Tag Archives: Middle East

Renewing Algeria

Photo credit: raulsantosdelacamara (CC-BY-SA)

By Claudia Pollio

Chakib Khelil, at the time when he was still the Algerian Energy Minister, claimed that Algeria was in the race to see who would control renewable energy technologies. “We have the human and financial resources, and we have the will.” In this period of energy confusion, Algeria is working hard to get what it is missing to be competitive in the race.

After the secession of Southern Sudan from Sudan, Algeria became the biggest country in Africa, with a population of more than 35 million, in an area of around 2.4 million square kilometers. It is a country rich in resources, but the socio-political situation leaves one quarter of the population below poverty lines. The high number of unemployed people, in particular in the younger generation, has lead to the problem of mass emigration to Europe.

Besides ‘human and financial resources’ it has another resource. Algeria, the largest OPEC member country, has a huge portion of the Sahara within its borders. The idea to use the desert to generate solar and wind power, shows African resources in a different light.

The Algerian desert can be an eternal source of welfare. As Professor Bachir Bouchekima, member of the Scientific Committee of the Algerian Center for Renewable Energy (CDER), argues, “The average duration of sunshine exceeds 2000 hours on average per year, with more than 3000 hours of sunshine in the Sahara. The total energy received is estimated more than 500 times the annual electricity consumption of the country.”

The after-hydrocarbons in Algeria

Today Algeria is the third largest supplier of natural gas to Europe, after Russia and Norway. Some European countries, such as Italy, are dependent on this supply. On the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, Algeria is dependent too. The hydrocarbons sector is the backbone of the economy, accounting for more than 95 per cent of export earnings.

Algeria faces a decline in natural gas reserves. According to EIA, the Hassi R’Mel gas field accounts for a quarter of Algeria’s total dry gas production and it is estimated to have only 25 more years of production left. In this context, one of the priorities of the Algerian policymakers is to diversify the country’s economy, indeed the energy sector.

The debate around nuclear energy, stimulated after Fukushima disaster, is not new in Algeria. Youssef Yousfi, Minister of Energy and Mines and Mayoub Belhamel, CDER director, argued in the last months about the nuclear power option. “Algeria has no other choice but to start a long-term nuclear energy plan for electricity production”, claimed the Minister. “Algeria should focus on clean energy” replied Belhamel.

Hakim Darbouche, from The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies notes “Algeria has spoken about nuclear plants for 20 years if not more. It is not going to happen in the next years at least. Maybe after 2020.”

However, the country is seeking to diversify into renewable energy and decrease its reliance on fossil fuels. Algeria declared in February, its intention to invest 60 billions dollars in renewable energy projects in the next 20 years. The goal is to produce 12,000 megawatts by 2030, with the short term goal of 650 megawatts by 2015.

This production is not just for the European market, it is also to cover the growing domestic electricity consumption. “Electricity consumption should reach 16,500 to 20,000 MW per year by 2019, hence the idea now to produce electricity from renewable energy” argues Bouchekima.

This 20-years plan is divided into three short periods. The first one, three years, is devoted to the research. It aims to “identify technologies in renewable energy that are best adapted to climatic conditions in Algeria”.

The challenge is daunting

So, as the former Energy Minister Khelil declared years ago, Algeria has the human and financial resources, and the will to be in the race to control renewable energy technologies. And, it has the largest solar field in the world, with an estimated capacity of over 3000 hours of sunshine per year.

Ironically, what it is missing is the portfolio is an appropriate level of national technology and industrial development. It is not surprising then that one of the priorities of the Algerian policymakers is filling the technological gap with other countries.

Yousfi clarified that Algeria is not interested in joining international projects in renewable energy without some conditions. The important one is a technological partnership for the knowledge transfer. “We can not afford to develop renewable energy by importing technology and without having the ability to innovate and expand in this field” Yousfi declared last October. As Bouchekima summerizes: “The governments do not want that Algeria only serve as a basis for the installation of foreign equipment for renewable energy.”

For their proximity to Europe, South Mediterrannean countries, specifically Maghreb countries, are natural interlocutors for Europe in terms of business and cooperations. Relationships and interdependences exist between the two rives of the Mediterranean Sea on the hydrocarbons field.

Europe’s ambition is also, to create an EUMENA (Europe – Middle East – North Africa) green electricity market. From the European perspective Africa is an important partner in order to reach its ‘green’ targets. From the African side, Europe is seen as a market for the clean energy that might be produced.

