Just in Time
The Urgent Need for a Just Transition in the Arab Region
January 30, 2024
The following piece is a lightly edited excerpt from the authors’ introduction to their edited volume Dismantling Green Colonialism Energy and Climate Justice in the Arab Region, just out from Pluto Press.
The reality of climate breakdown is already visible in the Arab region, undermining the ecological and socioeconomic basis of life. Countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt are experiencing recurrent severe heat waves and prolonged droughts, with catastrophic impacts on agriculture and small-scale farmers. Ranked as one of the world’s five most vulnerable nations to climate change and desertification, Iraq was hit in 2022 by many sandstorms that shut down much of the country, with thousands of people hospitalized because of respiratory problems. The country’s environment ministry has warned that over the next two decades Iraq could endure an average of 272 days of sandstorms a year, rising to above 300 by 2050. In the summer of 2021, Algeria was struck by unprecedented and devastating wildfires; Kuwait experienced a suffocating heat wave, registering the highest temperature on earth that year, at well over 50ºC; and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Yemen, Oman, Syria, Iraq and Egypt all experienced devastating floods, while southern Morocco struggled with terrible droughts for the third year in a row. In the years ahead, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that the Mediterranean and Gulf regions will see an intensification of extreme weather events, such as wildfires and flooding, and further increases in aridity and droughts.
“It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5ºC.” That’s the warning from the IPCC working group behind the 2022 comprehensive review of climate science. The review report warns that the world is set to reach 1.5ºC of warming within the next two decades and states that only the most drastic cuts in carbon emissions, starting today, can prevent an environmental and climate disaster. Since these reviews are conducted every six to seven years, this can be seen as the last warning from the IPCC before the world is set irrevocably on a path to climate breakdown, with terrifying consequences. As United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres declared when the report was released: “In concrete terms, [this level of global heating] means major cities under water, unprecedented heat waves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages, and the extinction of one million species of plants and animals.”
The impacts of these changes are disproportionately felt by marginalized people, including small-scale farmers, agro-pastoralists, agricultural laborers and fisherfolk. Already, people in the Arab world are being forced off their lands by stronger and more frequent droughts and winter storms, expanding deserts and rising sea levels. Crops are failing and water supplies are dwindling, deeply impacting food production in a region that is chronically dependent on food imports. As the effects of climate change are increasingly felt, there is a huge pressure on already scarce water supplies due to changes in rainfall and seawater intrusion into groundwater reserves, as well as groundwater overuse. According to an article in the Lancet, this will place most Arab countries under the absolute water-poverty level of 500 m³ per person per year by 2050.
Climate scientists are predicting that the climate in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) could change in such a manner that the very survival of its inhabitants will be in jeopardy. In North Africa, for example, those whose lives will be changed the most by climate change include small-scale farmers in the Nile Delta and rural areas in Morocco and Tunisia, the fisherfolk of Jerba and Kerkennah (Tunisia), the inhabitants of In Salah in Algeria, the Saharawi refugees in the Tindouf camps (Algeria), and the millions living in informal settlements in Cairo, Khartoum, Tunis, and Casablanca. Elsewhere in the Arab region, small-scale farmers and fisherfolk in occupied Palestine, internally displaced people and refugees in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Jordan, and hyper-exploited migrant workers in the UAE and Qatar will face the violence of the climate crisis with little protection as they are frequently housed in squalid conditions, denied routine medical care, and face malnutrition.
The climate crisis was not an inevitable fact: it has been, and continues to be, driven by the choice to keep burning fossil fuels – a choice made predominantly by corporations and Northern governments, together with national ruling classes, including in the Arab region. Energy and climate plans in that part of the world are shaped by authoritarian regimes and their backers in Riyadh, Brussels and Washington DC. Rich local elites collaborate with multinational corporations, and international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Despite all of their promises, the actions of these institutions show that they are enemies of climate justice and of humanity’s very survival.
Every year, the world’s political leaders, advisers, media and corporate lobbyists gather for another United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) on the issue of climate change. But despite the threat facing the planet, governments continue to allow carbon emissions to rise and the crisis to escalate. After three decades of what the Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg has called “blah blah blah,” it has become evident that these climate talks are bankrupt and are failing. They have been hijacked by corporate power and private interests that promote profit-making false solutions, like carbon trading and so-called “net-zero” and “nature-based solutions,” instead of forcing industrialized nations and multinationals to reduce carbon emissions and leave fossil fuels in the ground.
