The Media Line elaborated an article on Women’s Rights on International’s Women’s Day, specifically on the particular situation in the MENA countries. According to this, Women face an uphill climb to equality in the MENA region despite the well-proven fact that Women are at the rescue of the MENA Economies.
Remembering Women’s Rights on International’s Women’s Day … and the Rest of the Year
Activists and human rights groups paint a daunting portrait of the equality landscape between the genders in the MENA region, as they prepare to mark International Women’s Day, March 8. The coronavirus epidemic, certainly, did not help the plight of women this past year. Still, going forward, the largest issues facing women in the Middle East were entrenched long before the pandemic hit.
In the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) countries, women’s rights defenders have it tough.
While prominent Saudi women’s activist Loujain al-Hathloul was freed last month after almost three years in prison, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sadah, Nouf Abdelaziz and Maya’a al-Zahrani remain in jail after their 2018 arrests on charges of advocating for women’s rights.
They are part of a 13-member cohort that advocated for women’s rights issues, including the right to drive, which is now permissible by law. Nine other activists were captured at the same time and released, while they wait for their day in court.
“Those who are behind bars are the champions for the change that took place,” Khalid Ibrahim, executive director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, told The Media Line, referring to women driving.
“While this is one example of how we are getting success, we are achieving success with lots of sacrifices,” he said. “It’s not easy to have change in these countries.”
While I’m happy for International Women’s Day, we shouldn’t forget women on the other 364 days
While Ibrahim says that is it is difficult to confer the title of the “worst” human rights offender against women on any one Gulf country, Saudi Arabia is up there when it comes to gender norms and the male guardianship system.
“Social gender rules are clearly distinct. Men are supposed to be tough and have all the opportunities. Women still don’t have a lot of access to lots of services like hospitals, travel, marriage [of their own accord]. There is a lot of repression going on,” he said.
“It is really problematic when you talk about which country is better than the other, but we have a chronic problem across the region where women don’t have access to basic rights,” Ibrahim added.
This includes male guardianship, which is particularly pernicious in the Kingdom of Saud.
“In some cases, the guardian could be the younger brother and a woman, at 32 years of age, has to get permission from her 12-year-old brother,” Ibrahim said.
“We are facing problems all the time. It’s all about this mentality about treating women as second-class citizens or as a kind of individual who can’t decide for themselves, of course it’s not acceptable,” he said.
“This mentality is very much rooted in oppressive governments. When you confiscate public rights, surely you are also going to confiscate the rights of women,” Ibrahim said.
The United Arab Emirates, which tries to bolster its reputation as a more modern Gulf country, still has notions of women that are dated.
“The UAE says that they are a very civilized state, but behind all these palaces people are still in prison,” Ibrahim said.
The harsh treatment extends even to royalty.
Women are still portrayed as property of the man and the man can do whatever he wants
The whereabouts of Sheikha Latifa, 35, daughter of the Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, remain unknown after the BBC published undated videos of the princess saying that she was being held against her will and believed her life was in danger.
The video marked the first time the public had heard from her since December 2018, when she was brought back to the UAE after a failed attempt to escape, due to what she said was an oppressive relationship perpetrated by her father.
Ibrahim says there is no such thing as independent media anymore in the Gulf, only traditional outlets owned by the state. As a result, people go online to publish “real” stories, leading the governments to crack down on this by instituting new cybercrime laws against journalist and activists.
In the UAE, this includes two female activists, Amina Al-Abdouli and Maryam Al-Balushi, who are still in jail despite completing their five-year sentences both set at the same time in 2015, which were supposed to end on Nov. 19, 2020.
Ibrahim says that in many cases, criminals fare better than human rights defenders.
“Criminals are treated better than defenders. On the day of their release they can go anywhere, they often get released after serving two-thirds of their sentences,” he said. “Defenders face a travel ban as soon as they get out, and they don’t get amnesty and serve the full amount,” he said. In addition: “The families of defenders pay a heavy price, they have no access to their money in banks or to jobs.”
However, the most exploited women in the Gulf may not be Arab at all.
“Coronavirus is affecting all sectors of society across the Gulf, but there’s a lot of pressure on migrant women … I’m worried about the situation of housekeeping workers and other female workers who are really not being given their full rights in the Gulf,” Ibrahim said.
While many Gulf states made changes to their kefala, or employer sponsorship system, the program remains problematic. While Qatar ended the employment consent for migrants to switch jobs and raised the minimum wage, many workers, particularly women, fell through the cracks. Domestic workers, who are often female and mostly from Asia, require permission to leave the house in order to search for a job.
According to statistics from January 2016 to August 2020 from the United Kingdom-based Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, 61,000 migrant workers experienced some type of labor abuse, the most common of which was “wage theft.”
Without much legal recourse available to them, migrant workers often cannot do anything if they are underpaid or not paid at all. Labor unions are completely off-limits to them.
Suad Abu-Dayyeh, an Amman-based women’s right activist and consultant on gender rights in the region, says that in the Arab world in general, the biggest problem women face is family law.
“The family law that tackles women’s everyday life – divorce, marriage, custody, inheritance – all these laws are mostly governed by Sharia and are very much discriminatory to women, also Christian courts are discriminatory,” she told The Media Line. “I think it will take years and years to challenge this family law because it is very much related to religion and people are objecting to any amendments to this law.”