While Morocco and Tunisia respond enthusiastically to the projects coming from EU, Algeria has reservations and poses conditions to join these projects. Darbouche underlines that “Algeria is in a slighly more comfortable position compared to other countries in the region, both in term of energy supply and revenues.”

In the last years, a lot was said about the participation of Algeria in the Desertec initiative, a pharaonic project that aims at producing up to 15 percent of Europe’s elecricity needs by 2050, with an investment of 400 billions euros. According to Darbouche, “Algerians did not respond publicly because the people promoting Desertec did not ask explicity”. But, the main reason for the delay is the priviliged position that the country could have in the negotiations compared to other countries from the region.

Can Algeria use this comfortable position to fill the technological gap between itself and European countries? Can Algeria exploit western countries’ technologies, through this kind of projects? At least, this is the goal that Algerian policymakers want to reach in order to be competitive in the race to control the green market.

Desertec and Algeria

The last 19th of May Minister Yousfi said, in a statement after a meeting with the Desertec CEO, Paul Von Son, that Algeria is defenetely interested in a long term partnership with companies involved in the project.

What is Desertec? Desertec is mainly an idea, a concept. The ‘dream’ of using the solar power in the desert is the backbone of the project. But, the Desertec Fondation, based in Germany, was created in 2003 to explore the potential of the Sahara desert. In 2009, twelve firms joined the Desertec Foundation in the Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII), in order to realize the dream of using the sun in the desert to produce energy. The motto of the Desertec is that “whitin six hours deserts receive more energy from the sun than the humankind consumes within a year”. The representative imagine is a red square in the Sahara desert that represents the size of the solar plant necessary to provide the world’s total electricity demand. Actually, the idea is to build a power grid across the Mediterranean and several plants in the Saharan desert. Two technologies are the fulcrum of the project: Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) and High Voltage Direct Current power lines (HVDC). The latter is an option to deliver the energy generated in the desert with a loss of energy of 3% per 1000 km. The system that is currently in use in much of the world is High Voltage Alternative Current (HVAC) and it has bigger energy losses. CSP is a technology already in use in the world, but is not common. It mainly uses mirrors to concentrate the sun’s direct rays to a receiver, which uses the energy to run a generator, which produces electricity. CSP differs from photovoltaic because it permits a production of electricity also during night.

The project aims to produce by 2050, 15 percent of Europe’ electricity needs and supply to MENA (Middle East – North Africa) countries consumption. 2050 is not a random deadline. The EU has the goal to reduce greenhouse emissions by 80 percent by 2050. In the short period there is the 20-20-20 targets. By 2020 EU aims to have 20 percent of renewable energy in its energy mix, incraese its energy efficiency by 20 percent and reduce greenohouse emissions by 20 percent compared to 1990. The Desertec project goes in that direction. Elena Ricci, researcher in FEEM, an institution devoted to the study of sustainable development, said “If Europe wants to decarbonize its production of electricity in the short term, Desertec is a feasible solution. The implementation of large plants can produce large amounts of electricity without greenhouse gas emissions.” However, according to Ricci “from a striclty economic point of view, in the long period it would seem that it is not worthy invest in this market now”. But Europe, in order to contribuite to the challange of climate change really needs this green energy soon. It does not matter that it is very expensive to start this kind of investment now.

Everything seems to be working. After the investments there will be more energy avialable. And this energy will be ‘clean’. But the issue is more complex. Why does some of this energy have to go to the European market? One of the main critic to the project is that it represents a continued expolitation of African reseources for the benfit of the West. A new form of colonialism, critics say. “What to do with solar power in the MENA region? – is the main question, said Dourbache. “Energy consuption and water consumption in the region is growing very fast, has been growing very fast in recent years, and it will continue to grow very fast.” Critics also underline how the energy could be used to resolve water security issues and domestic needs before being directed to Europe. Algerians and Africans need more energy, their fossil fuels are running out and they want to be competetive in the increasing green energy market. Darbouche points out that Algeria is trying to approach this renewable energy possibility, in a way, to avoid the same experience they had with the hydrocarbon industry. “In other words, developing renewable energy industry that does not aim to export electricity based on solar energy and import everything else from outside.”

One of the characteristics distinguishing developed, developing countries and underdeveloped countries is their tecnhological levels. This technology permits that countries use the resources that they have in their borders. The difference between countries that have natural resources and that do not have them, is that the latters have to import these resources. Tecnhology, an ‘artificial’ resource to exploit the natural ones, is nowadays even more profitable than the others. With the technological partnerships that Algeria hopes to obtain, it can become a bridge between Europe and Africa. It looks to be a mirage. But, who would have thought that the sun in the desert could have produced such a great wealth? Algerians did not. But, after decades of being black as the oil, gold might became gold again. Gold as the sand struck by the sun in the desert. And Algerians know that gold is the best bargaining chip.

