In Sandhour of July 10, 2020, A Strategy for North Africa in the current Century has developed taking into account all things that contributed to how North Africa sub-region of the MENA came into being and rendered into what is witnessed in the present times.
One of the rather peculiar features of capitalism is having its nemesis–socialism– as its twin flip. Surely, corporations and equity are forms of socializing the capitalist gain and it has been the case since the inception of capitalism in its modern form in the early 18th century, setting it apart of the previous mode of venturing sole merchants and their financiers. There were cheating and abuse, and still are, yet the learning curve smoothed up the functioning of capitalism.
Another, even more bewildering, aspect of capitalism is its susceptibility to speculation. Stock markets, commodity prices, oil, currency valuation rise and fall– incrementally at times and suddenly at others– based on speculations trickling down from pundits to people. The fluctuations are functions of information-based assessments. Alas, information is asymmetrical between social groupings; nations; and regions leading to local and global stratification. Nevertheless, advances in cultural and intellectual infrastructure improve checks and balances and drive capitalism towards more democratization.
However, despite the mass democratization of the 20th century and designed social ends embedded in market economies, increasing socialization of capital, we presently face problems in terms of increasing numbers that are losing out in the present Socio-economic mode. The cyclical nature of those problems point to congestion in the global economic system, as has been pointed out over and again by generations of economic thinkers. However, the increasing socialization and rising overall capabilities of ordinary citizens vouch for a progressive history. Anyway, the ongoing technological disruption, which is unprecedented in kind and potential, will definitely restore balance to the global economic system. A transition to a new energy regime is a main pillar of the technological disruption.
The oil and gas commodity is the pillar of the contemporary industrial civilization. And the Middle East happens to be the fulcrum point of oil economy. From the early 70s on, there has been much hype about peak oil, partly driving improvements in energy efficiency, and search for alternative energy sources and carriers.
Countering peak oil is the obviously politically motivated infinite fossil resource hypothesis. It goes without saying that it is a hoax which goes against simplest arithmetic.
As far as I’m concerned, the trapezium model for oil reserves is the most plausible one. It states that reserves rise along the the side of a trapezium, flatten then slide along the opposite side. Depleting wells are countered by technological progress which enables economic development of previously useless layers, as well as deep sea, arctic and other unreachable reserves. Still the fact that reserves are finite in addition to cost factors raise the stakes of alternative energy and the sliding of proven reserves starting from 2030s.
The expected predominance of batteries in transport by mid century and the recent breakthrough in fusion energy where super conducting electromagnets made up of barium and copper that are stable enough to capture the heated plasma which ignite the fusion fuel made up of hydrogen sister atoms, creating more output energy than input; point to way lesser role for fossils in the short mid-term future. Yet, fossils will still be high on the global energy portfolio for at least two decades. However, speculations are not based on laws of physics, rather they are psychological processes in the first place and hence the current contours point towards sustained low prices for oil and gas.
Further, chaotic leadership in the Gulf, population pressure and prospects of war are not likely to mark up fossils because of new ports in Oman, Qatari Iranian understanding, neutralization of Iraq, Iranian economic crunch, and geographic isolation of wells in Saudi.
The most precious energy commodity poised to replace fossils are rare earth minerals for batteries like lithium and cobalt though they are in no way likely to have the same strategic controversy because of the availability of sister alternatives for Lithium ion batteries like sodium and fluoride. Also, we don’t refill a battery with lithium for every kilometer run. Barium and copper pop up high as the material for super conductors necessary for fusion. Sahel and sub-saharan Africa lack a detailed map for the prospects of rare earths, yet the proven diversity and richness of the continent in metals such as copper; as well as fossils, renders it likely that the continent will be a futuristic mine.
So.. what has got the middle East to offer the world on the strategic table, now with the declining weight of fossils? All what I can think of is Islam, proximity to sub-saharan Africa, and big legitimate armies in North Africa along with a historical experience that values stability.
With the right strategic reassembly and new alignments, North Africa can act as a bridge for stabilizing sub-saharan Africa, reforming Islam and re-inventing the Near East through new understandings with the global system based on rational comprehension of reality. It is highly unlikely for Ethiopia to play that role due to ethnic and religious rifts and the prevalence of too much of a lethargic culture, as proven by the failure of relocation from Asia of textiles to Ethiopia .
