The people of Masafer Yatta are determined to hold on to their cave-dwelling lifestyle. “I was born in this cave and gave birth to all 12 of my children here,” says Hajja Halima Abu Younis, an 82-year-old woman from Jinba, one of 33 villages in this semi-desert region at the southern tip of the occupied West Bank.
Masafer Yatta is the only Palestinian territory where many caves are used as homes – some 200 of the 800 caves in this area are still inhabited. Abu Younis says she would never accept another home even if the Israeli government offered her a house with two floors. She can trace her family’s history in this cave back almost two centuries:
Mahmoud Ahmad, the grandfather of my husband, was born in this cave back in 1840. My husband’s father was born here in 1906, then my husband and now my sons. We were two families sleeping here: my husband and me on this side, my brother-in-law on the other. All our children were sleeping in the middle.
In 1980, Israel ruled that a large section of Masafer Yatta including 12 villages was, in fact, uninhabited. It designated the land Firing Zone 918 – an area for its military to practise with live ammunition. The residents of these villages remained until 1999, when the military attempted to evict more than 700 Palestinians on the grounds that they were “illegally living in a firing zone”. These families have been fighting a legal battle for their communities’ right to remain ever since, which was finally rejected by Israel’s Supreme Court in May 2022.
Since that ruling, the Israeli military has carried out regular live ammunition practices in and around eight villages within the zone. It has also escalated the forced evictions of local residents including those living in caves. Virtually all structures within Firing Zone 918 are now without legal protection against demolition.
Abu Younis says the most significant threat to the locals comes on the three days each week, Monday to Wednesday, when military training takes place:
In these days we are jailed in our caves, we cannot move. We are afraid the Israeli army will kill someone while they are conducting military training. The army trains tanks around our village. The sound of the bombs and shots scare the children and the flocks of animals. My son Issa cannot graze his 150 sheep during the military training. How can a shepherd be a shepherd if he cannot graze his sheep?
‘We feared nothing but the wolves’
The different styles of cave in Masafer Yatta reflect changing lifestyles from one generation to the next. Some possess water wells and tunnels so that residents could keep, feed and wash their farm animals inside the caves. Others have moats around them for external feeding.
Mohammed Abu Sabha, an 84-year-old farmer and shepherd originally from Al Quarytein village, is taking a younger generation of Palestinians aged 19 to 29 to see the cave in which he was born. Down narrow, crumbling stone steps, the group enters a large underground area with a low, domed ceiling. Abu Sabha is overcome with the emotion of his childhood memories as he steps into the cave:
Oh my god, it has changed. Why is it destroyed like this? I need to come back and renovate it. This cave means everything to me – I was born in it and I want to die in it too.
Abu Sabha’s family was evicted from the cave in 1951 when he was 13 years old. He has not been back in many years (he now lives in Yatta city, the urban centre north of Masafer Yatta). When he was a child, it was home to four families who all slept in the same room. Cows and camels lived inside the cave too to keep them safe; the cows were used to plough the surrounding land that provided the families with their main source of income. As one of the young visitors puts it: “Camels and sheep back then were like the Mercedes cars of today.”
Since 2017, researchers at Coventry University have been working with a younger generation of Palestinians from Masafer Yatta to gather stories from their elders. The On Our Land project was established to build oral histories of what everyday life was, and remains, like for the semi-nomadic people who call this part of the occupied West Bank home. We have been given access to historical documents, testimonials, historical maps and photographs to support these oral histories.
Abu Ashraf Hamamda, a 60-year-old farmer who still lives in a cave in Al Mufaqara, one of the villages inside Firing Zone 918, explains how people used to move around Masafer Yatta following annual cycles of harvest, livestock grazing and rest:
We used to live from October to July in the lower parts of Masafer Yatta. In summer, we would move to the hills to harvest our rain-fed produce of grapes and figs … The whole family participated in harvesting, everyone who could carry a sickle – old and young, men and women. We took food with us, grapes and milk from the sheep. We worked all day, morning to evening … We stayed in the fields for two weeks without coming back to the village.
At this point, he starts singing the song they would all sing while cutting the wheat: “Oh my sickle with the sharp teeth. Oh my sickle that is made in Gaza.”