With COP28 being held in Dubai, UAE, in 2023, the Arab region will have hosted the climate talks five times since their inception in 1995: COP7 (2001) and COP22 (2016) in Marrakech, Morocco; COP18 (2012) in Doha, Qatar; and COP27 (2022) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. In recent years, and especially since the 2015 Paris Agreement walked back from the (already grossly inadequate) binding targets established in the Kyoto Accord to allow countries to independently determine their own emissions reduction targets, scepticism about the ability of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to tackle the most urgent challenge facing humanity has grown. COPs attract massive media attention but tend not to achieve major breakthroughs. COP27, held in Sharm el-Sheikh in 2022, achieved an agreement on Payment for Loss and Damage that has been lauded by some as an important step in making richer countries accountable for the damage caused by climate change in the global South. However, as the agreement lacks clear funding and enforcement mechanisms, critics worry it will meet with the same fate as the broken promise (first made in COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009) to provide $100 billion in climate finance by 2020. That promise was never fully realised, with assistance often taking the form of interest-bearing loans instead. As for COP28, the UAE’s appointment of Sultan al-Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, to preside over the talks seems to many activists and observers to symbolize the deep commitment to continued oil extraction, regardless of the cost, which has characterized negotiations to date.
Middle Eastern and North African states, with their national oil and gas companies, alongside the big oil majors, are doing their best to maintain their operations, and even expand and profit from the remaining fossil fuels they possess. Sisi’s Egypt is aspiring to become a major energy hub in the region, exporting its surplus electricity and mobilizing various energy sources, such as offshore gas, oil, renewable energies and hydrogen, to satisfy the European Union’s (EU’s) energy needs. And this is of course inextricable from the ongoing efforts at political and economic normalization with the colonial state of Israel. The Algerian regime, for its part, is also benefiting from the oil price bonanza and taking advantage of the EU’s scramble for alternatives to Russian gas in order to expand its fossil fuel operations and plans. The Gulf countries, such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar, are no different. The ruling classes across the region have been talking about the “after oil” era for decades, and successive governments have paid lip service to the transition to renewable energies for years without taking concrete action, apart from some grandiose and unrealistic plans and projects, such as the proposed, and controversial, futuristic mega-city of Neom in Saudi Arabia. For these ruling classes, the iterations of the COP process represent a golden opportunity to advance their greenwashing agenda, as well as their efforts to attract and capture funds and finances for various energy projects and purportedly “green” plans.
Egypt’s hosting of the 2022 COP was controversial in view of its government’s record of repression and its efforts to prevent access to the summit by environmental groups and climate activists. In fact, the Sharm el-Sheikh COP27 was one of the most exclusionary conferences in history, with a substantially diminished space for the activism, dissidence, discussions, debates, new connections, networking, collective strategies, actions, and mobilizations needed to generate pressure on global decision-makers to deliver on their promises and promote real solutions to the unfolding climate emergency. The choice of Egypt as the host in 2022, and of UAE as the host for 2023, is not innocent and is a clear indication that the COP process as a whole is becoming more undemocratic and exclusionary. Moreover, the context of the intensification of geopolitical rivalries unleashed by the war in Ukraine is not amenable to cooperation between major powers and provides yet another pretext for continuing the global addiction to fossil fuels. Indeed, it could be the final nail in the coffin of global climate talks.
Humanity’s survival depends on both leaving fossil fuels in the ground and adapting to the already changing climate, while moving towards renewable energies, sustainable levels of energy use and other social transformations. Billions will be spent on trying to adapt – finding new water sources, restructuring agriculture and changing the crops that are grown, building sea walls to keep the saltwater out, changing the shape and style of cities – and on trying to shift to green sources of energy by building the required infrastructure and investing in green jobs and technology. But whose interest will this adaptation and energy transition serve? And who will be expected to bear the heaviest costs of the climate crisis, and of responses to it?
The same greedy and authoritarian power structures that have contributed to climate change are now shaping the response to it. Their main goal is to protect private interests and to make even greater profits. While the international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF, and Northern governments and their agencies, such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the EU, and the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), are all now articulating the need for a climate transition, their vision is of a capitalist, and often corporate-led, transition, not one led by and for working people. While the voices of civil society organizations and social movements in the Arab region are largely not heard when it comes to the implications of this transition and the need for just and democratic alternatives, the aforementioned institutions and governments speak loudly, organizing events and publishing reports in all the countries of the Arab region. These actors don’t shy away from highlighting the dangers of a warmer world, and even argue for urgent action, including using more renewable energy and developing adaptation plans. However, their analysis of climate change and the needed transition remains limited – and even dangerous, as it threatens to reproduce the patterns of dispossession and resource plunder that characterize the prevailing fossil fuel regime.
