With oil, money comes to you in your sleep; with debt, money comes to you by crawling. With work, money comes to you by sweating. MENA’s oil boom is a perfect illustration of the cohabitation between the permanence of endemic moral misery and the existence of abundant financial resources.
The high price of oil has structurally the perverse effect of perpetuating the systems put in place to infinity. Because of oil and gas, America has lost all moral sense. Through the grace of oil and gas, a typical MENA’s oil exporter no longer thinks, it spends. And it pays without counting. It does not need economists; those are holiday troublers; it prefers to deal with merry lurons. It has a visceral desire to entertain the gallery. The public does not ask for so much. Money is flowing. And let the rentier industry live! An industry that does not need a strategy, seminars, speeches, no supply problems, no market problems. It runs at full capacity, and it can do without any government and parliament. It works on its own and is not accountable to anyone, not even to itself. It is royally free from the productive work and creative intelligence of Algerians, Libyans and GCC inhabitants. An industry that cradles illusions, those from the top and feeds the despair of others, those at the bottom. Finally, an industry that works from, by and for abroad. An annuity that oil-consuming states compete for or share tax to finance their mesmerising democracy and producing countries cheaply to perpetuate the obsolete political regimes in place with high costs. The largest share goes to influential locals or foreigners. Some were supporting each other, and vice versa. A society that does not think of itself is a society that is slowly but surely dying. The life of a nation ceases, it is said, when dreams turn into regrets. Oil has made institutions, pale copies of those of our illustrious Western thinkers, empty shells bloated and budgetivorous, without impact on society, intended to camouflage reality to view of the foreigner, but no one is fooled. The world today no longer believes in Santa Claus. At the slightest drop in the price of a barrel of oil, they collapse like a house of cards. They serve only as a storefront in the eyes of international opinion. Non-hydrocarbon exports are insignificant. Yet only labor can oppose oil. But it is marginal. It has accounted for less than 2% of exports over the past several decades. Is this not the apparent sign of the failure of so-called public economic policies that have only the funds, carried out by successive elites and who today have converted into opposition or Islamism. Democracy is a view of the mind in a rent economy dominated by politics. Any political opposition that relies on hard-working forces is doomed to failure. The weight of inertia is predominant; the living muscles are weak. Work has lost its credentials; it bows to the diktat of oil. It is access to petrodollars that guarantees wealth. Easy money fascinates. On another register, who better do without the hen with the golden eggs? Of course not anyone. Would a prolonged and increasing decline in the price of hydrocarbons, reserves or markets be life-saving or lethal for the country? What did the natives live on before the discovery of oil in 1956 by the French? The nation-state is a dupe market between a power and a nation, namely bread against freedom, security against obedience, order against anarchy, external recognition against internal legitimacy. The concept of the welfare state is a convenient fraud that the population believes that providence is at the top of the State and not in the Sahara desert subsoil. One of the criteria for immediately determining whether a nation belongs to the third world is corruption. Wherever the representatives of the State, civil servants, or politicians, from the top to the bottom of the hierarchy are corrupt and where this practice is almost official, we are in a third world country. The membership of people in the third world is above all its political system. The Arab world is dominated by authoritarian or totalitarian powers, by political castes that manipulate words and institutions. This is why no one now believes in development; everyone sees the corruption of political power daily. Governments have deliberately chosen economic growth from the accumulation of oil and gas revenues or to the absence of debt pledged on hypothetical reserves rather than on development and internal mobilisation based on training and employment of men. The States have carried out a vast salary generalisation whose overall social effect is the dependence in which a significant proportion of the working population is located about the income distributed by the State from the revenues export of hydrocarbons to retain an increasingly large and demanding customer base. The essence of the economic and socio-political game is, therefore, to capture an ever-increasing share of this pension and to determine which groups will benefit from it. It gives the State the means to redistribute clientelist. It frees the State from any fiscal dependence on the population and allows the ruling elite to dispense with any need for popular legitimisation. It has the extraordinary turnaround capabilities stifling any attempt to challenge society. The oil will be the engine of corruption in business and the fuel of social violence. It has the art of war and initiating peace. It is both fire and water. He sometimes acts as an arsonist, sometimes as a fireman. It is one thing, and its opposite; wealth and poverty, both are illusions. And as with any illusion, there is a manipulator. We are our gravediggers. To get out of the hole we are sinking into, every day more, we have to stop digging because the solution is on dry land and not at the bottom of a hole. To do this, you have to raise your head, stand up straight, and look yourself in the eye, in all humility, without fear and reproach. You have to arm yourself with science and have faith in God. Science is the key to our problems, religion the ultimate goal of our brief existence. Oil intoxicates us; gas pollutes us, easy money blinds us. It’s dirty money. Money that kills, corrupts, rots, destroys consciences. It is the petrodollars that run the country and give it its substance and stability. The institutions, empty shells, are only there as a garnish to make the “cake” appetising. “Oil is the devil’s excrement; it corrupts countries and perverts’ economic decisions” Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo, the founding father of OPEC Venezuela 1970.