With the “Oil for Protection” pact with the United States in 1945 and the contribution of petrodollars, Wahabism took off. It was exposed outside the kingdom, notably to Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. This export was a defence system against the ideological incursions of neighbouring republics states, all friends at the time of the Soviets, and sworn enemies of the Saudi monarchy. The MENA countries of today are still divided along the same lines of governance; those of republics versus monarchies. One thing though ties all the countries is the autocratic reality that underpins all systems. These stem fundamentally from the following.
Wahabism is the school of religious thought initiated by Md Ibn Abdel Wahab in the 18th century, itself derived from the Hanabalite current of thought. This school advocate a return to the religious precepts of the time of the prophet and does not tolerate any other interpretation of the sacred texts other than those disclosed by the first caliphate.
During the Cold War and to counter the Soviets in Afghanistan, the U.S. trained Islamists extremist militants in resistance and guerrilla methods. Saudi bin Laden came to be known as the head of an organization of freedom fighters against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The cold war ended with the Berlin wall collapsing bringing the end of the USSR and thus the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan. From then on, the U.S. was a dominant power in this part of the world with later, a visible presence in the Middle East’s Gulf region. The experts in U.S. geopolitics then discovered a new enemy to manage, that is Iraq and eventually Iran. But many terrorism victim states pointed the index at Saudi Arabia’s Wahabism, denouncing it as the spiritual support and backer of these terrorist organizations. It is an undeniable fact that the Wahabi Islam has done great harm to the Islamic world as much as to Islam itself. On the other hand, the cultural vacuum operated by authoritarian socialist regimes in most of the republic states in the MENA region was an ideal breeding ground for the implantation of ideologies imported from the Arabian Peninsula.
It would, on the other hand, be more accurate to talk about shared responsibility between the Arab states and the U.S. rather than to focus it on Arabia alone. Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) wants to reform Arabia but with the excellent advice of the U.S. and its ally, Israel. With the terrorist strikes of the nine-eleven 2001, the Americans had apparently decided to tackle the source of the evil, i.e. the Saudi Wahhabism that they had supported themselves before.
Trump and his allies have turned a blind eye to MBS’s notorious behaviour which by opening the country to “emancipatory” Western ideas and certain financial benefits in the medium term, looked like promoting the “right path” of Saudi society first, then of the entire Umma, i.e. the Muslim world community, after that. A programme that is best to start by emancipating women. The woman as guardian of traditions needed to be able to contribute and to do this, the first and most obvious idea: unveil it. The Saudi woman should live according to the Western model, the American style of preference, libertine, and more spendthrift. From this perspective, the concept of the two-parent family (father, mother, children) that is protective, and guardian of moral values should be banned. It is true that women in these Middle East countries still live under the dictates of an oppressive, repressive, and reductive secular mentality due mainly to pre-Islamic ancestral practices rather than to the religious fact as divine precepts.
In Carnegie Middle East Diwan write up by Armenak Tokmajyan and Walid al-Nofal in Beyond the Line in the Sand seems to have encapsulated a situation of contentious borders of the modern states. This article highlights the human down to earth life aspects that continue unabated for millennia.
Syria’s conflict has transformed the conditions of tribal clan notables who have sought refuge in Jordan.
The social fabric on both sides of the Syrian-Jordanian border has remained similar, notwithstanding the fact that a century has passed since the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the region between Britain and France. Communities on either side of the separation line remain similar, with extended families and clans (sub-tribes or ‘ashireh) dominating the social landscape. They remain linked by family and kinship ties, as well as shared customs and traditions.
But this so-called “line in the sand”—the boundary dividing British and French areas of control drawn during World War I—has also left its mark. Relations between tribal clans and their respective states differ markedly between Jordan and Syria, both in terms of their roles in the state-building process and the space that clan notables have been given to exercise traditional authority within their societies.
With the increasing levels of violence in Syria after 2011, many Syrians, especially from the border governorate of Dar‘a, sought refuge in Jordan. Statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees show that the largest concentration of refugees is located in Amman Governorate, Jordan’s economic heartland. The second-largest is present in the northwestern border areas of the kingdom, which resemble nearby parts of Syria in their climate, geography, and even architecture. Not only is the environment similar, but many Jordanian and Syrian families have family ties and relationships from before the conflict. This helped Syrians integrate into Jordanian society after they had fled Syria.
