Ven. Feb 26th, 2021

[ENG] Agricolture and natural resources in the global market. The neoliberal turn in the MENA region and its consequences

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di Filippo Marinoni


The present article aims to offer a critical approach to the analysis of the European economic and development policies in the MENA region. In particular, the author will take into consideration the issue of the natural resources in the relationship between the Western countries (and institutions) and two Maghreb countries, Tunisia and Morocco. Precisely, two study cases will be examined in order to better explain the general situation: firstly, the issue of the export-oriented agriculture of Tunisia, that is leading the country to the loss of its food sovereignty; and secondly, the construction of the Ouarzazate Solar Plant, in Southern Morocco, which has created many doubts on the real advantages for the Moroccans, thus arising the concerns of the experts, who talk about “green grabbing”.

In the end, the author will try to point out what have been the consequences of the neoliberal turn of the MENA countries, due to the impulse of the International Financial Institutions (IFIs).

In the first part of the essay, some general concept will be expressed. Starting from the meaning of the idea of critical approach in social sciences, the focus will be shifted on the particular case of the socio-economic relationship between the Europe (and more broadly the international institutions conceived and governed by the Western countries), with a particular attention on the matter of the natural resources. Indeed, the entry of the agriculture of former state-run economies in the global market will be analysed, as well as the so-called “green capitalism”, which is the privatization and liberalization of the renewable resources sector.


In the second part, two case studies will be presented, related to the two main topics already theoretically observed (agriculture and natural resources in North Africa). The first case is the Tunisian approach towards its agricultural sector in the last decades, which has moved from a state-run economy to an export-oriented, capitalistic one. The main issues related to this policy will be considered, and the solution proposed by the experts in order not to lose the “food sovereignty” will be told. The second case will deal with a mega-project in the Moroccan town of Ouarzazate; it is a solar plant, the biggest in the world, which has been built on a portion of land considered marginal and unproductive. A great part of the money spent to build to it have come from the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), that always encourage the less economically advanced countries to enter the global market as a solution to their poverty.

In conclusion, the author will reflect on the consequences of the intervention of the IFIs, and in general of the economic powers, as strong supporters of the neoliberal turn in the MENA region, as well as on the importance of analysing critically the dominant narratives.

Critical approach to the dominant narrative

What and how is it measured? Who collects data? Who publish them and why? And, above all: who wins and who loses? These are only few questions that a researcher has to ask himself by analysing the ongoing economic system and its big projects with a huge economic impact. Particularly, it is important to question the dominant narratives when in an international project the bargaining power of the actors is unbalanced.

Moreover, what are the perspectives which should be used to challenge the dominant narrative, and that will be taken as the method of analysis in the present article?

Initially, interested people should try to have a holistic approach to the issue, with a complete vision of the phenomena on which they focus; for this reason, they should beware of easy and flat descriptions of the problem. Then, a bottom-up perspective should be used in order to consider not only the dominant view, but also the interests of the less powerful stakeholders. Eventually, social and economic rights must be put at the centre, keeping in mind that the economic dimension is strictly interrelated to the political one.

Furthermore, what we have called “dominant narrative” is often the one offered from the economic superpowers, also through the “longa manus” of the international institutions. For example, in this article we will analyse the role of the International Financial Institutes (IFIs), like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), whose policies suggested that less developed economies should be market-oriented: indeed, usually they strongly support privatization and liberalization, like in the case of Tunisia and Morocco, as it will be shown.

From agriculture to agri-business, green capitalism and green grabbing

Agriculture has long been a central feature of life in the Middle East” (Hanieh, 2013: cap. 4). North Africa, too, is notoriously very productive since the arrival of the Romans, in particular because of an important production of grain and olive. “By the end of the twentieth century, however, the region was firmly mired in a decades-long agricultural disaster”. How it happened that the situation in the contemporary era is by far worse than it was in ancient times? How did it come that the “region that had once supplied food to the world [is] now deeply reliant upon food importsfor basic survival” (Ibid., my emphasis) ?

