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Qatar hugs and makes up with its warring neighbours

Qatar hugs and makes up with its warring neighbours

Gulf blockade: Qatar hugs and makes up with its warring neighbours – but will it last? wonders Mustafa Menshawy, Lancaster University, elaborating on a situation at one end of the MENA that lasted hardly more than three years, whereas the similar one at the other end of the region continues unabated for the last forty years. It is that of the ongoing North African situation, but that is another story. In the meantime, let us read Mustafa’s.


Shortly after four Arab countries – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt – imposed an embargo on Qatar in 2017, I flew into the country’s capital Doha. Hamad airport – usually buzzing with visitors from the Gulf countries (one of every four visitors to Qatar in 2015 came from Saudi Arabia) – was eerily quiet.

The four countries severed ties with Qatar in June 2017 after they accused Doha of supporting terrorism. They demanded the shutdown of Qatari news network Al Jazeera as well as calling on the country to downgrade its relations with Iran. Doha defiantly rejected the accusations and agreed to mediation from Kuwait and the US to end the standoff.

Qatar has estimated its losses from the blockade in the billions of dollars – citing factors such as “industrial-scale theft of content from its sports broadcaster BeIN by rival Saudi network BeoutQ and the manipulation of its currency by the four countries. So, when they agreed on January 5 to lift the embargo and restore diplomatic relations with Qatar, all sides were keenly anticipating any economic benefits the restored detente might bring.

Qatar may be the smallest of the Gulf states – but it’s the richest. So when, hours after the agreement, foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani talked about the possibility of the country’s sovereign wealth fund investing in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, his hint would have been well received in Riyadh.

Dangling the carrot of investment is a good way of appeasing Saudi Arabia, which is keen to attract foreign investment to back Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s grandiose modernisation projects as well as respond to the country’s long-term need to secure new export markets and diversify its oil-dependent economy.

Fraternal relations

But the biggest sign of the new detente has so far been in the tone of Qatar’s news media. Top of the list of the 13 demands placed on Qatar by the four countries was shutting down Al Jazeera.

Qatar didn’t shut the network down – but watching the network in the days after the blockade ended, one could feel the difference. Bulletins no longer include regular news on “violations” by the Saudi regime. The channel even rebranded the Saudi Crown Prince, who it had vociferously attacked just a few weeks ago for “tarnishing the image of the Saudi state”. Now Bin Salman is represented as a rising peacemaker engaged in relations of “fraternity”. This was symbolically reflected in the way he hugged Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani when the Qatari emir arrived in Riyadh for their meeting on the sidelines of the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Saudi Arabia on January 5.

Coverage of Qatar by Saudi network Al Arabiya has also softened considerably, something picked up on by the BBC, which even hosted analysts to comment of the repeatedly screened scene of the hugging between the two leaders. “It was a hot hugging”, commented one analyst, of the enthusiastic way the two leaders embraced when meeting at the airport in Riyadh.

The reconciliation has brought a sense of relief in all four countries. Ordinary people paid a deep humanitarian price – many are linked by close tribal ties and there are thousands of cases of cross-border intermarriage (to give you an idea of how close the Saudi Arabia and Qatar are, consider that it takes just an hour to drive from Doha to Saudi territory).

In Qatar, I heard many stories of families split apart when Qatari nationals were ordered to leave their three Gulf neighbours within 14 days. More than 12,000 residents in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE were also ordered to leave Qatar. Social media is now full of videos of families jubilantly crossing “Abu Samra”, the land border between Saudi Arabia and Qatar within hours of the agreement.

Happy talk

This may all sound like a return to normality, but sceptics pointed to the fact that, while the two feuding leaders talked of “brotherly unity” and desires for “Gulf unity”, neither mentioned an agreement on any of the issues that caused the crisis. On the one hand, everyone’s a winner – but, on the other, we don’t know how or why. The situation has been described as a “detente borne more of exhaustion than compromise”.

The 13 demands made by the other Gulf states of Qatar remain unmet. For example, the Qatari foreign minister has already scotched a demand for Qatar to reduce its ties with Iran by shutting down diplomatic posts in Iran or expelling members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard, saying a couple of days after the agreement that his country would not alter relations with Tehran.

So this dispute is far from ended and there is a lot of tension brewing under the surface. Saudi Arabia, for its part, sees Iran as an “existential threat” and is unlikely to take no change as a negative answer.