The vision of the future that is pushed by these powerful actors is one where economies are subjugated to private profit, including through further privatization of water, land, resources, energy – and even the atmosphere. The latest stage in this development includes the public–private partnerships (PPPs) now being implemented in every sector in the Arab region, including in renewable energies. The drive towards the privatization of energy and corporate control of the energy transition is global and is not unique to the region, but the dynamic is quite advanced here and has so far been met with only limited resistance. Morocco is already advancing along this path, and so is Tunisia. In Tunisia, a major push is under way to expand the privatization of the country’s renewable energy sector and to give huge incentives to foreign investors to produce green energy in the country, including for export. Tunisian law – modified in 2019 – even allows for the use of agricultural land for renewable projects in a country that suffers from acute food dependency, a dependency that was starkly revealed during the COVID-19 pandemic and that is evident once again at the time of writing, as war rages in Ukraine.
As developments like this take place across the region, they highlight the importance of asking: “Energy for what and for whom?” “Who is the energy transition intended to serve?” The supposedly “green economy” and the broader mainstream vision of so-called “sustainable development” are being presented by international financial institutions, corporations and governments as a new paradigm. But in reality they are merely an extension of the existing logics of capital accumulation, commodification and financialization, including of the natural world.
North Africa and West Asia as a key node in global fossil capitalism
North Africa and West Asia/the MENA region must be understood within the context of the larger capitalist world market, which is characterised by the concurrent rise of new zones of accumulation and growth in some parts of the world and the relative decline of long-established centers of power in North America and Europe. Not only does the region today play a major role in mediating new global networks of trade, logistics, infrastructure, and finance, it is also a key nodal point in the global fossil fuel regime and plays an integral role in keeping fossil capitalism intact through the fundamental factor of its oil and gas supplies. In fact, the region remains the central axis of world hydrocarbon markets, with a total share of global oil production standing at around 35 percent in 2021. Historically, these supplies fueled a major shift in the global energy regime during the mid-twentieth century, with oil and gas replacing coal as the primary fuel for global transportation, manufacturing and industrial production. More recently, the resources of the Middle East have been essential in regard to meeting the increased demand for oil and gas fuelled by the rise of China, heralding a key structural shift in the global political economy over the last two decades based on closer ties between the Middle East and East Asia. All of this has positioned Middle East oil producers as indisputable protagonists in climate change debates and any future transition away from fossil fuels.
The historical, political, and geophysical realities of the Arab region mean that both the effects of and the solutions to the climate crisis there will be distinct from those in other contexts. From the mid-nineteenth century to the second half of the twentieth century, the region was forcibly integrated into the global capitalist economy in a subordinate position: colonial/imperial powers influenced or forced the countries of the region to structure their economies around the extraction and export of resources – usually provided cheaply and in raw form – coupled with the import of high-value industrial goods. The result was a large-scale transfer of wealth to the imperial centers/cores, at the expense of local development and ecosystems. The persistence till today of such unequal and asymmetric relations (which some call unequal economic/ecological exchange, or ecological imperialism) preserves the role of Arab countries as exporters of natural resources, such as oil and gas, and primary commodities that are heavily dependent on water and land, such as monoculture cash crops. This entrenches an outward-looking extractivist economy, thereby exacerbating food dependency and the ecological crisis, and it also maintains relations of imperialist domination and neocolonial hierarchies. However, it is important to avoid the tendency to see the region as an undifferentiated whole, but rather to be aware of its inherent unevenness and deep inequalities. A closer look reveals the underlying role of the Gulf in this configuration, as a semi-periphery – or even as a sub-imperialist – force. Not only is the Gulf significantly richer than its other Arab neighbors, it also participates in the capture and syphoning off of surplus value at the regional level, reproducing core–periphery-like relations of extraction, marginalization and accumulation by dispossession. In this regard, the work of Adam Hanieh (one of the contributors to this book) is enlightening in terms of how economic liberalization in the Middle East over recent decades (through various structural adjustment packages in the 1990s and 2000s) has been closely bound up with the internationalization of Gulf capital throughout the wider region. Gulf capitalists now dominate key economic sectors of many neighboring countries, including real estate and urban development, agribusiness, telecommunications, retail, logistics, and banking and finance.
