Chatham House Reports of one of its Middle East and North Africa Programme elaborates on the still on-going conflict economies of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The excerpts of the published Executive Summary reproduced here below do not include its Recommendations for Western policymakers, etc.
The conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen have killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions. In seeking to explain the violence that has struck the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) over the past two decades, analysis to date has focused predominantly on ideological and identity-based factors. This report expands this discourse by incorporating approaches adopted from the literature on the political economy of war to examine the conflict economies of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.
motivations, at the individual and group level, are key to understanding
the wars in these countries, yet have tended to be overlooked
in the MENA context. (As the wars have progressed and evolved, the
national and local economies in which conflict is embedded have also changed.)
Such motivations can offer an alternative or complementary
explanation for armed group membership and armed group behaviour. While some
groups will fight to promote or defend a particular identity,
others fight for economic survival or enrichment. For many more actors,
these motivations are tied together, and separating out ‘greed’ and ‘grievance’
is a difficult, if not impossible, task. Even
if economic motivations did not spark the wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria and
Yemen initially, it is clear that such factors now play a critical
role in the persistence of open fighting, localized violence and
objectives of this report are twofold. First, it seeks
to develop a framework for comparative analysis of conflict
economies at the local level in the MENA region. Traditionally, the
idea of a conflict economy has been tightly linked to the
funding for arms, ammunition and fighters. Further, most analyses
of conflict economies are conducted at the national level. Even where
research is conducted on a regional basis, discussion
of the impact of conflict is brought back to the national
level. In contrast, we see a broader political economy
of war at work in the region. Our analysis illustrates how
a conflict economy is embedded within a complex local socio-political
system, in which many variables and agendas interact. We deliberately
avoid characterizing conflict economies in terms of ‘black’ and
‘grey’ markets that somehow need to be ‘cleaned up’, as this
erroneously implies that they can eventually be converted into licit
markets like their peacetime counterparts.2 A more
nuanced and multifaceted reading is essential. For the purposes
of this report, we define a conflict economy
as a system of producing, mobilizing and allocating resources
to sustain competitive and embedded violence, both directly and
we show that a ‘political economy of war’ framing offers new
approaches for reducing competitive and embedded violence. ‘Competitive
violence’ can be defined as violence ‘deployed by warring elites
to contest or defend the existing distribution of power’.4 Fighting
between rival armed groups for control over resources and rents, among other
things, usually falls into this category. ‘Embedded violence’,
in contrast, underpins ‘how a political settlement5 works,
as the deals agreed between elites may revolve around who has the “right”
to use violence’.6 In practice,
this could mean that one group is ‘permitted’ to use violence against
another group – and no punishment will be enforced. In the
context of this study, the use of armed force to assert the
status quo to limit the number of ruling elite members is one
example of embedded violence.
of conflict economies has mostly focused on state-level dynamics.7 However,
less attention has been paid to the development of conflict sub-economies that are specific to certain types of
location. This study demonstrates three distinct types of conflict sub-economy:
(1) capital cities; (2) transit areas and borderlands; and (3) oil-rich areas.
Our analysis highlights how each sub-economy creates distinct location-based
patterns of resource production, mobilization and allocation
to sustain competitive and embedded violence. The rents available
in these areas vary. In capital cities, rents focus on control
of the distribution of revenues and assets from the state and private
sector. In transit areas and borderlands, rents centre around taxation and
arbitrage. In oil-rich areas, rents are related to control
of the area itself (and therefore the ability to levy taxes upon
the oil sector), bearing in mind that the level of achievable
taxation depends on the extent to which a given actor controls
the supply chain.
As this report will elaborate, factors specific to each sub-economy type play a role in conditioning the nature of economic activities in each locality, and in determining whether and by which means violence is dispensed. For this reason, national-level generalizations and in-country comparisons of conflict economies are inadequate: for example, the conflict sub-economy of Baghdad has more in common with that of Tripoli than that of al-Qaim, an Iraqi town on the border with Syria. In turn, the conflict economy observed in al-Qaim has more in common with that of al-Mahra in Yemen than al-Mahra does with Sanaa, the Yemeni capital.
Read more on the original document or download its PDF 873 KB.
The Summary of this paper dated 9 September 2019 is reproduced for all intents and purposes below and the paper can be read online or as a Download PDF (opens in new window)
In the Middle East and North Africa, a growing number of internationally recognized (de jure) states with formal borders and governments lack de facto statehood. Often, governance vacuums are filled by alternative actors that perform state-like functions in place of, or alongside, weakened official institutions. This results in hybrid orders where the distinction between formal and informal actors in the state is blurred, as too are the lines between the formal, informal and illicit economies.