Personalities, NGOs, journalists and artists, as well as citizens on social networks, have unanimously called for the immediate release of Khaled Drarni, director of “Casbah Tribune“. Though the illusion of peace in the MENA region, is everybody’s concern, denunciations and calls for mobilization have been pouring in after this hefty sentence was handed down, last Monday. There is no better way to unwind the illusion of peace in the MENA region.
The Algerian League for Human Rights (LAADDH) said it was “concerned and outraged by the details of the charges and of the case itself” which it considers “shocking and disproportionate” for unfounded prosecutions and an empty case anyway. “A journalist sentenced to three years in prison is a serious precedent that augurs a bad time for journalists and freedoms,” the LAADDH laments. The League reiterates its “urgent request for the release of journalist Khaled Drarni and all other opinion detainees and respect for Algeria’s human rights and commitments to international and regional human rights protection mechanisms and human rights defenders”.
Reporters Without Borders analysed and in its 2020 RSF Index: The illusion of peace in the Middle East gives us a succinct picture of the situation of the press and of the all media generally. The recent court ruling with regards to a young talents journalist in Algiers came down as not a surprise for most.
Dark clouds still gather over the Middle East, with one country, Iraq, slipping into the countries coloured black on the press freedom map. After a slight drop in the number of infringements, any hopes of appeasement were dispelled by violent crackdowns on public protests, the resumption of increasingly localized military operations and tighter control by iron-fisted governments.
The wars in the Middle East may have become less deadly in the past year but this region still had the largest number of journalists’ deaths. Although there was a reduction in violence and insecurity in the region’s conflicts, the lull was short-lived. Turkey’s operation in Syrian Kurdistan, the government offensive in Idlib in north-western Syria (174th), an upsurge in protest movements in several countries and a drift towards authoritarianism on the part of some governments, were among the threats facing journalists and media organizations in the region.
Keep quiet or we’ll lock you up
In countries that are free from conflict, journalists are relatively safe but are still closely monitored and strictly controlled by iron-fisted authorities. Saudi Arabia (up two at 170th) and Egypt (down three at 166th), acknowledged as stable countries and reliable allies of the West in the region, are the countries with the largest number of journalists in prison after China.
The control over news and information exerted by these two authoritarian governments has been confirmed by the coronavirus crisis. Starting with a wave of arrests of journalists in September 2019, the largest since Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took over as president in 2014, Egypt has used its arsenal of anti-terrorist legislation to gradually tighten the screws on journalists, particularly since the start of the pandemic. Allegations of spreading fake news are used to justify blocking access to pages and sites on the Internet, and journalists who question official figures have had their accreditation withdrawn.
Control tightened over news and information
All means are used to control news and information. Before the coronavirus health crisis, the Egyptian government openly issued instructions about the death of former president Mohamed Morsi to news organizations in June last year and sent them official statements to publish.
In areas controlled by the Syrian government, the only permitted source of news is the official news agency SANA. Since the appearance of Covid-19, the Syrian health ministry has reasserted the agency’s monopoly over news and information about the pandemic.
The slightest hint of criticism, or any reference to cases of infection or corruption and poverty can earn even the most loyal of journalists a summons by the intelligence services or an indefinite prison term. The journalist Wissam Al-Tair, who was close to President Bashar al-Assad, was jailed for several months merely for having mentioned an increase in fuel prices.