After settling in Jordan, many refugees found that the state’s relationship with clans were different than what they had encountered in Syria. Throughout the decades of Ba‘th Party rule, the Syrian state sought to weaken tribal clan authority. Half a century of such policies prior to the uprising, along with changing ways of life, gradually reduced the role of clan notables. Still, the state used what remained of these notables’ influence for its own ends. For example, it took advantage of their authority to contain and resolve major disputes between large families and keep the peace in rural peripheries of the country.
Jordan’s tribal clans, in turn, face few of the restraints and pressures experienced by their Syrian counterparts. Instead, they remain a major power center with considerable authority and influence in the kingdom. Tribal tradition plays a crucial role in Jordanian society despite growing opposition to it. Even today, the king derives some of his legitimacy from his status as the leader of the kingdom’s tribal leaders, a historical legacy dating back to Jordan’s foundation. Despite rare bumps in ties between the state and tribal clans, especially for economic reasons, these relationships have remained essential for the stability of Hashemite rule.
The new reality in Jordan makes some Syrian notables claim that there is more respect for the clan in Jordan than in Syria. Indeed, in Jordan tribal traditions and customs similar to those in Syria are more widely practiced. This continues to strengthen the clans’ traditional authority, which gives them positions of leadership with judicial, customary, and even political roles as intermediaries between their communities and the state—far more than in Syria.
The situation in Syria has brought about deep changes in the relationship between state and society, including with clan notables. Early on in 2011, notables in Dar‘a broke with their traditional roles and were at the forefront of anti-regime protests when Brigadier General ‘Atif Najib, the head of the Political Security Directorate in Dar‘a, humiliated notables who had gone to seek the release of children arrested and tortured for writing anti-regime slogans. This is widely seen as the incident that sparked the uprising.
Tribal customs remained, and perhaps were strengthened, amid the absence of state institutions in Syria. As a result, some known personalities lost their social status as notables, while others turned the crisis into an opportunity. They gained authority and prominence within their extended families and clans and became new intermediaries with the state. These transformations are ongoing and the political role of clan notables in Syrian society today has yet to become clear. For now, many seem to have lost the roles they played before the uprising, becoming rivals and targets of the state.
The lives of Syrian clan notables in Jordan differ greatly from their lives before the uprising and from the situation of Syrians who are living in Dar‘a today. Many certainly face the hardships of being refugees and do not enjoy the same privileges as their Jordanian counterparts. Yet they live in a sociopolitical environment in which they are able to exercise their traditional authority more widely over their communities and without the fear of being targeted by the state. In that sense, despite living in exile, they are in a more favorable social and political setting than where they had been.
There is a specter of threats on all MENA’s countries, starting with those that are oil-exporters. The risk of dislocation of social cohesion and that of amputation of territorial integrity are perhaps at the forefront.
What are then the scenarios for the future situation in all the countries of the MENA region? Here are some:
According to Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East programme at Chatham House: “The coronavirus has exposed the fragility of the social safety-net systems across the region,” and the “Covid-19 has postponed the inevitable unrest to come.”
Her comments fuelled speculation in the Financial Times about the coming unrest in the MENA region, which many would say has barely recovered from the 2011 uprising that became popularly known as the “Arab Spring”.
With governments lacking legitimacy, restless populations, high youth population and rampant unemployment, the region was already under severe stress. Their lack of financial resources to be able to deal with the virus in the way wealthy nations have been able to, by providing large-scale rescue packages to support businesses and protect jobs, is expected to make their position even more untenable.
While trust between people and the regimes is said to be dangerously low, authoritarian measures adopted during the spread of the pandemic has exacerbated this endemic problem. The shuttering of news agencies and expulsion of foreign journalists that contradicted government handling of the pandemic were cited as just two of the ways in which mistrust has been deepened.
In states like Algeria activists are even accusing authorities of exploiting the crisis by cracking down on political opponents and detaining opposition politicians as well as journalists.
States like Iraq have suffered a double blow of the spread of the coronavirus and the collapse of the global oil market which resulted from a major drop in global supply and a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Baghdad is unlikely to be able to pay as much as half of its staff in the public sector, by far the largest employer, while Algeria, another country exposed to the oil price plunge, is said to be cutting state spending by 30 per cent.
Countries heavily reliant on tourism are also being hit hard. Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco have seen this key sector completely freeze over the past months. As revenues plummet, remittances, which is a major source of income for many countries in the region, have dried up. Lebanon, one of the countries already at breaking point due to economic meltdown, will face major challenges.
This weekend, two banks in southern, and two in northern Lebanon were damaged in separate attacks over the weekend, as public anger grows over the country’s economic crisis.