“We need to have a unified law, this is our dream in the region as activists. We need to have civil laws that govern our lives as women. It shouldn’t be dividing women by religion. Still, we have a very long way to go,” Abu-Dayyeh said.
This also includes nationality laws that prohibit women from passing citizenship to their spouses and children. However, there have been some recent changes in Egypt which now allow women to transfer citizenship to their offspring.
Abu-Dayyeh says that penal codes are problematic for women in the Arab world.
“Marital rape is not a crime in most of the countries in the region,” she said, noting that Tunisia is one of the rare countries that criminalized the practice in a recent violence against women bill. “Women are still portrayed as property of the man and the man can do whatever he wants,” she said.
Another problematic portion of penal codes in the region criminalizes abortions. “Anyone who might support a girl in getting one, even from incest or rape or an extramarital relationship, will also be punished,” she said.
This could lead to the woman being a victim of a so-called “honor crime,” where the offending female is killed by make relatives to preserve the family’s reputation.
Abu-Sayyed says the Arab world is becoming more conservative, indicating a step back for women’s rights.
“You can see society becoming more conservative. You can see more women in veils and hijabs, and fundamentalists are becoming stronger,” she said.
An example of this is seen in the Palestinian territories, where women’s rights activists and groups face threats because they are demanding a family protection bill that would help victims of violence based on gender.
Abu-Dayyeh attributes the shift to the geo-political situation in the region.
“I think it’s the implications of all the wars in the region, there is no rest for people to think about treating women in a different way,” she said.
In Israel, Michal Gera Margaliot, former executive director of the Israel Women’s Network, says that the employment sector and representation are the biggest problem facing women in Israel.
“This year was really tough. Women lost their jobs much more than men did. The reason this happened is because their wages are lower and because in most houses they are the main caregivers and when they closed the education system, then women were the ones to stay with the kids” during the coronavirus shutdowns, Margaliot told The Media Line.
“We need to fix the employment here in Israel and in more places in the world. You need to not only work on the participation of women in the labor market, which was very high in Israel before the pandemic – the highest in the OECD, you need to change the fact that men are main providers and secondary caregivers and women are main caregivers and secondary providers. You need to work on the quality of work to reduce wage gaps to have women and men everywhere,” she added.
As a result, Margaliot says that adequate parental leave needs to be established, the state should sponsor day care from a much earlier age, school days should be extended, and the number of working hours reduced.
The second challenge women face is representation, both in government and in senior levels of the employment market.
“It’s not only about the numbers, but the quality. You need to have senior women in decision-making junctures,” she said.
In government, this includes committee heads. While a record number of women – eight – held ministerial posts in the last government, almost all the committees they led were minor.
Ahead of the March 23 national elections, only one woman leads a party, Merav Michaeli of Labor. However, there is cause for some optimism.
“This is the first time ever that there are seven parties that will be in the next parliament, or are close to the threshold, that have women in the No. 2 position,” she said. These include the Blue and White, Meretz and Yamina parties.
Margaliot believes that about 30 women will secure Knesset seats in the upcoming election, which is approximately one quarter of all parliamentary seats.
“It’s not like it is getting worse when you look at the three first rounds of elections where we were furious,” she said, referring to the three elections that took place between 2019 and 2020, It’s “It’s not getting worse, but it could get better,” she said.
The third challenge facing Israeli women is domestic violence and sexual harassment and assault at home and in the workplace. Margaliot says the government has detailed plans to combat both, but they have not been funded.
“They need to take these detailed plans forward and create spheres where women feel safe. Only when you’re safe can you flourish,” she said.
While domestic violence rose during the pandemic, the issue has plagued Israeli women for a long time.
“At the end of 2018, there was the largest protest ever in Israel over women getting murdered and domestic violence. The governmental decision to have a national plan to fight this issue passed in July 2017,” Margaliot said. “It’s not going anywhere in the near future, but if you won’t put the resources, and the thought and the time to decide that it’s part of your priorities, it will just get worse. It can’t get better.”
While activist Abu-Dayyeh says International Women’s Day is important, she says that problems facing women need to be focused on and alleviated all year.
“While I’m happy for International Women’s Day, we shouldn’t forget women on the other 364 days,” she said.
In 2018, France and Saudi Arabia signed a cultural partnership agreement and created the French Agency for the Development of AlUla (Afalula) writes Cécilia Pelloux, Contributor Travel in this Forbes article.
The picture above is of Design displaying the view from within the resort over the landscape of Sharaan “Every urban act is … [+] ROYAL COMMISSION FOR ALULA
A New Era In Architecture Jean Nouvel Unveiled Masterpiece Resort In AlUla
17 February 2021
AlUla is a spectacular natural and archaeological region. This unknown site inhabited for millennia is located 1100km from Riyadh in the North West of Saudi Arabia. The region has enjoyed prosperity since Antiquity thanks to the fertility of its oasis. AlUla was a crossroads on the caravan routes of myrrh, incenses and aromatic plants which crossed Arabia from the South. The birthplace of Arabic writing, this immense area of 23,000 km² is the witness of an extraordinary natural and human cultural heritage.
The geological formation of the valley with its lush oasis offers towering sandstone mountains and ancient civilization and architectural sites like the Nabataean from Petra.
For nearly thirty years, Franco-Saudi archeological teams have done intense research inside thousand years old history, from the first human settlements seven thousand years ago to contemporary times.