Others believe that for Bin Salman, temporarily easing the tension with Qatar is “low-hanging fruit” – something achieved with relative ease ahead of the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th US president. Biden is known for his critical attitude towards Riyadh’s approach to human rights.

There is no sign that Qatar is also heeding the other demands, including closing Turkey’s military base outside Doha. Turkey is popular among Qataris. You’ll see cars with number plate stickers featuring the Turkish flag – or even with the image of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

With so few issues apparently actually resolved, it’s little wonder that it took just days for new signs of tension to reappear after the agreement. The UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said following the GCC summit that Doha still has questions to answer, including: “How is Qatar going to deal vis-à-vis interfering in our affairs through support of political Islam? Is Turkey’s presence in the Gulf going to be permanent?”

These are the same questions asked of Qatar long before the four countries issued their ultimatum in 2017. It’s tension that is likely to outlive the warmth engendered by those televised hugs.

Mustafa Menshawy, Postdoctoral Researcher in Middle East Politics, Lancaster University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation

Iraqis slowly rebuild Mosul

Iraqis slowly rebuild Mosul

This is a story of a city that as per Iraqi novelist Inaam Kachachi’s description – Mosul the austere, Mosul the convivial, Mosul the contradictory, Mosul the wounded, bleeding to death. So here is Iraqis slowly rebuild Mosul, with little aid from government per Samya Kullab.

Iraqis slowly rebuild Mosul
Mounds of rubble, remnants of the battle to retake the city three years ago from the Islamic State group, remain in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. Local officials say Baghdad’s cash-strapped government, struggling with a dire economic crisis fueled by low oil prices and the coronavirus, doesn’t have the funds to launch serious reconstruction efforts. (AP photo/Samya Kullab)
Iraqis slowly rebuild Mosul
A damaged house remains un-repaired three years after Iraqi forces defeated the Islamic State group, in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq Nov. 29, 2020. Mosul remains for many the symbol of the Islamic State group’s reign of terror, the place from where it proclaimed its caliphate in 2014. It’s also where IS made its last stand before the city was freed three years later, after a costly battle that killed thousands and left Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in ruins. (AP Photo/Samya Kullab)
A commercial center re-opened recently with some government assistance to restore. electricity and water services, enabling merchants to return, three years after Iraqi forces defeated Islamic State militants, in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq Nov. 29, 2020. Mosul remains for many the symbol of the Islamic State group’s reign of terror, the place from where it proclaimed its caliphate in 2014. (AP Photo/Samya Kullab)
Musicians play love songs as a small crowd sings along and claps, inside what was an old hostel for traders centuries ago and is now a refurbished commercial center, in Mosul, Iraq, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. Mosul remains for many the symbol of the Islamic State group’s reign of terror, the place from where it proclaimed its caliphate in 2014. Under the IS scenes like these were forbidden. (AP Photo/Samya Kullab)
Iraqis slowly rebuild Mosul
Anan Yasoun, one of the few residents to return to the heavily damaged Old City, stands outside her rebuilt home, in Mosul, Iraq, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. From afar, Yasoun’s yellow-slab home is an island surrounded by rubble in the historic old part of the Iraqi city of Mosul, for many still a symbol of the Islamic State group’s reign of terror and the place from where it proclaimed its caliphate in 2014. It’s also where IS made its last stand before the city was freed three years later, after a costly battle that killed thousands and left Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in ruins. (AP photo/Samya Kullab)
Iraqis slowly rebuild Mosul
Damaged buildings are surrounded by mounds of rubble three years after Iraqi forces defeated the Islamic State group there, Nov. 29, 2020. Mosul remains for many the symbol of the Islamic State group’s reign of terror, the place from where it proclaimed its caliphate in 2014. It’s also where IS made its last stand before the city was freed three years later, after a costly battle that killed thousands and left Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in ruins. (AP Photo/Samya Kullab)
Mounds of rubble still line the streets and buildings are pock-marked with bullet holes three years after Iraqi forces defeated the Islamic State group, in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq Nov. 29, 2020. Mosul remains for many the symbol of the IS group’s reign of terror, the place from where it proclaimed its caliphate in 2014. It’s also where IS made its last stand before the city was freed three years later, after a costly battle that killed thousands and left Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in ruins. (AP Photo/Samya Kullab)
Ammar Mouwfaq, 70, stands inside his soap shop in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. Mouwfaq inherited the business in 1955 and for decades his family have imported olive soap from Aleppo, Syria, a trade that has dated back hundreds of years. That came to a stop when the Islamic State took control of the area in 2014. (AP photo/Samya Kullab)

MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — Anan Yasoun rebuilt her home with yellow cement slabs amid the rubble of Mosul, a brightly colored manifestation of resilience in a city that for many remains synonymous with the Islamic State group’s reign of terror.