The real test, according to the FT report, will come after the pandemic begins to ease and the economic consequences of the global crisis are truly felt, particularly for the region’s most vulnerable.
Bulent Gökay, Keele University elaborates on how Turkey tries to keep wheels of economy turning despite worsening coronavirus crisis. It, contrary to its neighbours, would not go down the same way. Read on to find out why.
Turkey confirmed its first case of the new coronavirus on March 11, but since then the speed of its infection rate has surpassed that of many other countries with cases doubling every two days. On April 2, Turkey had more than 15,000 confirmed cases and 277 deaths from complications related to the coronavirus, according to data collated by John Hopkins University.
The Turkish government has called for people to stay at home and self-isolate. Mass disinfection has been carried out in all public spaces in cities. To encourage residents to stay at home, all parks, picnic areas and shorelines are closed to pedestrians.
Some airports are closed and all international flights to and from Turkey were banned on March 27. All schools, universities, cafes, restaurants, and mass praying in mosques and other praying spaces has been suspended, and all sporting activities postponed indefinitely.
Manufacturing remains open
Many small businesses in the service sector are closed, and many companies in banking, insurance and R&D have switched to working from home. But in many industrial sectors, such as metal, textile, mining and construction, millions of workers are still forced to go to work or face losing their jobs. In Istanbul, where more than a quarter of Turkey’s GDP is produced, the public transport system still carries over a million people daily.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, has openly opposed a total lockdown, arguing a stay-at-home order would halt all economic activity. On March 30, he said continuing production and exports was the country’s top priority and that Turkey must keep its “wheels turning”.
But in the short term, many of Turkey’s export markets for minerals, textiles and food, such as Germany, China, Italy, Spain, Iran and Iraq, are already closed due to the virus. This has led to enormous surpluses piling up in warehouses. Even where there are overseas customers, getting the goods delivered has proven difficult. The process of sanitising and disinfecting the trucks and testing the drivers before they travel takes many extra hours, sometime days, after waiting in long lines.
Still, Erdogan’s statements give the impression that he sees this pandemic not only as a serious crisis, but also as an opportunity for Turkish manufacturers. The hope is that, after the Chinese shutdown, European producers which depend on Chinese companies for a range of semi-finished products may consider Turkey as an alternative supplier in the longer term. That’s why the government is still allowing millions of workers to go to factories, mines and construction sites despite the huge health risk.
A bruised economy
The Turkish government announced a 100 billion lira (£12 billion) stimulus package on March 18. It included tax postponement and subsidies directed at domestic consumption, such as reducing VAT on certain items and suspension of national insurance payments in many sectors for six months. But this is an insignificant sum for an economy as big as Turkey’s.
Most of the support will go to medium and large companies that were forced to close, and only a very tiny amount to individual workers. In order to benefit from the scheme, a person must have worked at least 600 days in the past three years (450 days for those in Ankara). Those with most need get the lowest level of help or no help from the state.
The tourism sector, which accounts for about 12% of the economy, has already been decimated. Some 2.5 million workers will not be able to work as they had been expecting to in the peak tourist months between April and September.
Limited room for manoeuvre
Even before the virus hit Turkey the economy was already weak, still trying to recover from the impacts of a 2016 coup attempt and a 2018 currency crisis, both of which caused severe stress to Turkey’s economic and financial systems.
In March, Turkey’s Central Bank reduced its benchmark interest rate by 1%, and several of the country’s largest private banks announced measures to support the economy, such as suspending loan repayments. As a result, the Turkish lira initially held up reasonably well, compared with other emerging market economies, but it fell to an 18-month low on April 1 as the coronavirus death rates accelerated. Official interest rates have fallen below 10%, providing some protection to those holding Turkish lira versus some foreign currencies.
Turkey’s financial options to limit the impact of the crisis are limited. Credit rating agency Moody’s revised its prediction for the country GDP from 3% growth in 2020 to a 1.4% contraction. Still, it may get a reprieve from the low oil price. Turkey imports almost all its energy needs, and with the recent fall in the price of oil and gas, this means Turkey could save about US$12 billion (£9.6 billion) in energy imports.
It is hard to see very far ahead. During the next few months, it’s expected that Turkey, alongside South Africa and Argentina, could be sliding toward insolvency and debt default. After that, everything depends on how this crisis progresses and how long it will take to end.