News organizations are closely monitored using sophisticated hacking and espionage methods. Saudi authorities collected personal details from the Twitter accounts of thousands of people regarded as opponents of the government and hacked into the phone of Jeff Bezos, owner of the Washington Post, for which the assassinated Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi worked.
Storm of protest meets wave of repression
The second half of the year saw an unexpected wave of protests in several Middle Eastern countries, including Lebanon (down one at 102nd), and Iraq (down six at 162nd) which has joined the countries coloured black in the Index. Since October last year, the Iraqi media, which referred to the popular discontent in their coverage of the protests, were targeted by the authorities, militias and security forces which used live ammunition to break up rallies. The government has much to do with the climate of hostility: the media regulator has suspended nine TV channels, preventing them from broadcasting, and has also restricted Internet access.
This type of crackdown was inspired by the measures in force in Iran (down three to 173rd) where Internet access is regularly blocked and the government has imposed its own “halal Internet” inspired by Sharia, or Islamic law. This network allows it to restrict the flow of news and information, as occurred when large-scale public protests took place in the country. The creation of the Islamic Radio and Television Union, which has more than 200 members worldwide, also allows the dissemination of Iranian propaganda and fake news beyond its borders.
The proliferation of opposition movements has intensified the polarization of news media and distrust of journalists. In Lebanon, dozens of crews from pro-government and anti-revolutionary television channels were attacked by protesters. Other journalists have been attacked online by political community groups.
In Israel (88th), Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and his supporters regularly attack news organizations, accusing them of propagating fake news and left-wing propaganda, to the point where a journalist who broke a story about a corruption scandal was forced to request a bodyguard to ensure his safety.
At the same time, journalists in Palestine (137th) were finding it as difficult as ever to cover the regular Friday protests against Israeli occupation. Tension rose again after the announcement by US President Trump of the “deal of the century” peace plan and the number of those seriously injured has been rising.
Armed conflict, political instability and the crackdown on protests mean violence is ever-present in the work of journalists in the Middle East. Ensuring the safety of those working in news and information is more of a concern than ever in the region, especially as a number of governments have decided to boost their control over news and information using technological advances to strengthen their scrutiny of journalists. In a climate where the criminalization of journalism and regular crackdowns are the norm and governments are not amenable to the idea of free and independent news media, the very idea of journalism could disappear from the region over time.
Not that long ago, people like Abdullah, a young Syrian man who was forced by the ongoing war to drop out of university, would have found it nearly impossible to safely earn a living. But through Edraak, an Arabic platform for open online education launched by the Queen Rania Foundation in Jordan, he gained graphic design and digital marketing skills. Now, he earns a decent living as a freelance remote worker in Jordan.
Amid the dual economic shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic and the collapse in oil prices, digital platforms are becoming even more critical to the region’s economy. With schools being closed since March and 4 in 5 workers affected by business closures globally, per International Labor Organization estimates, the shut-down of public life has revved up the need to move to digital, virtual, and remote learning solutions to build skills and ensure opportunities for people to earn a living.
Yet this emergency need is not being met. Moreover, MENA is missing real-time opportunities for digital development. Digital transformation can lead to rapid, sustained growth, but only if countries invest in digital infrastructure and human capital.
The key to success in this changing landscape is a digital skills revolution. While definitions and typologies differ, ‘digital skills’ generally refers to students, workers and people of all ages having and applying competencies, knowledge and attitudes to learn, earn and thrive in digital societies.
Digital skills most commonly comprise a continuum of basic, intermediate or advanced skills; and, as we will discuss in our next blog on competencies, they may alsorefer to a range of different abilities, many of which are not only ‘skills’ per se, but a combination of behaviors, expertise, know-how, work habits, character traits, dispositions and critical understandings.
As laid out by the International Telecommunication Union, Basic Skills are the general ICT skills required “broadly for all workers, consumers and citizens in a digital society” — such as word processing or researching online. Building on that foundation, Intermediate Skills are “effectively job-ready skills needed to perform more complicated work-related functions” such as social media marketing or e-commerce. Advanced or ‘Specialist’ Skills, which “form the basis of specialist occupations and professions,” are necessary to test, analyze, manage, or create digitally based products or services. These advance skills are needed to harness technology to resolve complex problems, guide others such as policymakers, contribute to professional practices, and propose new innovative ideas to advance economic development.