Many experts blame the IFIs because of their behaviour towards economically underdeveloped countries, above all after the end of the first oil boom in early 1980s. Indeed, in the eighties “Arab countries were compelled to radically rework their economies” (Hanieh, 2013: cap. 3). As a matter of fact, as the debt crisis spread over the region, big economies of the region like Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco accepted the recommendation from the IMF to adopt the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs): from an economic point of view, the Plans envisaged the privatization and the liberalization of the economy of those countries. This meant that many state-run companies had to be sold to private individuals (and firms), and that barriers to private sectors and foreign investments had to be removed. Moreover, this was asked to the Arab economies, which were traditionally broadly run by the public sector: State gave work to a large part of the population.

Therefore, the primary intent of the IFIs was to let the economies of those countries enter the global market and open themselves to foreign investments within their borders, promising a brilliant solution towards an impending crisis that MENA countries would have soon faced because of “the combined effects of a rapid expansion in the region’s labour force and the lack of employment growth” (ibid.).

Nevertheless, not only industrial companies and third sectors were involved in the wave of privatization and liberalization, but also the first sector (and in particular agriculture) has been forced to shift to the logic of capitalism, as well as the energy sector.

The SAPs carried with them many consequences in the social and economic life of the countries that adopted them in the last two decades of the XX century; what Hanieh (2013) call the “Agribusiness Revolution” took place.

Two cases studies will be now exposed in order to understand what has meant for countries like Morocco and Tunisia to open their agriculture (Tunisian case study) or energy sector (Moroccan case study) to the global market. In the conclusion the author will discuss the main consequences of this changings, by deconstructing the dominant narratives.

Case study 1 – Tunisian lost food sovereignty

Tunisia adopted the Structural Adjustment Programmes in the 1980s, thus leading its economy toward “a movement of large-scale privatization, liberalization of prices and trade and to significant cuts in public expenditures” (Gana, 2012: 203).

Tunisian agriculture, too, started playing its new role as actor of a country part in the global market. Indeed, new agricultural policies led to the “privatization of state farms, cuts in farm subsidies, farm price liberalization, the reorganization of the farm credit system, and the gradual privatization of food marketing networks” (idem: 205). These strategies provoked a shift from the traditional idea of food self-sufficiency to an export-oriented agriculture with “an increased integration into the world food markets” and promoted “the reallocation of economic resources in favour of large-scale and corporate agricultural enterprises to the detriment of the family-farming sector and rain-fed agriculture” (ibid.).

Some consequences following the introduction of these policies in Tunisian agricultural sector can be identified: firstly, the loss of food self-sufficiency with a growing dependency on external markets. Indeed, as Ayeb (2019) pointed out

efforts to capitalize on the ‘comparative advantage’ […] has already forced a shift toward production of fruit and vegetable for export, and increasing dependence on imports for the basic cereals that make up most Tunisian diets

(My emphasis)

Then, social inequalities among rural population grew. As a matter of fact, access to land and to water for peasants became increasingly more difficult as their purchasing power reduced. Furthermore, large private companies started buying the land of little farmers (or expropriating them), thus forcing them to find another job elsewhere (many times they moved toward city suburbs or even abroad, thus increasing issues bound to peripheries and international migration).

For these reasons, in the last years of Ben Ali’s government, policies, which included privatization of the cooperatives and the disengagement of the State from the issue of the agricultural water, gave rise to strains among rural population concerning the agricultural issue; “ces tensions donnaient lieu à des mouvements de protestation fortement réprimés par le régime1” (Gana, 2019).

Nevertheless, the path of privatization and liberalization have not changed even after the fall of Ben Ali in 2011; the new governments have not given up the neo-liberal policies in the agricultural sector. In fact, Tunisian government is negotiating in these years a free-trade agreement with the EU, the ALECA2.