International policymakers have struggled to establish political settlements in these contexts. Would-be state-builders have mistakenly assumed a binary distinction between state failure and success. They have sought to recreate an idealized archetype of the ‘orderly’ state, critically failing to recognize the more complex networks of de facto actors on the ground. At times, international policymakers pick or support leaders who lack local legitimacy, capability and power. This stalls and fragments ongoing organic state transformations, and produces hybrid orders as de facto actors adapt by both capturing state institutions and creating parallel ones.
We propose a new model for understanding the fragmentary transformations of the state underway in Iraq and Yemen. It involves the concept of a multi-layered state, consisting of the executive, the formal bureaucracy, the de facto authorities and society at large. The gap in legitimacy, capability and power between the middle two layers in this model – the formal bureaucracy and the de facto authorities – is a critical source of instability and an impediment to reform. Bridging that gap is thus the key to effective peacebuilding and/or state-building.
This paper argues that all states lie along a chaos–order spectrum. No state is entirely chaotic or orderly. Even those that display many features of chaos – as in Iraq and Yemen – contain pockets of order that are all too often overlooked. The larger the gap between the formal bureaucracy and the de facto authorities, the more a state slides towards the chaos end of the spectrum. Effective state-building must find a way of institutionalizing improvised governance arrangements.
To achieve this, we advocate a ‘middle–out’ approach that aims to strengthen the connective tissues between the bureaucracy and de facto authorities. Simplified, this more inclusive approach entails reframing international involvement as playing the role of a ‘referee’ to monitor the transformations of the state while enforcing accountability, as opposed to the practice of picking ‘winners’ and integrating unfavoured actors into unpopular political settlements.
Al Jazeera’s Middle East showcased this story in pictures of certain peoples of the Arabian peninsula. Amongst their present wide and diverse variety, the Flower Men of Saudi Arabia are exceptionally unique in their well held till today customs.
These are the Descendants
of the ancient Tihama and Asir, fierce warriors, reclusive tribesmen, and
lovers of floral headwear.
How Saudi Arabia and Iran could make peace and bring stability to the Middle East, if it were up to them only, would not be an impossibility as clearly demonstrated here bySamira Nasirzadeh, Lancaster University and Eyad Alrefai, Lancaster University. It would in our opinion, be made even more reachable if both countries manage to transition off their hydrocarbon-based economies and into more diversified ones.
Saudi and Iran: how our two countries could make peace and bring stability to the Middle East
Relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran have rarely been worse, regarding the attacks on the oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman – for which both sides blame each other. Nevertheless, in the history of relations between the two countries, there have been regular shifts between tension and rapprochement – and things can change for the better once again.
As an Iranian and a Saudi, working as research fellows for peace studies, we believe it is time that our two countries seek to manage the conflict, improve their dialogue and begin the peacebuilding process. And we are hopeful that this could happen.
But how? Peace cannot be achieved overnight; it requires a range of factors to strengthen diplomatic ties and decrease the level of enmity between the two states. First, we suggest both states’ politicians soften the language in their speeches, altering the hostile rhetoric to a more moderate one. This would open new paths towards a direct and constructive dialogue, reducing the tensions that are affecting the two countries, the region and, potentially, the world.
Direct dialogue between the two regional actors could launch negotiations that may lead to more stability in the region. The existing regional turmoil has had a detrimental impact on relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran over Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen. The [Yemen war], which has caused a [dramatic humanitarian crisis], remains one of the main areas of conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but it also offers ground for talks between the two states.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran agree that the conflicts in Yemen and Syria can only be ended through the implementation of political, rather than military, solutions. If Saudi Arabia and Iran can take steps toward political compromises in Syria and Yemen, this subsequently will reflect positively on the trust building process.
While Saudi Arabia relies on its strategic Western allies and its ever-increasing military expenditure, Iran, which has been isolated by the US, prefers a more regional approach. Indeed, Saudi Arabia may have to ignore US protests to sit down at the negotiating table with Iran.
But the will for closer ties is, perhaps, there. Indeed, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, declared on March 13, 2018:
We believe that security of our neighbours is our security and stability within our neighbourhood is our stability. I hope they [Saudi Arabia] have the same feeling and I hope that they come to talks with us for resolving these problems. There is no reason for hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, we tell the Saudis that you cannot provide security from outside of the region.
Adel Al-Jubeir, the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, also recently stated in an interview that his country “does not want war with Iran, but will not tolerate what it considers hostile Iranian activity in the Middle East”.
Suspicions clearly remain, but such pronouncements could be viewed as a pause in hostilities, a turning point that could bring both sides closer together to resolve tensions.