Skills are the supply side of digital labor markets; jobs are the demand side. Digital or ICT work can be conceived in three terms: enhanced, dependent, intensive. Some jobs are enhanced by digital tools, whereas with others — such as Internet freelancing or call centers — technology is fundamental to the work. Digitally intensive work — such as machine learning or app development — requires more specialist and advanced skills.
While data is sparse and likely not as up-to-date as the pace of change, we have learned important baseline details about the digital skills match — or mismatch — in MENA’s digital labor market. There is a shortage of digital human capital in MENA, marked by skills and information gaps. For example, in its 2017Future of Work study, McKinsey found that across the region, only 1.7% of the workforce is ‘digital talent.’ In their last 2017 skills survey of the region, Bayt/YouGov, a leading jobs website in MENA, revealed that IT jobs are among the top open positions, evidence of an acute talent and skills shortage in the region.
The Gulf countries are arguably the most advanced in terms of digital transformation. Yet, GCC countries still have a significant digital skills gap. In a 2020 survey by PwC of CEOs in the Middle East, 70% said the availability of key digital skills is a business threat, and an earlier 2017 study found that only one of the 10 skills most commonly cited by digital professionals in the GCC matches the fastest-growing skills found globally on LinkedIn. Furthermore, none of the top 10 available skills in the GCC is a technical or specific digital skill.
In this blog series, MENA Digital Directions, we will analyze and compare digital skills competence frameworks, discuss how to build digital skills across the educational pipeline, explore the role of the private sector and identify digital opportunities for women, youth and refugees. With a thorough understanding of the digital landscape and the right investments in digital infrastructure and skills, countries can ensure that more young people like Abdullah have a chance for a brighter, more connected future.
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.
Authors Olivia Macharis is a researcher at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and Nadim Farajalla is Program Director of the Climate Change and Environment Program at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. They came up with this realistic picture of the Middle East’s Threat Multiplier. It is published on Project Syndicate of 12 June 2020.
The picture above is that of An Egyptian boy holding bread and flashing the victory sign shouts slogans at Cairo’s Tahrir Square on April 1, 2011 as he joins tens of thousands of Egyptians who gathered, issuing calls to “save the revolution” that ousted president Hosni Mubarak and to rid of the country of the old regime. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages)
Although many factors contributed to the mass protest movements in Iraq in recent years, and in Egypt a decade ago, climate change was the common denominator. By exacerbating endemic problems such as water scarcity and food insecurity, global warming threatens to plunge an already unstable region into the abyss.n Egyptian boy holding bread and flashing the victory sign shouts slogans at Cairo’s Tahrir Square on April 1, 2011 as he joins tens of thousands of Egyptians who gathered, issuing calls to “save the revolution” that ousted president Hosni Mubarak and to rid of the country of the old regime. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages) Survey the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and you will find no shortage of crises, from escalating tensions between the United States and Iran to the cycles of violence in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. Countless young people across the region feel a sense of despair as they confront the daily realities of poor governance, economic immobility, and sectarian violence. Now, the COVID-19 crisis is putting increasing and unprecedented pressure on the global economy, state institutions, and livelihoods. It has also highlighted the dire consequences of health, social, and economic inequality. And as bad as these problems are on their own, all will be exacerbated and magnified by an even larger crisis: the devastating impacts of climate change. With its largely arid conditions, the MENA region is particularly vulnerable to the physical impacts of climate change. It is one of the world’s most water-scarce regions, with a high dependency on climate-sensitive agriculture. Along with rising temperatures, the region is already experiencing a wide range of deteriorating environmental conditions, including decreased rainfall in Iraq, longer droughts in Syria, more severe flash flooding in Jordan and Lebanon, increasingly intense cyclones in Yemen and Oman, and rising sea levels. There is also evidence of rapid desertification