As Lafrance (2019) points out, many associations in Tunisia label this agreement as “colonialist” and dangerous for the country. Moreover, Ayeb agrees with those who consider that this agreement would deepen Tunisian food dependency and points out that “governments have blindly pursued the policies of their predecessors in a forced march to nowhere, and against the vital interests of the country” (op. cit., my emphasis).

Case study 2 – Ouarzazate Solar Plant in southern Morocco

As mentioned above, not only agricultural segment has moved to the global market. Another crucial sector of the economy of the future has already entered the neo-liberal, capitalistic logic in the relationship between MENA countries and European Union: the renewable energies.

In the case of Morocco, the country started privatizing its economy in the 1970s and adopted the SAP in the 1980s. Later, in 2008, Morocco launched the Plan Maroc Vert (PVM), an ambitious plan concerning natural resources, aiming at quintupling

the value of export-oriented crops (citrus fruits, olives, fruits and vegetables) as one of its three main goals (the other two being to promote private investment in agriculture and to dismantle the “segmented framework” that stands in the way of private property rights)

(Hanieh, 2014 cap 4).

Moreover, Morocco started another very ambitious plan: the building of the Noor Solar Plant in Ouarzazate (south Morocco), which is, according to the dominant narrative proposed by World Bank and Moroccan government, the instrument to free the country from part of the import of energy costs, it would “create jobs and […] lead to green energy exports to neighbouring countries” (Word Bank, 2014).

The land used as site for the plant was considered by the government marginal and non-productive, and the investment has been huge;

about nine billion US dollars has been invested in the Noor solar power complex […], much of it being private capital from international institutions such as the European Investment Bank, World Bank, […], and backed by Moroccan government guarantees (in case MASEN cannot repay)

(Hamouchene, 2016).

Nevertheless, beyond the dominant narrative proposed by national and international institutions, many factors should be considered. As a matter of fact, protests from the people of the local community arose; their position as stakeholder was not at all considered at the moment of the decision. For instance, the land was acquired by the State at a very low price and the project approved without a real involvement of the community. Furthermore, the latter considered the land destined to the solar plant not “marginal” and “unproductive”, but useful for little spontaneous cultivation as well as land for pastoralism. This kind of appropriation of the land is critically called “green grabbing”.

Moreover, “the Noor-Ourzazate complex is being built, and will operate as a PPP3 with private partner […] a Saudi Arabian company” (Hamouchene, op. cit.); so, as Hamouchene denounces, this project has the “public” name on it, but the public has actually no control on it. And, concerning the funding of the project, Morocco was given important loans from the IFIs and other States, “further indebting the country” (idem). This huge participation of private actors in the project makes it be part of the so-called “green capitalism”. Furthermore, European Union is considering having adopted a plan of externalization of the risks bound to the renewable energy strategy to Morocco, thus putting the country in a role of subordination compared to the imperialist one of the EU.

Eventually, some experts raised doubts even on the extensive use of water needed for the plant, in the arid region of Ouarzazate, to the detriment of the local population, thus challenging the idea of a real green project.


From the early 1980s onward, all major international financial institutions (IFIs) typically began their reports on the Middle East by warning of the spectre of impending crisis” (Hanieh, op. cit.). The Structural Adjustment Programmes were soon implemented by many countries of the region, among which regional powers like Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco, whose governments were convinced in entering the global market, even if they would have participated in a clear position of subordination compared to superpower economies like the United States and the European Union (once named European Economic Community).

Furthermore, the IFIs and the big powers pushed those countries to remove economic barriers from their natural resources’ sectors, thus including agriculture and, in more recent times, renewable resources.

The dominant narrative proposed by the richer countries and the International Institutions has always proposed trade liberalisation in First World Countries and MENA countries relationship as the path to follow in order to pursue the promotion of democracy and the economic development, as well as the instrument for creating jobs, raise exports and attract foreign investments.