There are also domestic reasons for a reduction in tensions, with both states building strategic plans for the future. Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has embarked on an ambitious socioeconomic plan to diversify the country’s economy by curbing its historic dependency on oil and challenging conservative social constructs and norms by unshackling society from some past constraints. In a state where most of the population is under the age of 30, Vision 2030 serves as a mega project that will lead the country to modernise economically and socially.
The same goes for Iran. The country has adopted a promising strategic plan called the 20-Year National Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran which has social, economic, and political objectives. But to be successfully implemented, both countries’ strategies will need stable societies and vibrant economies which cannot be attained in a hostile neighbourhood. Integration and cooperation will be essential.
Diplomacy is the solution
It is evident that Saudi Arabia and Iran will benefit more from direct dialogue than hostile rhetoric. Through discussing and working together on domestic, regional and international issues, it is in the interests of both states – and the wider region – to reduce conflict and increase cooperation through diplomatic ties.
The gradual shift from hostile to inclusive rhetoric by politicians is a helpful first step, but it is also necessary for Saudi and Iran to take practical action in their bilateral relationship.
It is expected for states to compete in their sphere of influence, but pragmatism must prevail if both countries want to put an end to their conflicts in the region.
“When I was carried through the hospital doors last June, nobody thought I would live to tell this story,” remembers Adba Saleh Mubarak. “The nurses took one look at me and motioned my daughter to take me away. They thought I was dead,” she recalls. Her daughter, however, insisted that the nurses take a closer look, and thanks to medical treatment, Adba recovered from an acute case of cholera.
While the disease is endemic in Yemen, the last few years have seen infections spike to a scale not witnessed in living memory. The destruction of water infrastructure due to the conflict, plus aquifer depletion, are largely to blame. With freshwater extremely scarce and sewage disposal systems in disrepair, more and more people are using water of dubious quality.
A still visibly frail Adba suspects she contracted cholera from water from Sana’a’s wastewater treatment plant. The overwhelmed plant is spewing poorly treated wastewater into the canal that runs through the Bani Al Harith District, where Adba lives with her daughter and three grandchildren. Many people here – mainly women and children – use this unsafe water to grow vegetables for their own consumption and to sell in the capital’s markets.
“This area used to be our own little Garden of Eden. We grew all sorts of vegetables,” Adba remembers. She learned the hard way about the risks of bacterial-laden water or food and now avoids contact with it. Yet, even though farmers and families have been warned about the dangers of using water from the canal, the supplies of this precious resource are too hard to come by – and the need for food too great – so these warnings often go ignored.
Seeing this problem, FAO partnered with Japan to install small-scale wastewater treatment facilities that can produce safe water for irrigation.
The treatment plants use the power of gravity to cycle the water through the various stages of cleaning; this means that the facilities are both cost effective and easy to manage. The rigorous 26-day treatment process involves sedimentation, filtration and aeration that utilizes direct sunlight to kill the microbes and ensure treated water meets the standards required for use in agriculture. At optimum working capacity, each plant can treat 150 cubic meters of wastewater per day.
The vast majority of water in Yemen – as much as 90 percent – goes towards irrigation. To improve water use efficiency, the FAO-Japan project is also rolling out modern drip irrigation systems on an estimated 75 hectares of cultivated land. This system ensures the sustainable and responsible use of treated water for farming.
Through already established Water Users’ Associations, the project is also intensifying public awareness campaigns regarding safe water use in agriculture, food processing and preparation. Farmers are being educated on the perils of untreated wastewater on human and animal health. The campaigns also focus on the environmental dangers that contaminated water poses to the soil and ecology.
Rania Ahmad Handhal, head of the Women Sector in Ahdaq Water Users’ Association and a participant in the awareness raising effort, says women are particularly at risk. She herself also contracted and recovered from cholera last year. “Getting cholera, however, strengthened my resolve to continue raising awareness among women in our village because they are the ones who farm and use water more extensively than the men,” she says.
Every day Rania tirelessly goes from door to door talking to women about cholera and how to avoid it. “I do my best in trying to save the lives of my people. I am very optimistic and hopeful that with better information and projects such as this one, we can beat cholera and women can earn much more from growing and selling vegetables,” she concludes with a smile.
The FAO-Japan project will save thousands of families living in Sana’a who rely on vegetables from this region. While this project has done a lot to mitigate the spread cholera, it is, however, not enough to cover the irrigation demands of the population. FAO is thus proposing to scale up interventions through a new phase, which will see new plants constructed covering the remaining 320 hectares available. This will allow farmers to expand their vegetable production while ensuring that untreated water is not used to irrigate vegetables in Bani Al-Hareth.
Water, food, health: the basics that everyone should have. FAO and its Member countries are working toward the Sustainable Development Goals, with this project particularly focusing on Zero Hunger (SDG 2), Good Health (SDG 3) and Clean Water (SDG 6), to ensure that people worldwide have access to these basic human rights.