Last Fall, French renowned architect Jean Nouvel announced his new extraordinary project in the Sharaan Nature Reserve near the Nabataean wonders of Hegra, UNESCO World Heritage Site. The first Saudi archaeological site listed on the UNESCO World Heritage in 2008. Hegra – A 52-hectare ancient city- was the principal southern city of the Nabataean Kingdom. It includes more than 100 well preserved tombs with elaborate facades cut into sandstone outcrops. Current research suggests Hegra was the most southern outpost of the Romans after conquering the Nabataeans in 106 CE.
Jean Nouvel’s works offer a modern design vision on this 2,000-year-old architectural legacy since the Nabataeans carved into the region’s millions of years old sandstone rock. “The coming together of a landscape and history, the history of past civilisations in an extraordinary landscape – the only place to create such a masterpiece.” said Jean Nouvel. The architect wants to preserve this unique landscape. “AlUla is a museum. Every wadi and escarpment, every stretch of sand and rocky outline, every geological and archeological site deserves the greatest consideration. It’s vital we keep all its distinctiveness and its attractiveness which largely rests on its remote and occasionally archaic character. We have to safeguard a little mystery as well as the promise of discoveries to come.” He added.
He is adapting old ways of life to our modern world minimizing the impacts on natural and urban landscapes. To do this, genius Nouvel has introduced a new typology of architecture never seen before, using abstraction, sculpting within the landscape itself rather than competing with it. Inspired by the Nabateans, it plays on the old ways of living to build on the present and meet the challenges of the future. Jean Nouvel integrates the way Nabateans interacted with their environment, both with verticality and horizontality, to reconnect with the earth and build sustainable habitats, away from the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter.
The resort will bring emotional experiences from nature, architecture and art. Jean novel invites us to embark on a thousands of years journey where civilisations and geographical strata will be found in every detail of his designs, from the permanent feel of the rocks to the soft comfort of the armchairs, sofa, and seats.
The sound, musicality, harshness, tactility, power and complexity of nature are everywhere, from finely chopped stones on balconies to the singular granularity of each rock wall, everything becomes an artwork in itself.
Sharaan by Jean Nouvel is scheduled to open in 2023. The resort will feature 40 rooms, three villas and 14 pavilions carved into a sandstone outcrop, each suite having a balcony that looks out across the stunning surrounding AlUla scenery landscape. The hotel’s entrance will be from a circular courtyard that will be carved into the sandstone hillside. From here a series of rooms will be arranged around a central 80-metre high lift shaft.
Sharaan by Jean Nouvel Resort is a major part of the Royal Commission of AlUla’s strategy to develop in a long term commitment AlUla as a global destination for culture, heritage, and eco-tourism. “These concepts, which showcase Jean Nouvel’s masterly innovation in architecture, underscore our commitment to developing AlUla as a global tourism destination without compromising the history, heritage, and landscape of AlUla. We are a destination built by artists. Sharaan by Jean Nouvel will build on that legacy to become a timeless landscape-architecture that will last forever – a gift to the world.” told Amr AlMadani, CEO of RCU.
To learn more about Saudi Arabia. Assouline just released a beautiful book Crafts of the Kingdom: Culture and Creativity in Saudi Arabia curated by author HRH Princess Najla bint Ahmad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
This book celebrates Saudi Arabia unique craft traditions and the master artisans who produce the Kingdom’s rich handicrafts. It highlights the abundant traditions which still exist in each of the Kingdom’s regions while revealing each craft’s historic roots and modern interpretations. A rich portrait of Saudi Arabia as a nation whose cultural heritage and diverse creativity have been proudly cherished, reverently preserved, and profoundly influential from ancient days to modern times.
Michael Young in an interview, with David Linfield who argues that international donors are benefiting existing power structures in the Middle East. It is all about Colluding With the Corrupters.
Corruption spread deep and for some time in the MENA region with social, political, and economic implications, but with differing penetrations rates. All because the area can divide into two types of governance. The autocratic monarchies live with side by side with the so-called republics. Few of these latter countries know a higher degree of corruption than the first-mentioned countries. In any case, all have made the fight against corruption a priority by passing laws and adopting strategies to combat crime. But in vain. Colluding with the Corrupters could quickly summarise a situation where such deviant behavioural attitudes originators can be traced back out of the region.
January 29, 2021
David Linfield is a visiting scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program. He is on sabbatical from the U.S. Department of State, where he is a career foreign service officer. Linfield recently wrote a commentary for Carnegie, titled “International Donors Are Complicit in Middle Eastern Elites’ Game.” In mid-January, Diwan interviewed him to discuss his article, and more generally to examine the anti-elite feeling that has permeated protests throughout the Middle East in the past year, notably in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. The views expressed by Linfield are his own and not necessarily those of the U.S. government.
Michael Young (MY): You’ve just written a commentary for Carnegie, titled “International Donors Are Complicit in Middle Eastern Elites’ Game.” What is your argument in the piece?
David Linfield (DL): My argument is that the United States and other international donors have put significant clout and resources behind promoting economic liberalization in the Middle East, while they have been hesitant to put similar emphasis on political reforms. By political reforms I mean boosting transparency, combating corruption, and empowering elected officials. International actors have partly justified this approach by suggesting that economic reforms are a better way of promoting stability and less risky than political changes. But I contend that recent events in the region suggest that these policies are making violent, sudden change in the region more likely, not less so.