In the three years since Iraqi forces, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, liberated Mosul from the militants, Yasoun painstakingly saved money that her husband earned from carting vegetables in the city. They had just enough to restore the walls of their destroyed home; money for the floors was a gift from her dying father, the roof a loan that is still outstanding.

Yasoun didn’t even mind the bright yellow exterior — paint donated by a relative. “I just wanted a house,” said the 40-year-old mother of two.

The mounds of debris around her bear witness to the violence Iraq’s second-largest city has endured. From Mosul, IS had proclaimed its caliphate in 2014. Three years later, Iraqi forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition liberated the city in a grueling battle that killed thousands and left Mosul in ruins.

Such resilience is apparent elsewhere in the city, at a time when Baghdad’s cash-strapped government fails to fund reconstruction efforts and IS is becoming more active across the disputed territories of northern Iraq.

Life is slowly coming back to Mosul these days: merchants are busy in their shops, local musicians again serenade small, enthralled crowds. At night, the city lights gleam as restaurant patrons spill out onto the streets.

The U.N. has estimated that over 8,000 Mosul homes were destroyed in intense airstrikes to root out IS. The nine-month operation left at least 9,000 dead, according to an AP investigation.

Memories of the group’s brutality still haunt locals, who remember a time when the city squares were used for the public beheading of those who dared violate the militants’ rules.

The Old City on the west bank of the Tigris River, once the jewel of Mosul, remains in ruins even as newer parts of the city have seen a cautious recovery. The revival, the residents say, is mostly their own doing.

“I didn’t see a single dollar from the government,” said Ahmed Sarhan, who runs a family coffee business.

Antique coffee pots, called dallahs, line the entrance to his shop, which has been trading coffee for 120 years. An aging mortar and pestle, used by Sarhan’s forefathers to grind beans, sits in his office as evidence of his family’s storied past.

“After the liberation, it was complete chaos. No one had any money. The economy was zero,” he said. His business raked in a measly 50,000 Iraqi dinars a day, or around $40. Now, he makes closer to about $2,500.

But even as Sarhan and other merchants are starting to see profits — despite the impact of the coronavirus pandemic — ordinary laborers are struggling. Sarhan employs 28 workers, each getting about $8 a day.

“It is nothing … they will never be able to rebuild their homes,” he says.

Since the ouster of IS in 2017, the task of rebuilding Mosul has been painfully slow. Delays have been caused by lack of coherent governance at the provincial level; the governor of Nineveh province, which includes Mosul, has been replaced three times since liberation.

With no central authority to coordinate, a tangled web of entities overseeing reconstruction work — from the local, provincial and federal government to international organizations and aid groups — has added to the chaos.

The government has made progress on larger infrastructure projects and restored basic services to the city, but much remains unfinished.

Funds earmarked for reconstruction by the World Bank were diverted to help the federal government fight the coronavirus as state coffers dwindled with plunging oil prices. Meanwhile, at least 16,000 Mosul residents appealed for government cash assistance to rebuild their homes.

Only 2,000 received financial assistance, said Zuhair al-Araji, the mayor of Mosul district.

“There’s no money,” he said. “They have to rebuild on their own.”

Mosul residents eye government policies with suspicion and suspect local officials are too corrupt to help them.

“Whatever funds are provided, they will steal it,” said Ammar Mouwfaq, who spent all his savings to re-open his soap shop in the city last year.

A photo of his father hangs inside the shop, which he took over in the 1970s. Neat stacks of the region’s famous olive oil soap, imported from the Syrian city of Aleppo, tower above him.

“What you see now, I did alone,” he added.

On one thoroughfare the ruins of cinemas bombed by IS — the militant group’s strict interpretation of Islam banned such forms of entertainment — are a stark contrast to the shops and restaurants abuzz with customers.