regionwide, as well as unprecedented heat waves and increasingly frequent and intense dust storms. Looking ahead, researchers warn that summer temperatures in the region will increase twice as fast as average global temperatures. This will lead to increased evaporation rates and accelerated loss of surface water, which will reduce the productive capacity of soils and agricultural output. Projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also warn of rising sea levels and an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. In large parts of the region, the combination of worsening heat waves and increasing air pollution owing to sand and dust storms will likely compromise human habitability and force people to migrate. Climate change not only has serious implications for the environment and public health, but also for economic growth, livelihoods, and peace. Climate-induced impacts have the potential to reinforce factors that lead to or exacerbate conflict and instability. For one, resource scarcity may undermine the livelihoods of vulnerable households and communities, potentially leading to increasing competition, which may turn violent in the absence of conflict resolution institutions. Most vulnerable are fragile states and communities with a history of violence. In Iraq and Syria, the occurrence of devastating droughts between 2007 and 2012, combined with governments’ inability to provide relief to vulnerable populations, favored radicalization and recruitment efforts by jihadist militias, including the Islamic State. Other risks of conflict arise when growing resource scarcity is met with inadequate government action, which may cause grievances among the population and increase tensions along ethnic, sectarian, political, and socioeconomic lines. Water scarcity and contamination have already triggered recurrent protests in Iraq, and rising food prices have fueled protest movements in Egypt and other countries. The region desperately needs to start developing and implementing more robust adaptation strategies before it is too late. UNPREPARED FOR THE WORST Most countries in the region are woefully behind when it comes to preparing for the physical effects of climate change on the environment and for the socioeconomic effects on much of the population. Many governments are unable or unwilling to tackle issues related to poverty, slow and unequal economic growth, high unemployment, lack of basic services, and widespread corruption. Instead, the region’s governments have long relied on what political scientists call the “authoritarian bargain,” an implicit contract in which the state provides jobs, security, and services in exchange for political loyalty (or at least obeisance). This contract assumes that the population will remain politically inactive. But protest movements over the last decade, from the Arab Spring to more recent demonstrations in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and other countries, have shown that people across the region want to renegotiate. In many countries, the protests are the result of worsening economic and political conditions, many of which stem from strained government resources that have led to a decline in the provision of public services. With climate change projected to put additional pressure on water and food security, livelihoods, health, and overall living standards, public discontent is likely to keep growing in the coming years, resulting in a heightened risk of political instability and conflict. The linkages between climate change, resource scarcity, and social unrest are of course complex. Examining two cases – one dealing with water scarcity and contamination, the other with rising food prices – can help shed urgently needed light on these dangerous dynamics. WATER POLITICS IN IRAQ A good place to start is by considering Iraq’s water resources, which have been under increasing stress for more than three decades. As a result of both natural and anthropogenic causes, water quantities have decreased and water quality has deteriorated. The natural phenomena include increasing climate variability and lower annual precipitation, resulting in a lack of snowfall in the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates. The anthropogenic causes center around increasing water demand, inadequate government policies, and dam-building by upstream neighbors Syria, Turkey, and Iran. The Tigris and Euphrates are Iraq’s most important sources of freshwater. These twin rivers converge in al-Qurna, in the southern Basra governorate, to form the Shatt al-Arab River and drain toward the Gulf (see map). Both rivers originate in Turkey, with the Euphrates cutting through Syria before reaching Iraq. Several of the rivers’ tributaries originate in Iran, with the Greater Zab, the Lesser Zab, and the Diyala flowing into the Tigris. In total, more than 50% of the country’s renewable water resources originate outside of its borders.