When adopted in the context of authoritarian political systems, economic reforms such as privatization have tended to benefit existing power structures, exacerbating economic inequality and citizen-state tensions. The World Inequality Database now ranks the Middle East as the most unequal region in the world. While economic inequality has decreased worldwide since the 1990s, it has remained constant in the Middle East.
By supporting policies that have inadvertently led to such entrenched inequality, while neglecting political reforms, international donors have contributed to citizens’ frustrations with their relative economic status while leaving them without peaceful institutional means of expressing their grievances. This is all a recipe for instability, which is the opposite of what donors want.
MY: You write that “[e]merging solidarity among previously competing groups, grounded in [economic inequality]” is a feature of the growing resentment of elites in the Middle East. Are you suggesting, to borrow from Marxist jargon, that we are seeing the emergence of a sort of class consciousness in certain countries that may have revolutionary potential?
DL: Most of the protests in the Middle East since 2018 have focused on economic inequality and corruption. Whereas previous demonstrations in the region tended to consist of a homogeneous ethnic group—whether from a particular religious sect, region, or group of tribes—these recent protests have been more diverse.
Common frustrations with inequality appear to have led people from lower-income communities to demonstrate in common cause—albeit sporadically and tentatively—against what they see as a corrupt and multisectarian elite that has failed them. We have seen this happen most explicitly in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon.
Some of the slogans used in recent protests in these countries do indicate the emergence of class consciousness. When the Jordanian Teachers Union threatened to strike in summer 2020, they framed their plight as a class struggle against those who had “looted the country.” The 2019 Lebanese protests included slogans like “down with the rule of the thieves.” Iraqi protestors in 2019 and 2020 told media outlets that their struggle was about taking the country back from “thieves.”
MY: In light of your assessment, how have the traditional fault lines among Middle Eastern populations that regimes have manipulated to retain power—things such as sectarian, tribal, or regional divisions—fared in what you describe as a changing environment?
DL: The traditional fault lines in Middle Eastern societies are still very much present. Emerging class-based tensions have not fully supplanted preexisting divisions based on ethnicity, religion, and tribalism, but rather now coexist alongside them more than before. That said, the trendlines I described earlier suggest that class-based divisions will continue to grow in relative importance and have the potential to reshape existing political alliances and divisions.
In addition to the demonstrations I mentioned earlier, another indicator of the power of class solidarity is a 2019 experiment by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. The study, which assigned hundreds of Lebanese people into different conversation groups having varying compositions based on sect and class, found that when Lebanese people gathered with other members of the same class, they exhibited markedly less support for sectarian politics.
It’s too early to craft a comprehensive assessment of how emerging class-based tensions will interact with longer-standing societal divisions in the Middle East. One reason that we’ll have to observe for a longer period is that Covid-19 shifted the focus dramatically from political and economic challenges to the health crisis. But given that the pandemic exacerbated economic inequality, with lower-income communities bearing the brunt of related economic disruptions, we probably won’t have to wait long before class discussions reemerge.
MY: If the problem is that economic liberalization has reinforced elites, what are you recommending as an alternative approach by Western donors? And what makes you think that such an approach would have any chance of working?
DL: The alternative approach I’m recommending is for international donors to incorporate measures to promote transparency and combat corruption into existing economic liberalization efforts. These political reforms are also good for business and economic growth—as noted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank reports I cite in my article. The IMF’s recent insistence that Lebanon address corruption before receiving additional loans is a positive step to putting teeth behind their analysis.
Other helpful steps would include pushing to empower the many weak legislatures across the region beyond their current rubber-stamp roles, which would provide an alternative to protests for frustrated publics. If international donors put the same clout behind good governance that they have behind economic liberalization, they’ll make peaceful and durable progress more likely in the Middle East.
MY: Are you not reading too much into anti-elite solidarity? Ultimately, states in the region have shown that they will resort to violence in order to survive and societies have often gone back to being silent. Why will this change?
DL: Ruling elites in the region have demonstrated that they are willing to go to extreme measures to maintain their benefits. I am not suggesting that elites will somehow decide that they should altruistically begin to share resources with the rest of society. Rather, as your question implies, I am arguing that the elite behavior of concentrating power and resources is an unsustainable strategy that will ultimately foment violence and harm everyone’s interests, including those of the elite.
Autocratic regimes tend to resort to violence when they feel they have run out of other options, but rely more often on nonviolent coercion and intimidation to maintain daily control. By the time regimes turn to violence, it tends to be a prelude to their loss of control—or a stage where they are nearing that.
The strategy of international donors focusing their influence and resources on economic liberalization instead of good governance has not succeeded in bolstering stability and strengthening citizen-state relations. Instead, the policy has exacerbated class-based tensions and increased the prospects of unrest.
These trends are not linear: demonstrations in the region against economic inequality and corruption have ebbed and flowed. Ruling elites remain intent on doing everything they can to outmaneuver these latest challenges to their vested interests. Longer-standing societal tensions based on sect, region, and tribe also continue to simmer and remain exploitable by elites. But the overall direction of the region is still toward economic liberalization in the midst of authoritarian entrenchment. As long as that remains the case anti-elite solidarity is likely to build. International donors are inadvertently contributing to these increasing citizen-state tensions. Instead, they could be fostering more durable change that would make the region more stable and prosperous for everyone.