The Old City, with its labyrinth of narrow streets dating back to the Middle Ages, now serves as an eerie museum of IS horrors. Misshapen iron rods jut out of what’s left of houses they were designed to fortify. Smashed pieces of alabaster stone and masonry, once extolled by historians for architectural significance, lie among the debris. Signs of a former life — a pair of women’s shoes, a notebook covered in hearts, shells from exploded ammunition — are untouched.

“Demolition is forbidden” reads a graffiti written on a slab of wall surrounded by rubble, a testament to Mosul’s unwavering dark humor.

The Mosul Museum, where IS militants filmed themselves smashing priceless antiquities to dust, partially re-opened in January. But apart from occasional contemporary art exhibits such as that of Iraqi sculptor Omer Qais last month, there is nothing to see.

On the other side of town, Sarhan, the coffee trader, invites anyone who cares to see his collection of antique swords, plates and bowls he painstakingly hunted down. In the 12th century, Mosul was an important hub for trade; a century later, its intricate metalwork rose to prominence.

“This is our history,” said Sarhan, holding up a rusting bronze plate, engraved with 1202, the year it was made.

“If I don’t protect it, who will?”

International Day for Tolerance

International Day for Tolerance

The International Day for Tolerance is an annual observance day declared by UNESCO in 1995 to generate public awareness of the dangers of intolerance. It is observed on 16 November.

International Day for Tolerance

“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.

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

International Day for Tolerance

“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

Download the full message in PDF format
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WHAT DOES UNESCO FOR TOLERANCE

HOW CAN INTOLERANCE BE COUNTERED?

1. Fighting intolerance requires law:

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.

4. Fighting intolerance requires individual awareness:

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.

International Day for Tolerance

RESOURCES

Bloated public salaries at heart of Iraq’s economic woes

Bloated public salaries at heart of Iraq’s economic woes

Bloated public salaries at heart of Iraq’s economic woes

Until recently, labour markets in the MENA’s oil-exporting countries were characterized by a large public sector, a small, weak private sector, and depending on the country, a sizable agricultural industry, and a sizable informal sector. But in the case of Iraq like elsewhere in the region, the volatility of oil prices and the pandemic impacted the economy, resulting in a critical situation where bloated public salaries at the heart of Iraq’s economic woes result in increasingly unstoppable youth unemployment.
The currently general upheaval in the region, rural to urban and cross-border migration has not helped, leading to an even greater informal market.

Bloated public salaries at heart of Iraq’s economic woes by Samya Kullab is a vivid picture or a series of pictures on life in Iraq as perceived by a locally based journalist.

People shop for clothing at the used-clothes market in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. Iraq is in the throes of an unprecedented liquidity crisis, as the cash-strapped state wrestles to pay public sector salaries and import essential goods while oil prices remain dangerously low. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

BAGHDAD (AP) — Long-time Iraqi civil servant Qusay Abdul-Amma panicked when his monthly salary was delayed. Days of waiting turned to weeks. He defaulted on rent and other bills.

A graphic designer for the Health Ministry, he uses about half his salary to pay his rent of nearly 450,000 Iraqi dinars a month, roughly $400. If he fails to pay twice in a row his landlord will evict him and his family, he fears.

“These delays affect my ability to survive,” Abdul-Amma said.

Iraq’s government is struggling to pay the salaries of the ever-swelling ranks of public sector employees amid an unprecedented liquidity crisis caused by low oil prices. September’s salaries were delayed for weeks, and October’s still haven’t been paid as the government tries to borrow once again from Iraq’s currency reserves. The crisis has fueled fears of instability ahead of mass demonstrations this week.

The government has outlined a vision for a drastic overhaul of Iraq’s economy in a “white paper” presented last week to lawmakers and political factions. But with early elections on the horizon, the prime minister’s advisers fear there is little political will to execute it fully.

“We are asking the same people we are protesting against and criticizing to reform the system,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraq researcher.

The white paper’s calls for cutting public sector payrolls and reforming state finances would undermine the patronage systems that the political elite have used to entrench their power.

A major part of that patronage is handing out state jobs in return for support. The result has been a threefold increase in public workers since 2004. The government pays 400% more in salaries than it did 15 years ago. Around three-quarters of the state’s expenditures in 2020 go to paying for the public sector — a massive drain on dwindling finances.

“Now the situation is very dangerous,” said Mohammed al-Daraji, a lawmaker on parliament’s Finance Committee.