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The Mystery of Syrian Unrest

Demonstrations in Banyas, Syria, May 6th 2011. Photo credit: Syria-Frames-Of-Freedom (CC-BY)

By Elsy Melkonian

Also published on EMAJ Magazine

Syria has boasted a remarkable stability over the last 40 years. Unlike most Middle Eastern countries such as Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq, Syria knew no sectarian rivalries that struggle for power or discrimination policies against minorities or conflicts to set the stage for terrorist groups. People with different beliefs and belongings lived harmoniously maintaining peace and security for many years. However, skirmishes that started in Deraa, March 2011, moved across the country and changed the image upside down. Protesters weren’t pleased with their life in Syria anymore.

For the last three months, revolts have sparked on Fridays after the Muslim prayer at mosques. Inspired by the revolution in Tunisia and Egypt, protesters in Syria demand a greater democracy. While the capital and the main cities remained quiet to date, skirmishes and most violent events took place in villages and smaller towns. Dozens of civilians have fled to the neighboring countries while thousand sought refuge in Turkey.

In its coverage of the clashes, international media speaks of brutal acts committed by the Syrian regime against the civilians. On the other side, Syrian media talk of armed gangs and radical Muslim groups pouring money into the hands of the poor farmers in small town to win them to their side. Besides, terrorist groups (according to the narrative of the Syrian media) are aiming to divide Syria and weaken its spirit of solidarity.  In response to all this noise, Syrian government has pledged to answer the demands of the protesters. So where does Syria stand now?

New Reforms

The unrest that sparked in Deraa urged the Syrian administration to adapt serious reforms. Buthaina Shaaban, president’s advisor, announced that the government is keen on meeting the demands of its people. “We ensure that implementations of these reforms will start soon because the Syrian administration is eager to maintain peace on its territory,” said Shabaan in a press conference held on March 24 in Damascus. These include 20% salary raise for employees of the public sector, more funding for healthcare, increase job opportunities for youths,  democratize the ruling mono-party (Baath Party) system into multi-party system, issue a new media law that protects censorship-free practice of independent media, alongside many other considerations to restructure life in Syria.

Shaaban’s speech made Syrians happy. Everyone looked forward to see the fruitful results of her promises. “I’m impatiently waiting to receive the salary raise,” says M.T., a school teacher on condition of anonymity, “It would help the people to face high living expenses“.

In fact, reforms are not new to the Syrian society although to date they were only related to economy. When Bashar Al Assad became a president in 2001 he worked on moving the country from its older socialist style economy to a free market. In practice everything started in 2004 when private schools, banks and companies sprung up across the country.  The modest middle class emerged to run small and medium size businesses. Moreover, the government authorized foreign ownership to encourage investment, but investors were mainly Turks or Arabs from the gulf.

However, the recent reform promises are still questionable. Shaaban’s speech was given on the 24th of March. To date, not much change is visible. Minister Shaaban announced that a new media law will replace the current law soon.  Discussions are still ongoing with no consensus on a final version. The 20% raise of salaries wouldn’t empower the citizens to face the inflation storm.

In 2010, UNDP experts published The Third National MDGs Progress Report which gives the index for poverty line during the period of 1997-2007. The report aimed at gaining insights from the past to plan for the next ten years. People who live in extreme poverty fell from 14.24 percent to 11.4 percent in 2004. In 2007 this figure deteriorated to 12.7 which mean that 6.7 million people are considered to be poor out of 21 million of total population. Hence, reforms which started with Bashar AlAassad did not contribute much to the boost the economic climate.

President Assad has successfully created an image of himself within Syria as a reformer, but without delivering much,” says Christopher Phillips, Syria Specialist at the Economist’s Intelligence Unit in London. “Assad has talked of reforms while retaining political power and overseeing a growth in corruption. Even his economic reforms have served only to benefit a modest middle class, while poverty and unemployment have increased due to poor management, lack of planning and high levels of corruption,” Phillips continues.

Questioning Human Rights during unrest

When protests sparked in Syria to ask for greater democracy, much violence was involved. The government was accused of using gunfire and mass arrest against civilians in its attempt to end these riots. However, the Syrian government stressed, in its recent reform plan, that only peaceful demonstrations are allowed. This means that citizens should approach authorities in advance to obtain a letter of approval.