Olivia Lazard is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. Her research focuses on the geopolitics of climate, the transition ushered by climate change and the risks of conflict and fragility associated with climate change and environmental collapse. Lazard has over twelve years of experience in the peacemaking sector at field and policy levels. With an original specialization in the political economy of conflicts, she has worked for various non-governmental organizations, the United Nations, the European Union, and donor states in the Middle East, Latin America, Sub-Saharan and North Africa, and parts of Asia. In her fieldwork, her focus was on understanding how globalization and the international political economy shaped patterns of violence and vulnerability. Diwan interviewed her in mid-November to examine how environmental issues are impacting the Middle East.
Michael Young: Climate change has been largely ignored by regimes and even societies in the Middle East, yet it is affecting them in fundamental ways. Can you outline some of the major effects of climate change and tell us why we in the region should pay attention.
Olivia Lazard: Climate change has been ignored the world over because we fail to understand that our governance and economic systems are exhausting nature’s capacity to function, and therefore to sustain us and other species. The challenge ahead is difficult to apprehend. It is not just a matter of energy transition; it is a matter of profound political and socioeconomic transformation. It is about disrupting the status quo. So it is easy to understand why this is not welcomed by autocratic regimes who may stand to lose grip on power, or by democratic societies where coordinated action can be even more complex. Even as certain parts of the world, such as Europe, move closer to a climate transition, we are still at the very early stages of a long journey toward the profound transformations that we are going to need in order to genuinely address the drivers of climate change and, more broadly, ecological disintegration that threaten our ability to survive as a species on this planet.
So, I agree with you that regimes in the Middle East ignore climate change, because they rarely like to talk about transformative change. But I wouldn’t say that the societies ignore climate change per se. In fact, I think it is fair to say that the Arab Spring was a climate-disrupted appetizer that upended the world’s understanding of the region, but also of the links between societal and environmental shocks. Arab societies were actually precursors in ringing the alarm bells on a combination of events that lead to disruption and protracted sociopolitical conflicts: drought, monoculture failings, speculation over staple goods leading to market failures, and worsening social disenfranchisement with no safety net in sight. Increasing temperatures, erratic weather patterns, the unreliability of rainfall, protracted drought, and increasing reliance on chemical inputs to grow crops were all the long-term backstory to these issues back in 2011, which few analysts picked up on. The biophysical factors that characterize climate change were already at play.
MY: How were the Arab uprisings climate-disrupted appetizers, as you’ve said?
OL: This is a side of the story that still doesn’t get told very often when we examine the Arab Spring and its aftermath, so let me dwell a bit on it by looking at Tunisia. In Tunisia, landscapes across the country are ecological deserts—export-oriented monocultures as far as the eye can see. It makes them very vulnerable to climate and economic shocks. Two years ago, I was traveling across the country and I could see that, between the touristy coast where inequalities could not be starker and the extractives regions of the south, decades-long agricultural and economic policies had turned a country which used to be fertile into a bare piece of rock and dust.
Today, a decade after the start of the Arab Spring, you have a country where unemployment is still soaring, where youths find no meaning or economic opportunities outside of the informal economy, where urban centers of the hinterland are boiling with anger and frustration, and where the free movement of people is extremely constricted from one governorate to another. Look around in a place such as Sidi Bouzid, and you either see depressing concrete in town or depressing desert as far as the eye can see. There is no life, there are no prospects. Both the land and the economy have come to a standstill. So people feel stuck. Local cultures have lost their vibrancy and intergenerational divides are growing wider. In this bare and inert environment, drug consumption, domestic violence, and radicalization are rising.
The land is actually the canvas of terrible policies that have favored extraction and predatory politics over resilient social fabrics, culture, and vibrant economies. And the problem is that climate change exacerbates problems that are already present. In Sidi Bouzid in 2010, the spark was Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation. But his story was yet another reminder of problems running deeper and taking root in environmental exploitation, abuse of hard security at the expense of social and human security, enduring economic inequalities, poor governance, and rising violence. It is striking to see how national and international responses to these problems are missing out on the environmental story as a backdrop to social and economic violence. They just do not focus on it.
The picture that I am trying to paint here is one of interconnectedness between the environment and human security, which has always existed but that we really have only started noticing more as a result of climate disruption. Climate change will have two consequences—to exacerbate and disrupt. The Middle East knows this well. The history of landscapes in the region is one of abundance that cradled human civilization. But mismanagement of resources led to natural exhaustion and cycles of violence for centuries. Today, the region is in an advanced stage of desertification, with fewer and fewer resources to support human populations. The environmental degradation is coupled with an atmospheric accelerating force resulting in extreme natural shocks—floods, devastating droughts, and resulting fires. Unsurprisingly, the Middle East concentrates yet again all the ingredients that mark the history of our times.
Where human security is weakened by predatory and hard security-oriented regimes, economies tend to be more extractive toward nature. But nature can no longer sustain extraction. Resources are not just running lower—such as water or land fertility—they are also more erratic. The Middle East is now replete with foretellers of climate catastrophes—massive floods in the Arabian Peninsula, fires in the Levant, and drought everywhere.
