World Bank sees opportunity
"Given the pressing employment needs in those countries ... to develop and innovate new technology is a great opportunity," said Jonathan Walters, World Bank manager for energy and transport in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. "If the market is open to a level playing field, then permanent jobs will be created in the manufacturing industry.
"It's about an industry you're creating," Walters said. "As the megawatts continue to scale up in the MENA region, eventually you'll have an export industry. Then you're creating permanent jobs. You have a whole R&D side. That's the potential we're seeing."
Yet for all the media hype about Desertec, its backers acknowledge that it remains more of a lobbying effort than a concrete blueprint for a solar revolution.
"Desertec is often anticipated as one single project in the desert of North Africa, and it's not. It is not one single project. It will be a series of projects ... and it will consist of many technologies," said Leopold Reymaier, senior vice president and deputy head of origination energy at HSH Nordbank and a shareholder in the Desertec Industrial Initiative.
"What is Desertec? It's a vision," Reymaier said. "It's really a vision about producing energy where the sun resources are, and bringing this electrical energy to where it's needed."
For some on both sides of the Mediterranean, the vision of Desertec gleams.
"We know that this is not a dream, because the technology is there. The technology for transmission is there and the technology for generation is there," said Mouldi Miled, executive director of the Desertec University Network.
Some North Africans see jobs and an end to instability
Europe, Miled said, could "gain 10 to 15 years in the fight against climate change" by importing solar energy from North Africa, as well as meet its renewable energy commitments. And supporters from the Middle East and North Africa said they see Desertec as a boon both for their nations' development and for their science, engineering and manufacturing communities.
"It's not just a project which aims at putting solar farms and panels in the desert and exporting electricity. It's about building the seeds of science and technology in their own countries," said Khaled Toukan, Jordan's minister of energy and mineral resources. Maged Al-Sherbiny, president of the Egyptian Academy of Scientific Research and Technology, agreed, describing Desertec as "having very good potential for Egypt" and helping to build bridges between the north and south.
"Now, with the surging prices of oil as well as the Fukushima incident ... it is time for solar energy," Al-Sherbiny said. "In the Mediterranean region, this is needed more than ever before, especially with the tsunamis of the revolutions there."
Indeed, scientists throughout the region insisted that the so-called Arab Spring that began with revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt before turning violent in countries like Yemen and Syria will yield to strong democracies that will better enable projects like Desertec.
"The Arab world needs a new narrative, a new dream. In many cases, the entire region is being fragmented by the national state models," said Odeh Al-Jayyousi, regional director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Jordan. "The Arab Spring is likely to inform a new discourse about rights-based natural resource management."
Others remain dubious
Others, though, say they doubt Europe's grand pronouncements about how much North Africa stands to benefit from Desertec.
"I have some apprehension," said professor Hamed El Mously, chairman of the Egyptian Society for Endogenous Development of Local Communities in Cairo.