However, many criticisms have been raised in the last decades towards this way of reading the economic agreements between EU-US and MENA region; first of all, the countries of the southern shore of the Mediterranean have not the same bargaining power as the richer countries, because they are highly indebted with them and with the IFIs. As a consequence of this unbalance, the agreements are always driven by the EU-IFIs’ interests; for example, many agricultural products cultivated in the MENA countries would be too competitive in the EU markets, and for this reason they are excluded from the agreements or subjected to quotas.

Furthermore, often the less powerful stakeholders are not taken in consideration during the agreements, and with the time passing by this top-down approach has favoured an already rich elite in the poorer countries, strongly penalising the big part of the population, thus exacerbating social inequalities.

These dynamics can very well be identified in the two case studies treated in the present article; the liberalization of the agricultural sector in Tunisia and the construction of the Noor-Ouarzazate Solar Plant in Morocco.

Indeed, in the Tunisian case, agriculture has turned from a traditional economy of little farmers for internal market which assured the “food sovereignty”, toward an export-oriented, liberal agri-business which, according to the dominant narrative would assure the food security of the country. Among the worst consequences which occurred in the last decades, we can identify the growth of social inequalities, that has contributed to the food crisis of 2008, the popular uprisings in 2011 and in general, as Ayeb (op. cit.) points out, to the loss of food sovereignty which paved the way for a very dangerous food dependency of the entire country.

For what concerns the Moroccan case, the building of the Solar Plant in Ouarzazate has sanctioned the arrival of the country in the global market of the renewable energies. In contrast to the dominant narrative of the World Bank and the government of Morocco, many experts considered it as a textbook example of “green grabbing”, with the State that took lands from the locals at a very low price, and “green capitalism”, with private companies from the Gulf as well as IFIs and private banks being among the most important actors, and much likely those who will earn more, to the detriment of the local population, who has lost the land for pastoralism, was not employed in the construction site of the plant, and has seen part of its water reserve going the Solar Plant.

In conclusion, the present article aimed at highlighting how important is to analyse critically what is given by a top-down narrative. Indeed, the most powerful actors are always beyond this kind of narrative; and the local communities, or the less powerful stakeholders in general, are very often not listened and not involved in the projects, but at the same time they are the ones who pay the highest price.


Ayeb H., (2019) Building food sovereignty in Tunisia, in FoodFirst, 05/02/2019,, access date 20/05/2020

Gana A. (2012) The Rural and Agricultural Roots of the Tunisian Revolution: When Food Security Matters, in International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food, Research Committee on Sociology of Food and Agriculture (RC40), 13 p.

Gana A. (2019) L’agriculture à l’épreuve des bouleversements politiques en Tunisie: l’èpuisement d’un modèle, in Moyen-Orient: géopolitique, géoéconomie, géostrategie et sociétés du monde arabo-musulman, vol. 44 (Oct-Nov), pp. 52-57.

Hamouchene H. (2016) The Ouarzazate Solar Plant in Morocco: Triumphal ‘Green’ Capitalism and the Privatization of Nature, in CADMT, 25/03/2016,, access date 20/05/2020.

Hanieh A., (2013) Mapping the Neoliberal Experience, cap. 3 and Capitalism and Agrarian Change in North Africa, cap. 4 in A. Hanieh, Lineages of Revolt.

Lafrance C., Accord de libre-échange avec l’UE : « L’Aleca renforcera la dépendance de la Tunisie », in Jeune Afrique, 14/05/2019,, access date 18/05/2020.


1 “These strains caused protest movements harshly repressed by the regime” (translated by the author).

2 Acronyms of “Accorde de libre-échange complet et approfondi”.

3 Public Private Partnership: arrangements between governments and private, which work together to complete a project.

Filippo Marinoni è laureando Magistrale doppio diploma presso le Università Ca’ Foscari di Venezia e Paul Valéry III di Montpellier