These disasters are mostly showing one thing, namely that people have no safety nets to rely upon from their governance systems. There is no preparedness, no relief capacity. This means, once again, that Middle Eastern populations are left to struggle for their own dignity, or karama, the key word during the Arab Spring. It may well become a refrain of disruptions to come related to climate shocks.
Still, some regimes in the Middle East are talking about climate change. I am thinking particularly of the United Arab Emirates, but they do so in a “business as usual” way. They aim to demonstrate that economic power and technological innovation are a way to face the crisis. This is not going to work. Governance and socioeconomic systems need to be rethought in terms of their relationship with nature. We also have to look a lot more in the direction of nature-based solutions in order to navigate the unfolding disaster.
MY: There has been an argument that the Syrian uprising was caused by the drought between 2007 and 2010. Your thoughts?
OL: Without a doubt the drought played a role in the multidimensional uprising in Syria. But the drought itself has a story. It began in 2007 and became protracted over the years. Rainfall patterns were becoming more erratic. This was the result of two things: global warming resulting from excess carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere and changes in landscapes at the local level. Apart from the coastline, over time Syrian land was denuded of natural vegetation, which is responsible for stocking water underground and pumping it into the atmosphere.
In addition to breaking the ecological integrity of the land (which regulates local climates), there were other things that created additional stress for the agricultural capacity in the area of Dar‘a and elsewhere. The Assad regime relied on two main crops for export—wheat and cotton—both of which are highly water intensive. So, atmospheric conditions were not providing rain, and on top of it there were agricultural incentives, such as subsidies, pushing unsustainable ground water consumption. In parallel, the liberalization of the economy led to hikes in diesel prices which farmers could not afford. The crops eventually failed, collapsing an already fragile economy and pushing people into acute food insecurity and economic vulnerability, which they were left to navigate mostly by themselves.
What followed was a mass movement from rural to urban zones, as well as a boom in the informal economy, which is often accompanied by abuse and insecurity for all members of a family household. This is an extremely violent process of the disintegration of livelihoods and security that spirals out of control. In those cities to which people moved, the population influx led to unsustainable water consumption, which created tensions between “old” and “new” communities. The land was impossibly stretched, and the state only concentrated on containing a bubbling situation by unleashing the security forces. Populations were squeezed between scarcity and violence. No wonder communities revolted. So, again, this is a story of exacerbation and disruption.
I was in Syria in 2009, and I remember then that all the communities with which I spoke accepted President Bashar al-Assad as the “devil they knew.” They knew that the equilibrium between the central state, the clans, and the various communities was precarious, but it was an equilibrium to which they could adhere for lack of a better alternative. When mass displacement, impoverishment, and violence started increasing, this equilibrium was upset. The state reacted in a such a way that it broke irremediably the multiple contracts that Assad had with various constituencies.
When you look through the lens of the environment, you can actually retrace the story of peoples, economic policies, and governance structures. Ask any elder in the Middle East what the land was like 60–70 years ago, and they will spend hours telling you stories about fruits and vegetables tasting better, people being more resilient, and communities being more intertwined. The state of the land is usually a reflection of socioeconomic situations—either of resilience or destitution. With increasing liberalization over the last decades, especially through structural adjustments, there have been inequalities and social dislocation. In the Middle East, governance structures are highly centralized and informally organized according to ancestral cultural and identity groups. The mix between the two has led to politics of group benefits and zero-sum games. In modern economies, that means that land and other natural resources are mostly integrated in an economic trickle-up model in which resources accrue to a few at the expense of social and natural public goods.
Climate change is a systems-disruptive force. It will upset old equilibriums to which authoritarian states and inefficient bureaucracies are ill-adapted to respond. So, yes, climate change is tied in with politics in the region, and it will have exponential effects over the coming years.
MY: One consequence of drier climates is that it will exacerbate water scarcity. Can you outline potential scenarios if the question of water is not adequately addressed by Arab states? What might be some ways of resolving the issue?
OL: Let’s fix a slight misconception first. Water scarcity leads to climate disruption leads to water scarcity. In other words, climates become drier because of inadequate water and land management. When you do this globally, all the while burning fossil fuels, you end up with a global climate regime deregulation. Agricultural, energy, and extractive policies are the primary drivers of water scarcity. Climate change exacerbates an already existing state of water scarcity.
Now, on scenarios. It is very hard to lay these out, because they depend on water levels, water sources and flows, water infrastructure, and socioeconomic relationships to water. What I can tell you is that water scarcity is a process of man-made depletion. It is not an overnight shortage. So, necessarily, the disruptions and sociopolitical breakdowns that result from it also take place in a process of exacerbation until it reaches points of disruption.
We can look at two different countries to understand how water scarcity impacts stability. Jordan is currently experiencing its worst drought in 900 years. The consecutive refugee flows coming from Palestine, then Iraq, then Syria over the last decades have led to repeated sudden bursts of population concentration in various parts of the country. In recent years, Mafraq and Irbid Governorates have been under acute water stress every summer, leading to severe tensions between refugee and host communities, higher criminality, xenophobia, and the reinforcement of tough security measures on the part of the Jordanian state. As a result of water running low, people have dug random boreholes into local water tables, which tends to worsen water stress for everyone, but also can lead to water pollution.