I participated in the demonstrations that support President Assad,” says Michael Bitar a Syrian citizen. “We marched the whole city with no problem with authorities, but those who use weapons against fellow civilians, of course, should be punished. They are harming humans and public property,” he argues. “To set an example, there were peaceful demonstrations in front of the residence of the French Council. The goal was to send Sarkozy a message regarding the sanctions he is trying to force on Syria. We were all safe,” Bitar says.

On the other side, Human Rights Organizations, such as Amnesty International and others ignored all peaceful demonstrations and reported only on riots and clashes between the government and the protesters. Syrian government’s use of violence to solve the trouble was strongly condemned and was described as “brutal”.

A report entitled “We’ve Never Seen Such Horror” by the New York-based Human Rights Watch was issued to sharply criticize violations of human rights in Syria during the unrest. The 54 page report contains interviews with the citizens of Deraa, the town where protests began. In this book, beatings, torture, and killings were described by witnesses of riots, yet with no specificities. The explanation to that, as it was mentioned in the report, was because the government decided to bar international reporters from accessing needed information.

Syria has an authoritarian closed regime,” says Mohdi Mouzzaffari, expert on Middle Eastern issues and professor at Aarhus University, “Barring the international media from accessing the country sends mixed messages. If Syrian government claims that armed groups are creating terror, they should allow international reporters in to verify their claim.”

The Syrian problem through the eyes of media

International media dedicated a fair share of its pages to cover Middle Eastern uprisings and Syria had a fair share too. Replacing reality footage with amateur videos found on You Tube and other social media, CNN, BCC, Reuters and other international mainstream outlets reported on the brutality of the regime against its people. Conversely, most Arabic Televisions, better defined as state propaganda to all ruling governments, reported on how Syrian police are killed by armed gangs and terrorists.

Surprisingly, Reuters’ correspondent to Syria Khaled YAacob Aweis was accused of filing false news against Syria and by leaning on stories told by ordinary people as ‘the news to be broadcasted’ without checking the accuracy of these stories. This led to withdrawal of Aweis’s accreditation in Damascus. Australian channel ABC confirmed that Reuters’ reports on Syria were false as pictures of civilians being beaten by armed force belong to neighboring countries and non-Syrian streets. As a result Syrian authorities barred all international correspondents from accessing the country.

Obviously Reuters was not the only one. Aljazeera, which has proven itself as an emblem for independent media in the Arab World, filed similar reports too. “I was enjoying a Friday lunch and a sunny afternoon with my family as we usually do in Aleppo,” says Hala, a young pharmacist from Aleppo, Syria’s second city. “Watching the television while having my lunch I suddenly saw breaking news on Aljazeera reporting on riots in Aleppo. That’s unbelievable! Aleppo has remained very quiet during the entire period of revolts.”

News on Syrian state TV refers to enemies who endeavor to weaken Syria’s solidarity and spark sectarian rivals. In his speech President Assad describes demonstrations that broken out in the Deraa, Hama, and other Syrian cities as chaos. “We are for supporting people’s demands, but we cannot support chaos”,” The chaos that presidents spoke of resulted in dozens of people killed every day.”

I’m sad for what’s happening in Syria,” says Osama Al Tessini a Syrian expatriate based in Germany. “I know there are false reports, but I’m sure that there is some truth in it since I’m in contact with my friends in Syria. This way I’m able to get see the clear picture, while the International viewer doesn’t have the chance to hear the natives. Out there is the international media.”

Cloudy future?

The future of the Syria under the current circumstances is hard to predict. The regime is still able to control the situation and the army is showing full support. “In Egypt the army sided with the public leaving Moubarak alone to face his destiny, “says Professor Mouzzaffari. “The Syrian army maintains loyalty to Bashar AlAssad, and that’s what is empowering the Syrian administration to stand on a solid ground. Speaking of the sanctions, I think that the Europeans states want to have a similar reaction to Syria as they reacted to Libya, but sanctions against the Syrian regime are unlikely for the time being.”

Those who survived the revolution experience, such as the Egyptians, think it is the only way leading to democracy and that it should be repeated in Syria. “Let Syrians choose their leader through fair and transparent elections,” says Hanan Solayman, an Egyptian activists and journalist. “The road to democracy is not immediate, but we’re living a transitional period.”

With similar uprisings in the Arab region, however, there were no filed reports on Reuters or Aljazeera. International media’s coverage is outraging the international public opinion through streaming violent videos. For the Syrian viewer, who is able to hear both sides, it is confusing to reach a right judgment. He is torn between the urgent need for serious reforms of the political and the socio-economic make up of his country, waiting for the leader who showed willingness to reform and mourning the killed and the wounded people every Friday.

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