Climate Action in a Multi-Polar World: The Middle East and North Africa between Climate Change and Grand Strategies

Abstract: Incumbent and emerging great powers view the global socio-economic impacts of climate change as both a risk and as an opportunity to advance their grand strategies, with many integrating climate action into their respective grand strategies. Today there are several major infrastructure development initiatives with such ambitions: China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the US-led G7’s Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, and the European Union’s Global Gateway Initiative. These initiatives are poised to target the MENA region with climate infrastructure projects given its high vulnerability to climate change, with the goal of increasing their regional influence in the process.

Regional policy makers are likely to find themselves having to make choices, and regional countries could end up aligning with different great powers. This fragmentation not only creates disjointed infrastructure and undermines regional climate collaboration, but also — paradoxically — threatens to increase regional tensions. In order to address this, the region must develop a regional approach to climate action and leverage strategic competition between great powers to its advantage.

1- Grand Strategies and Great Powers’ Quest for Influence

The rise of China as a great power and its strategic competition with the United States are some of the most significant geopolitical shifts the world has witnessed since the demise of the Soviet Union in the early nineties. The resultant multipolarity in the world has led the great powers to develop new ‘grand strategies’ to outline their strategic objectives and how they aim to advance them.

Grand strategies by great powers — regardless of whether they are revisionist, reformist, or status quo powers — invariably include strategic objectives, such as protecting national security, accessing critical natural resources and geographies, expanding their sphere of influence, and gaining power at the expense of strategic competitors. Current grand strategies are no exception, and the emerging strategic competition between great powers has led to competition for influence in developing countries.

China’s grand strategy for example — in line with its stated objective to become a world leading power by 2049 — seeks to keep its rivals at bay and isolate them while securing energy, raw materials, and other strategic resources. China’s Belt and Road initiative — the world’s largest infrastructure development initiative since the post-World War II Marshall Plan in Europe — can be seen as part of this grand strategy, and as an attempt to circumvent containment by the United States (US) in the East and South China Sea, penetrate the markets of Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, and access energy resources in the Middle East, while gradually stifling India, its regional competitor.[i]                                           

In order to counter Chinese competition, the latest American grand strategy focuses on the Indo-Pacific region. Its seeks to contain Russia and China within an expanded Heartland[ii] that includes China and parts of South East Asia while protecting the Rimland[iii] surrounding them that includes Japan, India, the Arabian Peninsula and Europe. This adjustment has meant that the US will focus on protecting the main maritime routes between Europe and East Asia including the transit corridors in the Middle East. Viewed from this perspective, the US-Led G7’s Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment is an attempt to gain influence in countries that could support the objectives of  American grand strategy while countering the growing Chinese influence outside of the Heartland.[iv]

Today there are three major infrastructure development initiatives with global ambitions. In addition to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and the G7’s Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment mentioned above, these also include the European Union’s (EU) Global Gateway Initiative, which is not associated with a security or a geopolitical grand strategy in the same way as the former two given the continent’s partial dependence on the American security umbrella for its defense.[v]

A. The Belt and Road Initiative

The origins of the current phase of global infrastructure development initiatives can be traced back to 2013, when China announced the establishment of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the One Belt, One Road Initiative.

The BRI — often dubbed the new Silk road —  has two main components: a series of overland economic corridors (the Belt), including road and rail transportation connecting western China with Europe through landlocked Central Asia, and an Indo-Pacific maritime route (the Road) linking Southeast Asia to South Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

From the recipient’s perspective, the establishment of the BRI created an alternative model for development across Africa, Asia and Latin America that focused on investment and lending critically needed infrastructure such as ports, railroads, roads, bridges, airports, dams, and energy infrastructure.[vi] China’s infrastructure development capabilities have also meant that it could deliver these infrastructure elements at a competitive cost and time of delivery.  

Unsurprisingly the BRI became a popular framework for collaboration with many developing countries. While there is no official list of countries or organizations that have partnered with China on the BRI, one estimate in 2019 indicated that China had already signed Memorandums of Understanding with more than 130 countries and international organizations.[vii]

The scale of China’s ambition is only matched by the associated investment required. According to an estimate by Morgan Stanley,[viii] China’s overall expenses over the life of the BRI could reach $1.2–1.3 trillion by 2027. The average BRI funding in the first 7 years was in the order of $50-100 billion per year.[ix] It is estimated that approximately two-thirds of the BRI’s financing goes to power and transportation projects.[x]

China’s finance of infrastructure projects has created some concerns over debt sustainability and led to some western criticism of ‘debt trap diplomacy’. The accusation that China funds infrastructure projects in developing countries with unsustainable loans, then uses such debt to gain leverage over those countries, remains a subject of debate.[xi]

B. The Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment

It took the best part of a decade for the US to formally announce a response to the BRI.  The US announced the G7’s Build Back Better World initiative (B3W) at the group’s annual summit in 2021, with a stated goal to leverage $40 trillion in infrastructure investment by 2035.One year later, B3W was scaled back and repackaged as the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) at the following G7 summit, with a scope that focused on providing financial and technical assistance to developing countries in four critical areas: climate and energy security, digital connectivity, health systems and health security, and gender equality and equity.