Of particular concern to Iraq is Turkey’s controversial Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), which is located at the Euphrates-Tigris Basin in the upper-Mesopotamian plains. At an estimated cost of $32 billion, the GAP is one of the world’s largest river-basin development projects. Other serious concerns include Iranian dam-building activity and an expected increase in Syrian water usage. Regional cooperation to improve water management is limited, and political negotiations have so far fallen short of concluding a legally binding, comprehensive, and long-term agreement. On the domestic front, while rapid population growth, urbanization, and increasing industrial production have driven up water demand, decades of conflict and sanctions, along with inadequate government policies and the lack of a regulatory framework for sustainable water management, have undermined investment in supply. The main challenges include chronic deterioration of infrastructure, inefficient irrigation and drainage, lack of water treatment facilities, and weak regulation of agricultural runoff and discharges of sewage, industrial waste, and oil byproducts. In addition, the continuous decline in the water levels of the Shatt al-Arab has led to severe saltwater encroachment from the Gulf into the river. DISASTER AREA Basra, a port city with direct access to the Persian Gulf, was once glorified as the “Venice of the East” for its myriad of freshwater canals lined with palm trees. The surrounding governorate accounts for most of Iraq’s oil production, with nearby West Qurna considered to be one of the world’s most lucrative oilfields. But these strategic assets have not benefited the public, because government mismanagement and negligence have turned Basra into a decrepit and dysfunctional city, plagued by strained utilities and broken infrastructure. Its waterways have become open sewers that are poisoning the population. In the summer of 2018, Basra became the epicenter of an environmental and socioeconomic disaster that threatened the stability of the entire region. In July, Iraqis took to the streets to demand basic services such as clean drinking water, electricity, jobs, and an end to pervasive corruption. Then, in August, an outbreak of gastrointestinal illnesses, most likely caused by water contamination, sent tens of thousands of people seeking medical assistance in increasingly overwhelmed hospitals. Later that month, the UN-affiliated Independent High Commission for Human Rights called on the Iraqi government to declare Basra a “disaster area.” The water supply problems fueled further public outrage. Street protests resumed and gradually intensified. By September 2018, the protests had turned violent, with deadly clashes between protesters and security forces. Demonstrators burned government and political party offices and attacked the headquarters of the popular mobilization forces and the Iranian consulate, voicing anger over the growing influence of Iran-backed militias in the city. By early October, 18 civilians had been killed, and another 155 had been injured. While a wide range of long-neglected issues fueled the protests, water scarcity was cited as the most immediate cause or trigger. According to one civil servant quoted in The Independent, “The water shortages have made all the other problems gather and explode. It’s so extreme because it’s water, it’s essential for life.” Concerns remained that the health of the Iraqi people would continue to be affected unless the water situation improved drastically and quickly. Despite efforts to contain the outbreak of waterborne diseases and despite promises by the government to improve water infrastructure, it did not. In October 2019, the unrest spread to Baghdad, where protesters demanded economic reform, an end to corruption, and the provision of basic services, including clean water and electricity. A brutal crackdown by security forces resulted in more than 100 deaths in the first five days. Still, the demonstrations gained momentum, with protesters going so far as to call for an overhaul of the entire sectarian political system. According to the UN’s special envoy to Iraq, more than 400 people were killed, and another 19,000 were injured, just between October 1 and December 3 last year. EGYPT’S TROUBLED WATERS Likewise, climate change and politics have become inextricably intertwined in Egypt, where agricultural production and food security are threatened by acute water scarcity and other climate-related challenges. Egypt is also heavily reliant on food imports, which makes it all the more vulnerable to the impact of adverse weather events on global output and prices. Similar to the situation in Iraq, increasing water stress in Egypt reflects not only climate change, but also rapid population growth and resource mismanagement. The government bears a significant part of the responsibility, as a lack of treatment facilities, poor infrastructure maintenance, and weak regulations against dumping domestic, agricultural, and industrial effluent have all created water scarcities. Egypt’s water dependency ratio is one of the world’s highest, with the Nile River providing more than 95% of its total supply. Approximately 86% of the Nile’s total volume comes from the Ethiopian Highlands, flowing through Sudan before reaching Egypt (see map). As a result, water allocation has long been a source of political tension among Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan. The biggest challenge to Egypt’s water supply currently comes from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project. At an estimated cost of $4.8 billion, the dam’s construction is a crucial step toward energy security for Ethiopia. For Egypt, however, the project poses a significant threat to its water supply, especially with Ethiopia becoming the dominant power in the Nile River Basin.