Crucial questions therefore need to be raised when talking about addressing climate change and transitioning towards renewable energies in the region: What would a just response to climate change look like here? Would it mean the freedom to move across, and to open the borders within, the region, and to open the borders with Europe? Would it mean the payment of climate debt, restitution, and redistribution – by Western governments, by multinational corporations, and by rich local elites nationally and regionally? Would it mean a radical break with the capitalist system? What should happen to the fossil fuel resources in the region that are currently being extracted by national companies and foreign corporations? Who should control and own the region’s renewable energy? What does adapting to a changing climate mean here, and who will shape and benefit from these adaptations? And who are the key agents and actors that will fight for meaningful change and radical transformation?
While governments all over the world are beginning to take climate change seriously, they often see it through a “climate security” lens – bolstering defenses against rising sea levels and extreme weather events, and too often also shoring up their defenses against the “threat” of climate refugees and activists, and against renegotiations of global power. The securitization and militarization of the climate response in the Middle East is itself a potential challenge and threat to the climate justice agenda, given that the region plays a pivotal role in the global development of coercive technologies, techniques and doctrines. This role extends beyond the region’s status as the world’s single largest export market for weapons and military hardware and includes its crucial involvement in the testing of new security technologies, including emerging forms of surveillance and population control. Several authors have drawn attention to the intricate international networks that support the region’s arms trade and surveillance industry, including the flow of War on Terror logics, military technologies, personnel, training manuals, cross-border operations, police forces, and private military and security companies. All of these factors combine to make the Middle East an important hub in the global spread of new norms of militarism and securitization. Moreover, the dynamics of warfare in the region itself are also significantly shaped by these global ties, as are the various ways that militaries have been assimilated into political and economic systems on both a national and regional level.
It is of the utmost importance and urgency to start looking at the issue of climate change through a justice lens rather than a security one. Seeing the future through the frame of “security” subordinates our struggles to a conceptual and imaginative framework that ultimately re-empowers the state’s repressive power and securitizes and militarizes the response. More tanks and guns, higher walls and more militarized borders will not solve the climate crisis. At best, they will allow the rich to survive in comfort while the rest of the world pays the price for climate inaction. We need to break with the system of capitalist exploitation of people and the planet that has given rise to the climate crisis, not arm and entrench it.
The colonial gaze and environmental orientalism
Just as economic subjugation and imperialist domination have undermined the political and economic autonomy of the Arab region, knowledge production about, and representations of, Arab people and their environments have equally been used by colonial powers to legitimate their colonial project and imperial goals. Such strategies of domination continue today, as countries in the region are being recast (once again) as objects of development (sustainable or otherwise), echoing the colonial mission civilisatrice (civilising mission).
Refuting the theses of French colonial historians regarding the supposed “historical backwardness” and “the state of being frozen in time” of the Berbers/Amazigh, Arabs and Muslims, and of their civilizations, the Moroccan historian and philosopher Abdallah Laroui argues that the reality of the indigenous populations in the Maghreb in its multiple facets (political, economic, cultural, environmental, etc), and at various historical times, has been deliberately misrepresented in order to advance a false and essentialist narrative that serves a colonial agenda of subduing, dominating and expanding. The American geographer Diana K. Davis concurs and argues that Anglo-European environmental imaginaries in the nineteenth century represented the environment in the Arab world most often as “alien, exotic, fantastic, or abnormal, and frequently as degraded in some way.” She aptly uses Edward Said’s concept of orientalism as a framework to interpret early Western representations of the Middle Eastern and North African environment as displaying a form of “environmental orientalism.” This environment was narrated by those who became the imperial powers, primarily Britain and France, as a “strange and defective” one, as compared to Europe’s “normal and productive” environment. This implied the need for some kind of intervention “to improve, restore, normalize and repair” it.
This deceptive representation of presumed environmental degradation and ecological disaster was used by colonial authorities to justify all sorts of dispossession, as well as policies designed to control the populations of the region and their environments. In North Africa (and later in the Mashriq), the French constructed an environmental narrative of degradation in order to implement “dramatic economic, social, political and environmental changes.” According to this perspective, the natives and their environments warranted the “blessings” of the mission civilisatrice and required the attention of the white man.
Narratives are always the product of their historical moment and are never innocent, and therefore one always needs to ask: in whose benefit do knowledge production, representations, and narratives work? One glaring contemporary example is the current representation of the North African Sahara, which is usually described as a vast, empty, and dead land that is sparsely populated, thus constituting a golden opportunity to provide Europeans with cheap energy so they can continue their extravagant consumerist lifestyle and excessive energy consumption. This false narrative ignores issues of ownership and sovereignty, while masking ongoing global hegemonic relations that facilitate the draining of resources, privatization of the commons, and dispossession of communities. As in many places where working people’s lives and livelihoods are invisible or “illegible” to colonizing states, “there is no vacant land” in North Africa. Even when sparsely populated, traditional landscapes and territories are embedded in cultures and communities, and people’s rights and sovereignty must be respected in any socio-ecological transformation.