At a more structural level, in and near those governorates you have intensive forms of agriculture that drain water tables further. In Amman, where the government is under more direct political pressure, the city has been moving toward more efficient water infrastructure, and it is looking at desalination plants to increase the availability of water. But it is not the same story across the country. Water vulnerability is increasing and is having a series of knock-on effects. These effects are so far contained, so the two questions we need to ask are “until when?” and “and then what?” Here, we need to look at policy responses and ecological interdependencies underpinning Jordan’s water resources. It gives us an idea of the type of violence that may emerge and how far it can go geographically.
From an ecological standpoint, technology can only get you so far. As long as Jordan can make up for water shortages that sustain its economies, it will maintain a level of stability and water conflicts may remain confined to social tensions or to geographically confined zones. But that will have a growing cost over time, which will destabilize the country’s economy and sociopolitical fabric. If Jordan also reacts with force rather than rethinks its investment in the social and environmental fabric, it will likely pay a heavy price in the coming decade.
Iraq, on the other hand, is moving into active water conflict, especially around the ancestral ecosystem of the southern marshes. The water branches feeding into this ecosystem are impacted by hydroelectric infrastructures reducing the flow of water, general pollution, growing salination, and the collapse of local biodiversity. Because of the environmental degradation, people are moving into cities, which are themselves facing water stress. This has led to greater demand for water imports, forcing all households, including vulnerable ones, to spend their income on making up for the lack of available water. This leads again to growing social tensions, but also growing frustration with a central state that remains crippled by its inability to provide basic services, and therefore needs to constantly find ways of legitimizing itself.
Iraq is dependent for its water supply on Turkey and Iran. The more the Iraqi government fails to deliver at home, the more it is likely to escalate tensions with its neighbors. Over time, if this doesn’t lead to open warfare—which it probably won’t given Iraq’s weak defense capacity—it will reduce the chances for water-based cooperation to stop water depletion. This will impact all countries’ stability negatively, and will make them more vulnerable to climate change. The more individual states prioritize their national needs first, rather than cooperating on the basis of ecological integrity and environmental regeneration, the more they will undermine their own stability and cause environmental degradation. In other words within decades this region of the world may simply become uninhabitable.
In terms of solutions, there are a few. But I’ll focus on broad strokes. First, states and regions would need to transition away from activities that deplete water tables. This is no small feat as it is multisectoral. You need a shift toward regenerative agriculture, energy-efficient systems, and infrastructure development that do not encroach on ecosystems. The process does not just require an economic transition at the country level, it also requires a change in economic infrastructures and frameworks at the international level. Agricultural produce for example should be isolated from international speculation, and production should primarily serve for internal consumption and to reinforce resilience. Countries should encourage a diversity of cultures, including a return to indigenous seeds and crops, rather than systematized crops that are simply not suited to the ecological make-up of areas undergoing desertification.
Secondly, Middle East states need to adopt regenerative landscaping practices that literally help them to plant rain into the soil again. Globally, we need to harness the hydrological cycle in order to recover livable climates at local and global levels again, and preemptively manage floods. The interesting thing is that this is a sector that requires new competencies and which is also labor intensive. It is about redesigning landscapes so that they retain water, leading them to again become productive. This is a message that particularly resonates in the Middle East because rebooting functional ecosystems is also about rebooting local soil-related cultures. The Middle East was the cradle of civilization and culture as a result of its agricultural might for an enormous part of its history. There is the potential to recover for the future.
MY: Do you envisage a time when governments in the region will be able to wean themselves off the extractive policies that have damaged their environments? Or are they not thinking in these terms?
OL: They are not. Nor is it just governments in the region. Extractive policies are a function of growth-oriented economies that require energy. As long as we don’t change what extractive policies are used for, extraction will not cease. A tree will be worth more dead than alive. Underground resources will be more valuable unearthed and used than buried. Aggressive underground resource extraction made the Middle East what it is today. It came with economic growth as well as economic predation, inequalities, disenfranchisement, corruption, violence, and war. It also came with authoritarianism.
Unfortunately, we are likely to see the same type of story develop over the new scramble for resources related to renewable energy. For a long time, the Middle East played a central part in the global economic march that led us to where we are. But the Middle East won’t hold the same importance in tomorrow’s energy competition because it is not endowed with the needed resources such as rare earths and related materials. Admittedly, Middle Eastern countries are endowed in natural sunlight that can help their power transition, but the materials and technology used to harness this renewable energy is where the resource competition will play out, and give rise to new drivers of instability globally. These materials and technology are not located in the Middle East, which means that the center of gravity in energy politics will incrementally shift. This transition will be unsettling, but it may also represent an opportunity to try out different economic models on the basis of ecosystems regeneration. The European Union has already indicated its readiness to work with Middle Eastern partners on multiple transitions. It is however necessary to have a hard look at which type of governance systems are needed to usher in truly resilient transitions in a way that revive local and national economies from the ground up—literally.
MY: What for you are the top three most pressing environmental problems that countries in the region will need to prioritize in the coming decade?
OL: Water scarcity and land degradation will lead to crop failures. Floods will create more humanitarian and economic disasters, and will damage infrastructures that are already fragile. Urbanization is likely to increase, depleting water tables even more. Global energy shifts will lead to changes in oil price structures that may actually lead to more revenues in the short term and, possibly, more investments in security forces. The most pressing environmental problem is that we are entering an era of vicious cycles rather than isolated shocks. But this is not inevitable and what’s at stake is to break those cycles.