As its driving force, the US committed to mobilizing $200 billion for PGII over the next 5 years through grants, federal financing, and leveraging private sector investments. Alongside its partners within the G7, the US aims to mobilize $600 billion in global infrastructure investments by 2027 — approximately half the estimated BRI spending and a fraction of what was envisaged under the preceding iteration of the program.

While the PGII has not released details of its geographic scope, it is widely considered to be in competition with China’s expanding global infrastructure development activities. The US has also not shied away from noting the context of this initiative and has highlighted links between its development strategy, national security and domestic policy priorities.[xii]

US officials have also noted that the PGII is intended to be one of the hallmarks of the Biden administration foreign policy over the remainder of his tenure,[xiii] which raises questions about the PGII’s long term potential beyond the current administration.

C. The Global Gateway Initiative

Europe’s response to BRI arrived in December of 2021 when the European Commission announced the EU’s Global Gateway (GG). The initiative priorities are not dissimilar from those of the PGII, focusing on physical and digital connectivity and infrastructure, clean energy, global health security and increased education capacity.

The GG — much like its G7 equivalent — is also envisaged as a values-based initiative that promotes democratic values, strong governance and transparency. It plans to spend up to €300 billion by 2027 — a quarter of the estimated BRI spending — and to direct at least half of its funding towards Africa.[xiv] EU institutions are reported to be building a pipeline of high-quality infrastructure projects in consultation with the African Union and with national development strategies.[xv]

2- Competition and Coordination

Both the PGII and the GG prioritize high-quality, sustainable human and physical infrastructure that incorporate green principles and promise a viable alternative to China’s BRI. According to President Biden, the PGII would allow countries to “see the concrete benefits of partnering with democracies”[xvi] The two initiatives’ approach to finance is also similar with both envisioning a mix of investment, aid, and blended finance for projects. However, both initiatives — as well as the United Kingdom’s Clean Green Initiative (CGI) [xvii] — remain underdeveloped and unclear as to their delivery mechanisms.[xviii]

Additionally, despite the PGII and GG featuring significant thematic and geographical priority overlaps, they have yet to develop an overarching western framework and their funding streams have yet to be merged. Instead the two initiatives — as well as the CGI which was considered part of the UK’s contribution to the B3W when it was first launched[xix] — are being closely coordinated.[xx]

Such coordination was not offered to China’s BRI. The US has thus far declined China’s offer to collaborate on projects in the developing world. Yet at project scale, China’s efforts could prove hard to isolate in practice due to China’s significant existing project footprint in a large number of countries. China could also prove hard to ignore owing to its competitive infrastructure development capability, including lower costs and technical skills in civil engineering, construction, high-speed rail and renewable energy.[xxi]

3- Infrastructure Development and Influence

Infrastructure development has been used to advance strategic objectives by great powers well before the implementation of the Marshall Plan in Europe 75 years ago. From the perspective of great powers — or other countries providing support — infrastructure development allows for influence to be gained within the recipient country and is therefore critical to its grand strategy.

Influence can be gained at different stages of the infrastructure project cycle. Financing is the first and largest avenue for influence. It allows great powers the opportunity to extract concessions from recipient countries, reward allies, access local resources, and shape the project in a way that suits its interests.[xxii]

The second stage, the design and construction of the project, provides great powers with an avenue for setting standards, transferring technology, and collecting intelligence. The final stage of the project, ownership and operation, can also be leveraged for deeper intelligence collection and to restrict access by competitors.[xxiii]

In addition, great powers can accrue more influence if they — or businesses they control — own and operate a network of infrastructure assets, allowing them to monopolize critical skills and technologies and making them more resilient to disruptions during conflicts and disasters.[xxiv] This incentivizes great powers to strive to create larger networks of infrastructure elements such as ports, roads, and railroads.

4- Climate Diplomacy and Grand Strategies

The scope for grand strategies and their infrastructure development initiatives evidently encompasses more than climate change. However, the current set of grand strategies by great powers and their associated infrastructure development initiatives come at a time when the world is increasingly concerned about the risks of dangerous climate change.

Great powers increasingly view the cascading physical, socio-economic, and geopolitical impacts of climate change as a risk they need to mitigate. They also see climate change impacts as well as the climate action in response as opportunities to advance their strategic objectives.

Russia, for example, saw an opportunity to increase its agricultural land and improve navigation along the Arctic sea as a result of the disproportionate increase in temperatures across its frozen landmass. Similarly, China — which defines itself as a near-arctic state — saw an opportunity in the melting of the Arctic Sea ice during the summer to benefit from the shorter trade routes through the Arctic Circle, and planned to create a Polar Silk Route connecting China to Europe.