By John Calabrese

Although global energy demand fell in 2020 due to the pandemic, investment in energy transition increased. In April, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) reported that renewable energy’s share of new generating capacity rose substantially for the second year in a row. China, which has emerged as the indisputable leader of renewable energy expansion worldwide, has begun to reorient its overseas energy investment and finance towards non-fossil fuels projects. This shift could portend a larger role for China in the MENA region’s growing renewables sector, especially in solar power production. 

“Green” China at Home and Abroad

China has set ambitious renewable generation goals and already made significant progress in achieving them. Four-and-a-half years have elapsed since President Xi Jinping issued China’s bold claim to global leadership in renewable energy. In the intervening time, China has become the world’s leading country in electricity production from renewable energy sources, with the largest installed capacity of hydro, solar, and wind power. Specifically with respect to solar, China dominates nearly all aspects of use and manufacturing, including key segments of the solar supply chain.

Data from China’s National Energy Administration (NEA) shows the country’s renewable energy capacity is increasing rapidly. China’s renewables consumption rose by 15% in 2020, accounting for 25% of global renewables demand and 36% of global growth. Advances in technology and plunging clean energy prices indicate that China could reliably operate its electricity grids on at least 62% non-fossil electricity generation by 2030, while cutting costs by as much as 11% — a projection that might not be overly optimistic, given how dramatically renewable energy and storage prices have dropped in recent years.

China’s “greening” is evident also in its efforts to solidify its climate credentials internationally. Last September, Xi announced at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) that China would aim to attain a CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. On the anniversary of his UNGA carbon neutrality pledge, Xi declared that China “will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad.” He further announced that “China will step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy.”

Here, it is important to note that China’s investment in renewables accounted for most (57%) of the country’s financial support for overseas energy projects in 2020 — up from 38% in 2019. Also noteworthy is the fact that, over the preceding five years, Chinese-supported development of coal-fired power overseas had already slowed down, due largely to the decreasing competitiveness of coal power compared to renewables and host countries’ declining appetite for coal. The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) reported in June that nearly half of the coal power projects planned and permitted with Chinese involvement have been cancelled or suspended.

To be sure, China’s energy investments abroad remain concentrated in fossil fuels. However, over the past decade, renewables with Chinese overseas investment and financing have been increasing. The result is that China today is the world’s leading outbound investor in renewable energy. If the rapid downward price trend for renewable energy continues and capital investment choices shift away from fossil fuels, Chinese investment and involvement in overseas renewable energy deployment will likely increase — including in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

Renewables Gain Traction Across the MENA

The case for the expansion of renewable energy production in the MENA region is a strong one. MENA countries face the challenge of surging demand for electricity. Some have limited or no supply of indigenous hydrocarbon resources. Ramping up renewable energy production would decrease the strain on fiscal resources in import-dependent countries, could assist the economic diversification of the fossil fuel producing countries, could help address joblessness, and would reduce the climate risks that the region is facing.

Although the region has enormous renewable, especially solar and wind energy potential, MENA countries are far from fully capitalizing on it. The region trails only Central Asia in using renewables as a primary energy source. Renewable energy represents just 7% of the MENA’s power generation capacity. The region has also experienced its share of renewable project disappointments, including Desertec and the Mediterranean Solar Plan (MSP); false starts, such as the Saudi-SoftBank mega solar plant, and scaled back initiatives, notably Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City.

Nevertheless, renewables are gaining traction, spurred by unprecedented cost declines and lofty national targets. Several MENA countries are among the global front-runners in renewable energy development. The world’s largest and least costly solar projects are in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco have built significant renewable energy capacity. Indeed, the region’s renewable energy landscape is rapidly evolving. Mirroring global trends, renewables constitute the largest share of planned and committed power project in the MENA region for the period 2020-2024. MENA countries awarded as much as US$2.8 billion worth of renewable energy projects in the first half of 2021.

The Growth of the Gulf Solar Market Gathers Pace

What, then, of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states? Hydrocarbons have been the traditional driving force of the GCC economies. However, with the recent period of record-low oil prices and the catalytic role the coronavirus pandemic has played in accelerating the global energy towards cleaner energy sources, all six GCC states are now prioritizing renewables. Over the past year, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Oman have forged ahead with renewable energy projects. And GCC states have committed to targets for low-carbon energy in power generation capacity with shares ranging from 15% to 50%.

