As home to some of the world’s top energy suppliers, the Arab world is often associated with energy wealth. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait are listed among the top 10 global oil producers. While Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt are counted among the top 20 global natural gas producers.

Universal energy access

On paper, the Arab world has for the most part achieved universal energy access. Charts of electricity access in the region show a steady upward slope that is now plateauing. As of 2016, 88.8% of the region’s population is recorded as having access to electricity; this figure rises to 96.7% for urban populations and drops to 78.7% for rural populations.

When we dig into individual countries, we find that it is a few outliers with dismally low access – Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan and Mauritania – that stand out from the 99% to 100% access rates recorded across almost all other urban and rural Arab populations.

Access to electricity in the Arab world, % of population
Image: World Bank

Everyday energy gaps

But even in these areas that have recorded near-universal access, we see images of populations – both urban and rural, but often poor – struggling to secure energy. In unplanned Cairo districts, for example, we find that a combination of infrastructural and financial limitations drives some to pursue alternative, and often dangerous and unhealthy, practices to secure energy. Families, often mothers, may heat water over a kerosene lamp, a gas tank, or even a makeshift fire for basic cleaning and bathing purposes.

In Beirut, the humming of generators takes over for up to 13 hours a day, as rolling blackouts are common. In Gaza, electricity is available for an average of four hours per day. In Syrian refugee camps, incidents of accidents caused by fires or kerosene lamps, used for lighting and heating, make headlines.

So, while the populations of these cities, countries or territories are recorded as virtually all having access to electricity, everyday reality in these communities tells a different story.

A number of challenges limit energy access in the Arab world and place select populations at risk of energy poverty. By identifying these challenges, we can work towards a more nuanced understanding of energy access in the region and form solutions. Key challenges tied to energy access include:

1. Misleading definitions and measures

Access to energy does not lend itself to direct measurement. Global measurements tied to energy access typically come in the form of “access to electricity”, and render the two terms synonymous.

Global institutions including the World Bank and International Energy Agency use the measure as part of the Sustainable Energy for All database. It is also one of the indicators that the United Nations uses to measure progress against its Sustainable Development Goal #7—“affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”.

Access to electricity, however, is neither clearly nor uniformly defined. Global institutions often rely on national governments for figures. These governments use varying definitions as the basis of measurement.

Examples of national-level definitions include: the existence of a grid connection within a given geographic vicinity of a household, or the existence of a light bulb within the household.

Without more nuanced definitions and measurements of energy access, it is difficult to understand the problem fully. Communities that struggle to secure daily energy needs may be counted as energy-secure on the basis of misleading definitions and statistics.

2. Vulnerability to energy poverty

Select types of communities across the region are particularly vulnerable to energy poverty. These include unplanned districts with inconsistent infrastructure; refugee camps; or remote communities, whether rural or desert. Areas and populations impacted by war are also at high risk, in some cases even long after conflict subsides, due to combinations of infrastructure and governance challenges.

We see these types of communities across the Arab world. Many Arab cities – from Cairo to Jeddah – struggle to address unplanned settlements. A refugee crisis has left Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey reeling and struggling to meet basic needs. Many rural and desert communities remain beyond the reach of public services. And the impacts of war serve as an ongoing or lingering challenge, from Libya, to Lebanon and Iraq.

3. Poverty and sensitivity to energy prices

In recent years, several countries across the region – including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Tunisia – have been cutting energy subsidies. While subsidy cuts are applauded for relieving fiscal burdens and incentivizing energy-efficient practices, particularly among large-scale consumers, they have a disproportionately adverse impact on the poor.

Untargeted subsidy cuts often mean that the lowest socioeconomic groups spend a higher proportion of their income to secure basic energy needs. Pricing of energy will need to take inequality into greater account in order to ensure that basic needs are secured for all.

Drawing a path to sustainable energy equity in the Arab world begins with identifying and understanding the challenge, in all of its dimensions, more clearly. A uniform definition of energy access and more robust measurements attuned to everyday realities are an important starting point. Awareness of vulnerable communities may enable targeted solutions. Accounting for the impact of pricing on energy access for the most vulnerable may yield the same intended results of lower overall energy consumption, while ensuring basic access.