It is crucial to analyze the mechanisms by which the other is dehumanized and how the power of representing and constructing imaginaries about them (and their environments) is used to entrench structures of power, domination and dispossession. In this regard, the process Said describes in Orientalism of “disregarding, essentializing, [and] denuding the humanity” of another culture, people or geographical region continues today to be employed to justify violence towards the other and towards nature. This violence takes the form of displacing populations, grabbing land and resources, making people pay for the social and environmental costs of extractive and renewable projects, bombing, massacring, letting people drown in the Mediterranean, and destroying the earth in the name of progress. Naomi Klein put this eloquently in her 2016 Edward Said Lecture, in which she described a white-supremacist/racist culture that is increasingly evident in parts of Europe and the United States: “A culture that places so little value on black and brown lives, that it is willing to let human beings disappear beneath the waves, or set themselves on fire in detention centers, will also be willing to let the countries where black and brown people live disappear beneath the waves, or desiccate in the arid heat.” Such a “culture” won’t blink an eye when it places catastrophic socio-environmental costs onto the poor in these countries.
Resisting and dismantling the orientalist and (neo)colonial environmental narrative about the Arab region will both enable and require building visions of collective climate action, social justice, and socio-ecological transformation that are rooted in the experiences, analyses, and emancipatory visions of the African and Arab regions and beyond.
What is “just transition”?
As outlined above, discussions of climate action are often narrow and technocratic, neoliberal and market-based, top-down and implicitly focused on preserving the structures of racist, imperialist and patriarchal capitalism. Against this backdrop of proposals that, at best, largely ignore questions of power and justice, the concept of “just transition” has emerged as a framework that places justice at the centre of the discussion. This approach recognizes that, in the words of Eduardo Galeano, “the rights of human beings and the rights of nature are two names for the same dignity.” Where did the idea of just transition come from, and what might it have to offer to the project of developing grounded, bottom-up, and anti-imperialist visions of emancipation and climate action in the context of the Arab region?
The origin of the concept of just transition is usually traced back to the US in the 1970s, when pathbreaking alliances between labour unions and environmental justice and indigenous movements emerged to fight for environmental justice in the context of polluting industries. In the face of environmental regulations which were being implemented for the first time or tightened during this decade, companies claimed that policies to protect the environment would require them to lay off workers. Unions and communities rallied against this attempt to divide and conquer, arguing that workers and communities – especially black, brown and indigenous communities, who were (and remain) the most impacted by polluting industries – had a shared interest in a livable environment, and in decent, safe and fairly paid work.
Over the decades that followed, the concept of just transition was taken up, explored, and elaborated by a range of different movements, initially in the US and Canada, but subsequently also around the world, and especially in South America and South Africa. Labor and environmental justice movements, working with indigenous nations, women’s movements, youth, students, and other groups, have built coalitions and shared visions of what a just transition would look like: transformative solutions to the climate crisis that tackle its underlying causes, and that put human rights, ecological regeneration, and people’s sovereignty at the centre.
As the framework has gained in popularity, corporations and governments have increasingly tried to advance their own visions of just transition which lack class analysis and deny the need for radical transformation. With the inclusion of the term “just transition” in the preamble of the Paris agreement – a hard-won victory for global labour and climate justice movements – this co-optation has intensified. Today, just transition is not a single concept but a field of contestation, a space where struggles about what responses to the climate crisis are possible and necessary are playing out. The term does not automatically imply progressive or emancipatory politics, and many actors use it to describe and defend proposals which are basically business as usual or intensified green extractivism. Nonetheless, far more than rhetoric about “sustainable development” or the “green economy,” the idea of just transition still provides a space that movements can use to insist on the primacy of justice in all climate solutions. Despite attempts at co-optation, the centrality of “justice” in the term itself is an important strength of the concept of just transition.
Just transition proposals being advanced by progressive social movements are driven by a conviction that the people who bear the heaviest costs of the current system should not be the ones who pay the costs of a transition to a sustainable or regenerative society, and, at the same time, should be the leading actors in shaping such a transition. Different movement dynamics have explored different dimensions of this, seeking to better understand the costs of the current system, the possibilities for transformation, and the likely costs of proposed alternatives. From feminist and indigenous perspectives to regional and national programs, movements are advancing their own definitions of both “justice” and “transition” in their diverse contexts.
