have access to electricity.

Figure 2 analyzes the GDP composition of Arab oil exporters in the MENA region, using data extrapolated from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) 2016 report on the Annual Meeting of Arab Ministers of Finance. The countries’ GDP composition is divided into three categories: oil, government, and other. The data reveals that Algeria, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen have a significant reliance on the oil sector and oil exports, highlighting a lack of economic diversification in these countries. This trend has significant implications for the sustainability of these economies in the future, particularly when their oil reserves start to dwindle. In this context, our focus is on the link between the dominance of oil exportation in Arab economies and the broader issues of sustainability.

Consistent with our hypothesis, most of the countries we examined have a high level of population access to electricity, with the exception of Yemen and Syria. Interestingly, despite having lower access to electricity, both Yemen and Syria have higher renewable energy consumption than most of the major Arab oil exporters, as depicted in Figure 3. Specifically, Yemen has a renewable energy consumption rate of 3.1%, and Syria at 1.02%, compared to wealthier oil-exporting states like the UAE at 0.67%, Saudi Arabia at 0.03%, and Qatar at 0.04%. It is possible that the conditions in Syria and Yemen have made renewable energy sources more reliable than electricity. These findings suggest that the main Arab oil-exporting states have yet to diversify their energy consumption to align with the UN’s sustainable development goals, despite their wealth and the potential for investment in diversification strategies.

Furthermore, it is concerning that the oil sector in these Arab states is not a sustainable source of employment to absorb the growing workforce and younger generations seeking job opportunities.

Figure 3 utilizes World Bank data to measure the renewable energy share in the total final energy consumption of MENA countries. We included primarily oil-rich Arab states as well as those that were less dependent on oil to facilitate a better comparison of the data. The data spans from 1990 to 2020, with the renewable energy share calculated in percentages. Our findings show that many of the oil-rich MENA states with economies heavily reliant on oil exports tended to have much lower renewable energy share percentages, particularly Bahrain, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait, which had extremely low renewable energy shares. In contrast, Turkey, Morocco, and Tunisia had significantly higher renewable energy shares while also being much less oil-dependent than other MENA region oil states.

An interesting area for future research could explore the comparisons between the MENA region and African countries in terms of renewable energy. Throughout our research, we found that African countries displayed significantly higher renewable energy shares despite their developing status. This suggests that renewable energy shares are not necessarily influenced by a country’s development status, but rather are heavily dependent on whether the country is reliant on oil, as is the case for many MENA region states with less diversified economies.

In this entry, we explore the disparities in electricity and renewable energy consumption patterns within the MENA region, with a focus on the developmental barriers faced by non-oil-producing states. Our hypothesis is that countries with high access to oil have better access to electricity but poorer shares of renewable energy consumption, while those with low access to oil have less access to electricity but higher shares of renewable energy consumption. We believe that these disparities have significant implications for the achievement of the SDGs and global efforts to address climate change. To support our claims, we rely on data collected by the World Bank and emphasize the urgency of assisting developing countries in achieving sustainable development for environmental and economic concerns, particularly in the context of diversification efforts within the oil-dominated economies of Arab states.

About the authors:

Noah Chang is a Political Science major, with a minor in International Relations at Drew University. 

Corey Mehl is majoring in Political Science, with a minor in Spanish at Drew University.

Marianela Pina De La Hoz is an Economics and International Relations major with a minor in Data Science and Spanish at Drew University.

Editor’s note: This entry was written for Drew University's PSCI 229 Middle East Politics.