The Emirates and Saudi Arabia are regional leaders in the energy transition, together accounting for the lion’s share of renewable energy build-out and research. UAE leads the pack in grid-connected low-carbon energy capacity, and along with its Gulf Arab peers has organized competitive auctions for renewable energy projects The main type of renewable energy deployed in the UAE is solar. In recent years, Abu Dhabi and Dubai have pursued ambitious solar projects. The Masdar City solar PV plant became operational in 2009. Noor Abu Dhabi, the world’s largest solar plant, came online two years ago. The total capacity (2 GW) of the solar farm project at Al-Dhafra, whose construction began in June and is expected to be completed next year, will be nearly double that of Noor. Dubai, which surpassed its 2020 renewable energy target, expects to add 600 MW of clean energy capacity in 2021. Meanwhile, progress continues apace in the five-phase development of the vast Muhammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, which upon completion will help bring within reach Dubai’s goal of generating 75% of its total power output from clean energy by 2050. It is noteworthy that all five phases of the project have achieved record-breaking low tariffs in the absence of subsidies.

The UAE recently became the first Gulf petrostate to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050 and pledged to invest $160 billion to do so — an initiative that could place pressure on its neighbors to raise their ambitions. Saudi Arabia, for its part, has stepped up efforts to expand renewable energy supply. The Kingdom’s National Renewable Energy Program (NREP) has “substantially increased” its ambitions. Last March, as part of a newly announced “Green Initiative,” Saudi Arabia reaffirmed its five-year old commitment to 50% renewable power by 2030. The next month, state-owned ACWA Power launched its first utility-scale renewable energy project, the 300 MW Sakaka solar initiative, and announced the signing of seven power purchase agreements (PPAs) for new solar photovoltaic (PV) power plants in the second round of the country’s procurement scheme for renewable energies. In one of the newly signed PPAs, Saudi Aramco has joined forces with ACWA Power and Water & Electricity Holding Co. to embark on construction of a nearly $1 billion solar power plant in the Kingdom.

Meanwhile, state-backed Emirati and Saudi companies have been building global portfolios of renewable energy assets. Gulf power companies Masdar (UAE) and ACWA Power (KSA) have emerged as major developers of renewable energy projects across and beyond the Middle East. UAE power producer Abu Dhabi National Energy Co. (TAQA), which already has investments in Iraq and Morocco, recently announced plans to increase its renewable energy assets in regional and international markets. In early October, Masdar announced that it had signed a strategic agreement with Iraq to develop five solar photovoltaic (PV) projects. UAE power producer Abu Dhabi National Energy Co. (TAQA), which has investments in Iraq and Morocco, recently announced plans to increase its renewable energy assets in regional and international markets. ACWA Power, part-owned by the KSA’s sovereign wealth fund, has a presence in 11 countries, including Jordan, Morocco, Turkey and the UAE; and has backed the largest private solar power projects in both Egypt and South Africa. The Riyadh-based company, which launched an initial public offering (IPO) in October, has its eyes set on using the proceeds to accelerate the growth of its renewable energy portfolio in target markets. 

China’s Prospects in the Mideast Solar Market Brighten

China’s “green engagement” in the Middle East and North Africa is already well established, and its portfolio of clean energy projects throughout the region continues to grow. Over the past decade, Chinese companies — mostly state-owned firms — have acquired a stake in many of the MENA’s major renewable energy projects. In addition, China has played an increasing role in the expansion of “green” finance across the region.

In recent years, Chinese engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) contractors and suppliers have flocked to the MENA solar market, whose large-scale projects have helped attract funding and draw in a host of international players. The two years prior to COVID-19 were marked by the completion of major solar projects (e.g., in Morocco and Egypt) and the announcement of several new ones (e.g., in Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Iran) involving Chinese companies. To a large extent, the competitive pricing environment in the MENA solar market today is a function of the participation of the Chinese supply chain.

Several months after the coronavirus pandemic struck the Gulf, the 1.2-gigawatt (GW) Noor Abu Dhabi solar plant in Sweihan, which China’s JinkoSolar Holding co-developed with Japan’s Marubeni, entered commercial operation. Since then, Chinese companies — capitalizing on their early-mover advantage, successful project engagement in the region, and extensive Sino-Gulf energy ties — have been invited to bid for new tenders and have garnered a slew of new contracts and acquisitions in the Gulf solar sector, including: 