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, SOAS, University of London comes up with ‘Bani Adam: the 13th-century Persian poem that shows why humanity needs a global response to coronavirus’ to tell us that this novel pandemic per this poem is not locally that much of a novelty, not different from its predecessors and it is all about human connectivity.
Coronavirus is all about human connectivity. From a philosophical perspective, I’ve been thinking about how this virus is forcing us to confront our common fate, highlighting our connections in the process. The novel coronavirus defies geography and national borders. There is no escaping it – exactly because humanity is inevitably interdependent.
In a beautifully emotive poem called Bani Adam (human kind), drafted in the 13th century, the Persian-Muslim polymath Sa’adi used what can be employed as an analogy to our current challenge in order to visualise this common constitution of humanity. It reads:
Human beings are members of a whole, in creation of one essence and soul. If one member is afflicted with pain, other members uneasy will remain. If you have no sympathy for human pain, the name of human you cannot retain.
These verses from Sa’adi’s Bani Adam decorate the walls of the United Nations building in New York and the poem was quoted by US president Barack Obama in his videotaped New Year (Nowrouz) message to Iran in March 2009 to open up a new chapter in Iranian relations with the US. More recently, the British band Coldplay used the poem as the title of a song in their album Everyday Life. It’s a poem that speaks to the inevitability of a common fate of humanity, that unites us into an intimately shared space.
A common fate
This effort of conjoining what has been artificially divided through nationalisms, religious doctrines and other forms of ideology, was equally central to a poem by the German genius Johann Wolfgang Goethe. He was very much influenced by Persian/Muslim philosophy and poetry, in particular by the 14th-century poet Hafez-e Shirazi.
In his magnificent work West-Eastern Divan, a very early manifesto against cultural essentialism – viewing one’s own culture in complete separation of others – Goethe wrote:
When people keep themselves apart in mutual disdain. A truth is hidden from the heart. Their goals are much the same.
As a communicable disease, the coronavirus compounds our inevitable common fate. Our existence cannot be safeguarded in isolation, we can only survive together: my fate is yours, ours is theirs. Social media, for instance, has adopted terms such as “viral” to describe particularly successful Tweets or Facebook posts, which demonstrate the dialogues between our bodies and minds that are ongoing at every second of the day on this global canvass. This interconnected reality of ours merges (rather than divides) categories such as “us” and “them”, “self” and “other” which are at the heart of problematic ideas about today’s eternal cultural wars.
Our leaders continue to speak about the coronavirus in distinctly martial and psycho-nationalist terms. Even in a staunchly secular liberal-democracy such as France, president Emmanuel Macron described the crisis in war-like terms. US president Donald Trump used similar words when he likened himself to a “wartime president” in order to describe his fight against the virus.
And yet at the height of the pandemic, Trump’s administration pushed through more unilateral sanctions against Iran, which has been badly hit by coronavirus, and Venezuelan officials . At the time when countries such as China and Cuba are sending specialists to the epicentres of the crisis, Trump has punished the most vulnerable members of Iranian society for the sake of nationalistic power politics.
In search of a global response
In the meantime, many of us are concerned because we are finding out, tragedy by tragedy, that there is a lack of multilateral cooperation. Our elected leaders are incompetent or helpless and rampant capitalism has focused much of our resources on profit, rather than on institutions that serve the people.
The coronavirus transmuted into such an all-encompassing pandemic for two simple reasons. First, our common biology does not respect any of the mental and physical borders that were created to keep us apart. Second, coronavirus revealed how globalised our contemporary world is. Our lives are so closely interlinked and networked that this outbreak travelled all around the world within weeks.
The speed at which the virus spread demonstrates quite clearly the contracted space that we are all living in on Earth. Yet our politicians speak about national remedies and continue as if nothing has happened, as if we can insulate ourselves forever. It should be the World Health Organization and other UN bodies which take the lead to coordinate global policies for global problems.
Yet, in clear contradiction to what is needed, politicians continue to speak of coronavirus in terms of mere national emergencies. This approach compartmentalises what is conjoined, and contributes to the current crisis which can only be faced properly with global coordination and within multilateral organisations. But the UN and its auxiliary network is despised by the new breed of hyper-nationalist leaders all around the world. It is these leaders who have stunted our ability to resolve borderless challenges such as this current pandemic.
There is a common fate inscribed in our lives which demands global answers to global challenges. “No man is an island,” wrote the poet John Donne in 1624. It’s time that we act upon the science, with the empathy of a poet, and institute a new form of internationalism that acknowledges and celebrates our common humanity.
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