Egypt’s economy is highly dependent on agriculture, which itself is almost entirely dependent on irrigation, accounting for over 85% of the country’s total water usage. Egypt’s food production is thus severely restricted by rising temperatures and more frequent droughts, which translate into higher water demand and lower agricultural yields. Worse, climate models show that Egypt’s national food production could decline by anywhere from 11% to 50% by 2050, depending on the level of warming. Moreover, the Nile Delta, Egypt’s breadbasket, is subsiding and extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise. Higher sea levels are expected to affect around 30% of fertile land in the Nile Delta within this century. With tightening resource constraints and a growing population, Egypt’s dependence on imported food is growing, as is its vulnerability to supply and price risks on the global market. The Egyptian population was hit particularly hard by the global food crisis of 2006-08, which came at a time when the country’s domestic production was weakened by severe water scarcity and debilitating agricultural reforms. BREAD, FREEDOM, AND SOCIAL JUSTICE As world commodity prices rose in 2007, Egypt’s government was unable to contain domestic food price inflation, owing to increasing resource scarcity, a corrupt and unsustainable food-subsidy system, and other structural problems. The annual rate of growth in food prices soared from 6.9% in December 2007 to a peak of 31% in August 2008, compared to an average of only 4% in the early 2000s. Rising food prices eroded the purchasing power of the population, causing poverty and food insecurity to rise. Between 2005 and 2008, the incidence of extreme poverty – defined as the inability to meet basic food needs – increased by about 20%, and a growing share of the population became dependent on government-subsidized bread. When the government struggled to meet demand, bread shortages became the focus of a wave of anger at perceived official incompetence, indifference, and corruption. On April 6, 2008, in response to low wages and rising food prices, Egyptian textile workers in the northern town of Mahalla al-Kubra organized a strike. Residents took to the streets, participating in the biggest demonstration that Egypt had seen in years. Police responded with live ammunition to disperse the crowds and arrested more than 300 people. The strike spread to other cities, including Cairo, albeit not with the same intensity. According to news reports, the demonstrators’ complaints were mainly economic: higher food prices, stagnant wages, and “unprecedented” inequality. Many view the Mahalla protests as a precursor to the Arab Spring less than three years later. Then, in 2010, fires in Russia and floods in Pakistan disrupted global wheat and rice markets, and the prices of basic foods in Egypt rose again (see graph). By the end of the year, Egyptians had been pushed to the brink by the sharp increases in food prices, escalating unemployment, chronic government corruption, rigged parliamentary elections, lack of political freedoms, growing concern about police brutality, and crackdowns on the media and universities. Resentment toward Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-old regime was growing. Social media had raised awareness of state repression and the fall of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2011, gave Egyptians hope that political change was possible.
Two weeks later, thousands of protesters poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square, demanding dignity, democracy, and better livelihoods for all. One of the popular chants called for “bread, freedom, and social justice” (“aīsh, huriyya, adala igtima‘iyya”). As the call for “aīsh” indicates, the accessibility and affordability of food was part of the population’s key grievances against the government. And although rising food prices were not the main factor behind the uprising, they likely played an important role in the sequence of events that led to nation-wide demonstrations and deadly unrest. Protest movements were met with extreme police violence and the excessive use of force by the military. Reported deaths in January and February amounted to 846 persons, in addition to mass arbitrary arrests and many cases of abuse and torture. THREATS, MULTIPLIED Resource scarcity and the lack of basic services are feeding public frustration, social unrest, and broader instability throughout the MENA region. In Iraq, water scarcity and contamination have given rise to recurrent demonstrations in Basra, and also contributed to the protest movement that started in Baghdad in October 2019. In Egypt, steep increases in domestic food prices led to riots and sporadic protests in 2008 and contributed to the uprising in 2011. Basic services such as running water, sanitation, stormwater drainage, solid-waste management, electricity, and access to staple foods, but also – as highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic – basic health care, social protection, and emergency response mechanisms, are the pillars on which governments build relationships with their citizens. The collapse of one or more severely erodes public trust and can lead to social upheavals, as demonstrated again by the recent uprisings in Lebanon, Jordan, Sudan, and other countries. At the heart of the water and food scarcities in Egypt, Iraq, and other countries lie poor governance, weak regulation, and a lack of cross-border cooperation. But looming large in the background is a changing climate, which has exacerbated these problems. As the ultimate threat multiplier in a region that is extremely vulnerable to its effects, it must not be overlooked. Given the risks, it is crucial that governments in the MENA region make adaptation efforts a top priority. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored this need. Countries with preset plans have contained the spread of the coronavirus and managed its consequences much better than those with no plans. Likewise, confronting climate change requires developing comprehensive national and regional strategies that take into account the projected effects on water resources, agriculture, and human health. It is up to MENA governments to start building more resilience. The climate will not wait for them.
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