The overall challenge across the Middle East, like elsewhere in the world, is to rebuild ecological integrity. That means recreating landscapes that can hold carbon and water, and therefore sustain human activity again. It is about restoring equilibriums that help both to chart another socioeconomic path forward as well as to adapt to climate change and reverse it over time.
So that requires two tempos of change: adaptation and transformation. With respect to adaptation, climate-related disasters are already locked into the planet’s system due to past emissions and environmental degradation. The most pressing thing is to anticipate where and how disasters will hit and prepare accordingly. It requires ensuring continuous and shock absorption relief capacity in the future, which will demand internationally and regionally pooled resources. In addition, it will require redesigning landscapes in such a way that they can buffer the impact of disasters and store as much flood water as possible. This sounds abstract when you are not familiar with ecological design, but if you have a look at projects such as Greening the Desert in Jordan or regenerative projects in Saudi Arabia, you can get a sense of how to work with landscapes to adapt to new challenges.
On transformation, achieving this is hard work. Climate change calls for a profound redesign of political and socioeconomic systems. It is about transforming the way in which agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and other economic systems are set up and relate to the environment. And it is about investigating which governance systems best deliver on a safe operating space for human populations in a viable environment.
“Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human.” UNESCO’s 1995 Declaration of Principles on Tolerance.
In 1996, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 51/95 proclaiming 16 November as International Day for Tolerance.
This action followed the adoption of a Declaration of Principles on Tolerance by UNESCO’s Member States on 16 November 1995. Among other things, the Declaration affirms that tolerance is neither indulgence nor indifference. It is respect and appreciation of the rich variety of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. Tolerance recognizes the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms of others. People are naturally diverse; only tolerance can ensure the survival of mixed communities in every region of the globe.
In 1995, to mark the United Nations Year for Tolerance and the 125th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, UNESCO created a prize for the promotion of tolerance and non-violence. The UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence rewards significant activities in the scientific, artistic, cultural or communication fields aimed at the promotion of a spirit of tolerance and non-violence. The creation of the Prize has been inspired by the ideals of UNESCO’s Constitution that proclaims that “peace, if it is not to fail, must be founded on the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind”. The prize is awarded every two years on the International Day for Tolerance, 16 November. The Prize may be awarded to institutions, organizations or persons, who have contributed in a particularly meritorious and effective manner to tolerance and non-violence.
MESSAGE FROM THE DIRECTOR-GENERAL
“At a time when extremism and fanaticism are unleashed too often, at a time when the venom of hatred continues to poison a part of humanity, tolerance has never been more vital a virtue.”
— Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO on the occasion of the International Day for Tolerance
Each Government is responsible for enforcing human rights laws, for banning and punishing hate crimes and discrimination against minorities, whether these are committed by State officials, private organizations or individuals. The State must also ensure equal access to courts, human rights commissioners or ombudsmen, so that people do not take justice into their own hands and resort to violence to settle their disputes.
2. Fighting intolerance requires education:
Laws are necessary but not sufficient for countering intolerance in individual attitudes. Intolerance is very often rooted in ignorance and fear: fear of the unknown, of the other, other cultures, nations, religions. Intolerance is also closely linked to an exaggerated sense of self-worth and pride, whether personal, national or religious. These notions are taught and learned at an early age. Therefore, greater emphasis needs to be placed on educating more and better. Greater efforts need to be made to teach children about tolerance and human rights, about other ways of life. Children should be encouraged at home and in school to be open-minded and curious.
Education is a life-long experience and does not begin or end in school. Endeavours to build tolerance through education will not succeed unless they reach all age groups, and take place everywhere: at home, in schools, in the workplace, in law-enforcement and legal training, and not least in entertainment and on the information highways.
3. Fighting intolerance requires access to information:
Intolerance is most dangerous when it is exploited to fulfil the political and territorial ambitions of an individual or groups of individuals. Hatemongers often begin by identifying the public’s tolerance threshold. They then develop fallacious arguments, lie with statistics and manipulate public opinion with misinformation and prejudice. The most efficient way to limit the influence of hatemongers is to develop policies that generate and promote press freedom and press pluralism, in order to allow the public to differentiate between facts and opinions.
Intolerance in a society is the sum-total of the intolerance of its individual members. Bigotry, stereotyping, stigmatizing, insults and racial jokes are examples of individual expressions of intolerance to which some people are subjected daily. Intolerance breeds intolerance. It leaves its victims in pursuit of revenge. In order to fight intolerance individuals should become aware of the link between their behavior and the vicious cycle of mistrust and violence in society. Each one of us should begin by asking: am I a tolerant person? Do I stereotype people? Do I reject those who are different from me? Do I blame my problems on ‘them’?
5. Fighting intolerance requires local solutions:
Many people know that tomorrow’s problems will be increasingly global but few realize that solutions to global problems are mainly local, even individual. When confronted with an escalation of intolerance around us, we must not wait for governments and institutions to act alone. We are all part of the solution. We should not feel powerless for we actually posses an enormous capacity to wield power. Nonviolent action is a way of using that power-the power of people. The tools of nonviolent action-putting a group together to confront a problem, to organize a grassroots network, to demonstrate solidarity with victims of intolerance, to discredit hateful propaganda-are available to all those who want to put an end to intolerance, violence and hatred.
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