A meeting of environmental justice and labour movements from three continents that took place in Amsterdam in 2019 (which incidentally laid the foundations for the present book) sought to identify key principles of just transition: (1) just transition looks different in different places; (2) just transition is a class issue; (3) just transition is a gender issue; (4) just transition is an anti-racist framework; (5) just transition is about more than just climate; and (6) just transition is about democracy.
While not claiming to be an exhaustive definition or final set of permanent principles, this analysis lays out the contours of a position that recognizes that discussions of just transition must respond to the reality of unequal development caused by imperialism and colonialism; that just transition must include radical shifts that increase the power of working people in all their diversity (see below) and reduce the power of capital and governing elites; that environmental issues cannot be addressed without addressing the racist, sexist and other oppressive structures of the capitalist economy; that the environmental crisis is much broader than just the climate crisis, encompassing loss of habitats and biodiversity, and a fundamental breakdown in human relationships with the “natural world”; and that a just transition cannot be achieved without transformations of political, as well as economic, power towards greater democratization.
A second important strength of just transition is its history as a tool or framework for unifying diverse movements by overcoming differences and potential divisions. As mentioned above, the term emerged originally as a response to the “divide and conquer” tactics of businesses resisting environmental regulation. These tactics continue to be used as corporations push for policies that protect profits regardless of the costs for communities, workers, and the planet; and that pit different regions and different kinds of working people against each other. International climate justice movements, national and regional coalitions, and local alliances around the world recognize that virtually all of us benefit from a livable and flourishing environment and suffer when wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite who count on being able to protect themselves from the worst effects of the climate crisis. Yet building shared campaigns and common visions, cultivating trust and solidarity, and developing and fighting for shared proposals is slow and politically challenging work – but necessary, as any shortcuts that try to side-step this process are likely to compromise the justice that must be at the heart of any just transition. The concept of just transition, and the growing body of experiences of working and campaigning with it around the globe, can help to provide some guides and waymarks on this difficult path.
The concept of just transition has been shaped partially by labour movements, so the question of decent work remains central to many articulated proposals for just transition. This is of particular importance for the MENA region, which the International Trade Union Confederation has dubbed the worst in the world for workers’ rights, with systematic violations across the area. Millions of non-citizen migrant workers (from both in and outside of the region) are also located there. In the Gulf Arab states, for example, more than half of the labour force is made up of non-citizens, with more migrants working in the Gulf than in any other region in the global South. At the same time, across the Arab world, youth unemployment is almost twice the global average and in North Africa about two-thirds of workers are employed in the informal sector.
In this context, what does it mean to talk about decent work, and how should we understand working people? Inspired by the Guyanese historian and political activist Walter Rodney’s political mobilizations of “working people,” Tanzanian scholar Issa Shivji has argued that “under neoliberalism, primitive accumulation assumes new forms and becomes generalized in almost all sectors of the economy, including the so-called informal sector. The producer self-exploits him or herself just to survive while subsidizing capital.” Following this, he argues that we need a new understanding of working people that recognizes the common exploitation faced by organized industrial workers; informal, precarious, temporary, or migrant workers; unpaid or underpaid workers (usually women) doing domestic, care and social reproductive work; and nominally self-employed or independent small-scale peasant farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk working directly for their own survival.
Today, the vast majority of humanity, regardless of the kind of work they do, are giving up some part of their essential daily consumption, their human rights, or their ability to live a dignified life in order to keep propping up the super-profits of transnational corporations. Whether this is the case because their food, health, energy and care systems have been privatized, putting the full burden of care on the family unit; because they have lost or are at risk of losing access to their traditional lands, territories or fishing grounds; or because they are unable to find work and must struggle to make ends meet in an informal economy where they have no political means to demand a living wage, the effects are the same. It is no coincidence that this precarious and exploited majority is also the group most at risk from climate change, and least able to protect themselves from its effects.
Taken together with the concept of just transition, we can use this definition of “working people” when developing our vision of who should be in control of the energy transition, and the response to the climate crisis more generally. Together, these concepts provide a basis for asking what justice in climate action would look like, and what concrete steps we need to take to achieve it in different contexts. It is these questions that this book seeks to answer. It does so by drawing together the diverse perspectives of many different kinds of working people across the Arab region and by illuminating some of the possibilities for building alliances and coalitions.