  • May 2020: The Silk Road Fund completed its acquisition of a 49% stake in Saudi Arabia’s ACWA Power Renewable Energy Holding, a partnership intended to lay the groundwork for facilitating renewable energy projects along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
  • July 2020: Shanghai Electric announced it secured a contract with ACWA Power to build the fifth 900 MW phase of the UAE’s Mohamed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park.
  • July 2021: Jinko Power Technology Co., Ltd., along with EDF Renewables (a subsidiary of the French EDF Group), was awarded the Al Dhafra solar project in Abu Dhabi.
  • August 2021: State-owned PowerChina and Iraq inked an initial agreement to develop up to 2 GW of solar power plants.
  • August 2021: A consortium led by China Three Gorges South Asia Investment (CSAIL), acquired Alcazar Energy Partners (AEP), a Dubai-based independent wind and solar developer with projects in Jordan and Egypt.
  • October 2021: Two Chinese companies — China Energy Engineering Corp. Ltd. and Xian Electric Engineering Co. Ltd. — joined Orascom Construction and Hitachi ABB Power Grid in signing consortium contracts for implementing the Egypt-Saudi electricity power grid linkage project.

To date, global energy finance provided through the China Development Bank (CDB) and Export-Import Bank of China (Ex-Im) remains sharply skewed toward fossil fuels projects. Although renewables support through project loans provided through majority-state owned commercial banks has increased in recent years, perhaps indicating the growing profitability of such projects, Chinese companies have still found it difficult to obtain financing for overseas renewable projects. But the Bank of China’s announcement that it would no longer provide financing for overseas coal power projects could result in resources being redirected to renewable energy. China’s Silk Road Fund has taken an equity stake in in the fourth phase of the Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid (MBR) solar park, with support for the project provided by a lending group that includes Agricultural Bank of China, Bank of China, China Everbright Bank, and China Minsheng Bank. Last year, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), where China holds a roughly 30% voting share and which recently expanded funding for renewable energy projects, approved a $60 million loan to support the construction of the 500-megawatt Ibri II solar power plant in Oman. It is therefore possible that greater Chinese financial support for overseas solar projects in BRI countries, including in the Middle East, may be on the horizon.


Even under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic, renewable sources of energy have continued to grow rapidly worldwide. According to the IEA’s World Energy Outlook-2021 (WEO-2021), there is unmistakable evidence that “a new energy economy is emerging.” The WEO-2021 adds that “[t]he potential prize is huge for those who make the leap” to embrace it. The report also identifies four key areas where countries need to make progress in the “crucial period” to 2030, the first and most important of which is a “massive additional push” for clean electrification.

The MENA region has some of the highest solar exposure rates in the world. MENA countries are capitalizing on their promising resources for renewable power generation. Photovoltaic (PV) technology is now the most competitive form of power generation across the GCC and dominates the latter’s renewables outlook. Although the most striking gains have been made in the biggest energy markets — UAE and Saudi Arabia — solar deployment has progressed in the other GCC states as well, albeit more slowly. In fact, countries across the MENA region have been ramping up solar power investment.

The capacity additions in the pipeline, both in solar power production and the wider electricity supply chain, have provided attractive growth prospects for market participants. Chinese companies, already a major force in the transition to green energy in the MENA, are well positioned and taking steps to expand their presence in the region’s renewables market, particularly in the solar sector.

The IEA projects a further concentration of Middle East-Asia trade flows over the next three decades, fueled by an increase in the share of seaborne oil trade between the two regions. Meanwhile, though, new dimensions of energy trade between the Middle East and Asia are just beginning to take shape as the clean energy transition unfolds. The growing presence of Chinese funds and firms in the Mideast solar market could be a prelude to the formation of strategic commercial partnerships. Such partnerships might aim to establish manufacturing and assembly platforms — situated in the Gulf, North Africa, or both — to produce local components for and/or re-export Chinese solar technologies.

The pursuit of energy diversification through the implementation of large-scale solar projects by MENA governments is a trend that is likely to continue. Underpinning this trend is a strong foundation of Sino-Middle Eastern cooperation in the solar energy sector. But accelerating solar energy adoption across the region will not be easy. Nor is more extensive Chinese involvement in the solar sector inevitable. Challenges abound that may slow the projected growth of solar deployment in the region, including technical problems of intermittency and mass storage, as well as economic obstacles in the form of subsidies for oil and gas. The financial support by China’s policy banks and commercial institutions needed to entice Chinese companies to undertake new projects might not be forthcoming. Furthermore, such cooperation could become ensnared in the US-China trade war and, more broadly, in the Sino-American strategic rivalry and thus have a disruptive effect on projects under development. Therefore, sustaining the momentum towards a solar revolution in the Middle East and China’s relatively high level of engagement in the greening of the region might prove difficult. Nevertheless, the headway recently made is undeniable — as is the need and potential for further progress.

This article has been sourced from the Middle East Institute and can be accessed here