One government official said political factions are in denial that change is needed, believing oil prices will rise and “we will be fine.”

“We won’t be fine. The system is unsustainable and sooner or later it will implode,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal politics.

Iraq’s activists have called for a march on Oct. 25, expected to draw large crowds, a year since massive anti-government protests first brought tens of thousands to the streets demanded reforms and an end to the corrupt political class.

“As far as meeting our demands, there have been no changes,” said Kamal Jabar, member of the Tishreen Democratic Movement, founded during the protests last year. “To us, the white paper is a joke.”

Abu Ali, a merchant in Baghdad’s commercial district of Shorjah, fears what the following months have in store. The state is the primary source of employment for Iraqis, and civil servants are the lifeblood of his business.

“The delays in salary payments have affected the market directly,” he said. “If these delays continue our business and the economy will collapse.”

Abdul-Amma’s September pay was 45 days late, and he still hasn’t received the October pay that was supposed to come on the first of the month. He worries about the coming months as well.

“I have a history of chronic heart disease, and one of my daughters is also sick,” said the father of four. He pays $100 in medical fees per month.

But to the architects of the reform paper, he is part of the problem: Public sector bloat is first in line for reform.

“We hope the civil service and bureaucracy will recognize a need for change,” Finance Minister Ali Allawi told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

Iraq relies on oil exports to fund 90% of state revenues. Those revenues have plunged to an average $3.5 billion a month since oil prices crashed earlier this year.

That’s half the $7 billion a month needed to pay urgent expenses. Of that, $5 billion is for public sector salaries and pensions, according to Finance Ministry figures. Iraq also imports nearly all of its food and medicine; with foreign currency reserves at $53 billion, the World Bank estimates the country can sustain these imports for another nine months. Foreign debts account for another $316 million.

Poor productivity of public workers is the heart of the issue, Allawi said.

“We’ve ended up with a low productivity, high-cost public sector that doesn’t really earn its keep,” he said. “In one way or another this issue has to be tackled by either reducing numbers, which is politically difficult, reducing salaries … or increasing productivity.”

The white paper calls for public sector payments to be reduced from 25% of GDP to 12% but doesn’t detail how. Officials said one step may be to restore taxes on civil servants’ benefits that previous administrations had lifted.

To meet month-to-month commitments now, the government has had to borrow internally from its foreign currency reserves. A request of a second loan of $35 billion was sent to parliament, drawing criticism from lawmakers.

Haitham al-Jibouri, head of parliament’s Finance Committee, said in televised remarks that if borrowing was the government’s only plan he would fetch a shopkeeper from Bab al-Sharqi, a commercial area in the capital, to do the finance minister’s job.

Parliament’s endorsement of the loan and the reform paper is crucial for the government to avoid a full-scale economic crisis.

But this will prove difficult with elections slated for next June, since factions want to hand out jobs to maintain their constituencies.

“Whoever decides to push ahead and support reforms first will lose out, they will also need to convince other political players who will also lose out,” said Jiyad. “That is a tough sell.”

Al-Kadhimi’s advisers privately acknowledge the challenges of having the system that produced such mismanagement and corruption be its own savior.

One official recalled a remark made by the finance minister at a meeting of a high-level committee tasked with managing the crisis.

He looked at the room of officials charged with halting the country’s fast spiral toward insolvency and said, “I can’t believe this was done for 10 years and none of you did anything to stop it.” There was silence.

What is the State of Human Capital in the MENA Region?

What is the State of Human Capital in the MENA Region?

The answer to What is the State of Human Capital in the MENA Region? is given by Keiko Miwa, Regional Director, Human Development, Middle East & North Africa – World Bank and Jeremie Amoroso, Strategy & Operations Officer, Human Development, Middle East & North Africa – World Bank.


Countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have made good progress in improving human capital over the past decade. And yet a child born in MENA today can expect to achieve (on average) only 57 percent of her future productivity. On top of that, the COVID-19 crisis poses significant risks to hard-earned improvements in human capital in MENA. We can—and should—do much more to preserve and improve human capital in the MENA region.

The World Bank recently released the Human Capital Index 2020 (HCI). This update covers 174 countries—17 more than when the index was first launched in 2018. Not surprisingly, the HCI scores among MENA countries vary widely from 0.67 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to 0.37 in Yemen. Countries affected by conflict, such as Iraq and Yemen, score low on the index, which poses an important question on how to support the protection and enhancement of human capital even in the midst of conflict.

