Thomas White Global Investing
The Middle East
The Middle East  Stamp
March 30, 2012
A Postcard from The Middle East
The Middle East : Oil peddlers plan to sell sunlight

Tapping the Sun

Many Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar are realizing that too much dependence on oil for power and revenues is not a good thing. They are aggressively tapping the other reserves they have in abundance: sunrays and wind.

For long, the world has viewed many Middle Eastern nations like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, and Iraq as big exporters of oil. But soon, if all goes well, the world will view them as exporters of sunlight. Well, if not exactly as exporters of sunlight, then at least as exporters of power generated from sunlight.

Many Middle Eastern and North African countries are increasingly investing in renewable energy sources such as the sun, the wind, and the waves. In the wake of volatile oil markets and challenges associated with nuclear power, Middle Eastern countries are leaving no stones unturned and are experimenting with alternative energy sources.

In fact, some of the world’s largest oil producers themselves have transformed into enthusiastic supporters of renewable energy. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar – countries that earn a lion’s share of their revenues by exporting oil – are now the most vociferous supporters of alternative sources of energy. Other countries in the region like Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco, which do not boast oil wealth but are paying hefty sums for their oil imports, have neatly lined up behind the heavyweights in the region to promote renewable energy.

The sudden enthusiasm from traditionally oil-exporting countries might, at first glance, look like a high-minded effort to combat issues like global warming and climate change. But it isn’t. The Middle Eastern nations along with some of their North Africa neighbors see a strong economic case in the support of alternative energy sources. First of all, some of the biggest oil exporters are themselves consumers of oil. Concerns over their declining oil reserves and the subsequent need to diversify their energy sources are naturally pushing these countries to tap the energy from the sun and the tidal waves. Secondly, in case the earth heats up by a few degrees, the Middle Eastern countries could suffer the most. A 2009 report by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development concluded that vast tracts of coastal lands in Egypt, Tunisia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE could be lost if the sea level rises by 1-meter.

But it is a third and a more positive reason that is actually prodding the Middle Eastern and North African countries to chase the sun and the wind: the opportunities hidden in these alternative sources. The sun shines brightly and generously in the Middle East and North Africa almost throughout the year. Even those countries that are not blessed with oil receive abundant sun rays. Desert lands that do not support any kind of crops are perhaps ideal for solar panels. With scattered population and well-connected roads, the prospects of a million solar panels blooming in the desert look like more than a mirage.

In fact DESERTEC, a foundation created by some of Europe’s influential think-tanks, envisions exactly such a plan. In late 2011 a plan was initiated to design and promote an interconnected electricity grid network that will encompass North Africa, Europe, and Middle East. The solar electricity that will be produced in the peripheries of the Sahara desert and the coastal regions of Middle East could one day power a factory in Germany or Italy. Although, DESERTEC’s proposals are yet to be out of the boardrooms, the vision seems to be generating great interest for alternative energy projects in the Middle East. In fact, DESERTEC itself was mooted by a group of 25 scientists from the Middle East in partnership with 15 scientists from Europe.

Grand plans aside, governments in the region are inching towards green energy. Amidst a tumultuous regime change last year, Egypt quietly completed a 140-megawatt capacity solar thermal power plant and unveiled a $700 million plan for another 100-megawatt plant with the help of the World Bank. Kuwait, which has nearly 70 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, aims to generate 5% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, has said that it will produce as much energy from renewable sources as it currently does from oil.

It may sound ironic though, the world’s largest peddlers of oil selling solar power. Yet the reality could be far brighter than it looks. Thanks to sunlight.

Image Credit: Luca Castellazi on Flickr under a Creative Commons License

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