Looking at the 10-year trend, the HCI improved in 11 out of 14 MENA countries (with available data). Morocco, Oman, and the UAE registered the largest gains in the HCI during this period. School enrollment—at the preprimary and secondary levels—as well as harmonized test scores and adult survival, are the main drivers of the region’s HCI improvements. During this period, girls surpassed boys in educational attainment. On the other hand, enrollment declines in primary and lower-secondary school outweighed gains in other components of HCI for Kuwait, Tunisia, and Jordan.

Figure 1. Change in HCI 2020 and HCI 2020 in MENA countries
Figure 1. Change in HCI 2020 and HCI 2020 in MENA countries

Source: World Bank. 2020. The Human Capital Index 2020 Update: Human Capital in the Time of COVID-19.

Note: Arrows indicate a decline in the HCI between 2010 and 2020. Data unavailable for Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and West Bank and Gaza for HCI 2010. See World Bank’s list of countries/economies by region.

WHAT’S NEW IN THE HUMAN CAPITAL INDEX 2020?

The HCI 2020 update introduces the Utilization-Adjusted Human Capital Index (UHCI). This is quite relevant in several MENA countries since there is a large gap between human capital and labor market outcomes. The utilization of human capital accounts for the fact that when today’s child becomes a future worker, she may not be able to find a job (Basic UHCI). And even if she can, it might not be a job where she can fully use her skills and cognitive abilities in better employment that increases her productivity (Full UHCI). When adjusting for the proportion of the working-age population who are employed, MENA’s HCI value declines by at least one-third—from 0.57 to 0.32 (Basic UHCI) and 0.38 (Full UHCI). Low female labor force participation rates in MENA countries are a key factor for the region’s low Utilization-Adjusted HCI.

Figure 2. The average MENA HCI value declines by more than a third when accounting for the proportion of the working-age population who are employed.
Figure 2. The average MENA HCI value declines by more than a third when accounting for the proportion of the working-age population who are employed.
Source: World Bank. 2020. The Human Capital Index 2020 Update: Human Capital in the Time of COVID-19.

RISKS TO HARD-EARNED HUMAN CAPITAL

COVID-19 has cascaded into education shocks and the worst economic recession since World War II. At the height of the pandemic, almost 84 million children were out of school in MENA, and now countries that started to open schools are now reconsidering their decision due to the second wave. This could result in the loss of 0.6 years of schooling (adjusted for quality). Nevertheless, some MENA countries took early actions and adopted innovative measures to continue education. In Jordan, for example, the private sector and education officials collaborated to develop an education portal and dedicated TV channels for virtual lectures in Arabic, English, math, and science for grades one through 12. And Saudi Arabia’s universities achieved unprecedented results as more than 1.2 million users attended over 7,600 virtual classes, totaling 107,000 learning hours.

The HCI 2020 update uses data gathered as of March 2020—prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. It serves as a baseline for policymakers to track changes in human capital and inform policies to protect and invest in people through the pandemic and beyond. Previous pandemics and crises taught us that their effects are not only felt by those directly impacted, but often ripple across populations and, in many cases, across generations. COVID-19 is no exception. As a result, the region can—and must—build on its human capital progress amid the turmoil in three key ways.

First, the MENA region needs to continue building its human capital even during the pandemic or conflict. Crisis response measures that emerged out of necessity—such as distance learning and telemedicine—present new opportunities for building back better and differently the “new normal.”

Second, many countries in MENA have shown their sharp focus on protecting human capital by ramping up cash transfers and strengthening social safety nets since the onset of the pandemic. However, stronger efforts are still needed to preserve the human capital of internally displaced persons and refugees and to foster social inclusion for economic mobility.

Third, utilizing human capital is important to the immediate recovery and long-term development of MENA—the region with the highest youth unemployment in the world at more than 25 percent. Utilizing human capital requires job-focused policies as concerns about the future of work grow louder.

The HCI 2020 update shows that many MENA countries have made meaningful human capital progress over the past 10 years. As the pandemic threatens these precious gains, investment in human capital is more important than ever. Governments in MENA have launched promising initiatives that will help to build a better future. When today’s children in MENA become adults, hopefully, they will see how their region of the world turned the unprecedented crisis in 2020 into an opportunity to build stronger human capital.

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