According to Ali Na’ameen, a 73-year-old shepherd from Al Majaz village, the sheep’s milk they produce is unique because of the area’s particular geography:
In Masafer Yatta, we do not have as much rain as in the north [of the West Bank]. But the grass here is the best because it is salty; it strengthens the sheep’s immune systems. This gives their milk a creamier texture and makes it more nutritious.
Na’ameen is usually a happy soul, but as he talks he grows nostalgic for a more carefree time:
My favourite moments in summer were when shepherds gathered in the middle of the day around the water well. From late morning until early afternoon, the sheep had naps because of the hot weather. We took this time as an opportunity to chat. Sometimes, we played games such as the “seven stones and fence” game, which is a bit like chess. We were happy and had peace of mind. We feared nothing but the wolves coming for our sheep.
‘A piece of paradise’
Masafer Yatta sits at the southern tip of the West Bank’s South Hebron Hills. Its craggy mountains and hills resemble walnut shells in summer, connected by more fertile pastures in the valleys below. About 3,000 people live here, mostly working as shepherds and farmers growing wheat, barley, beans and olives.
The locals tell us different stories about the name of the area. Some say Masafer comes from the Arabic word for “zero”, referring to the belief that life could not thrive in this hot and harsh landscape. However Nidal Younis, the current mayor of Masafer Yatta, tells us it refers to the last period of the Ottoman Empire, when locals were freed from paying taxes for agricultural products in order to win their loyalty to the weak Ottoman rulers.
Yet another version suggests Masafer means “travelling”, referring to the journeys people have long been making through this area – including traders and pilgrims travelling between Africa, Asia and Europe. Abu Younis describes how the villagers used to give these travellers food and fresh water from a pond, filled by an ancient clay pipe running down from a spring in the hills.
People have lived on this land for many generations, grazing sheep and goats and selling dairy and livestock products. According to the mayor, however, many feel they cannot sustain themselves and their families solely through subsistence farming and shepherding any more. “In the past,” Younis says, “we were cultivating huge areas so you did not need to think of alternative [sources of income], despite the hardship of this life.”
In recent decades, many younger Palestinians have gravitated away from the rural lifestyle to Yatta city and beyond. Ibrahim Nawaja, who is from the village of Susya and splits his time between Susya and Yatta city, says rural Masafer Yatta is “like a piece of paradise for me, with its fresh air, calm atmosphere and rich nature – green in spring, yellow in summer. I come here to get away from the traffic and noise of the city.”
But the land designation changes applied by Israel since 1980 have disrupted the traditional lives of farmers and shepherds here. Nawaja suggests that while this semi-nomadic lifestyle was never easy, the additional barriers imposed have made it much harder – and residents’ testimonies have repeatedly alleged that Israeli settlers have exacerbated tensions by interfering with water supplies and through other attacks.
People’s lives have become difficult and complicated because of the occupation’s restrictions. There are many injustices, including when our water wells and pastures have been contaminated.
A ‘misunderstanding’ that changed everything
Many residents tell us the declaration of Firing Zone 918 rests on a misunderstanding. They say the Israeli government did not recognise that the people of Masafer Yatta live a semi-nomadic lifestyle when it first deemed the area uninhabited in 1980. More than four decades later, this position was endorsed by Israel’s Supreme Court in its May 2022 final ruling, which found that Masafer Yatta residents had no right to the land because they were not permanent residents at the time of its declaration as a firing zone.
In August, the Supreme Court rejected a further appeal from residents against the demolition of two schools and other Palestinian buildings within the firing zone. Yesterday (October 2), the court rejected a request for a further hearing on its May 4 verdict, and Israel’s government confirmed it would not grant any more court hearings.
When the Oslo Accords were signed in the early 1990s as a step towards fulfilling the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, Masafer Yatta was categorised as “Area C”, meaning it still fell under full Israeli administrative and military control. Prior to 2022, the biggest displacement of residents took place in 1999. Abu Ashraf Hamamda recalls how he reacted to that eviction:
After they collected our belongings and threw them to the other side of the road, I snuck through the mountains back to my village. I contacted Israeli activists and lawyers. I went to the Israeli parliament, and gave a speech about the right of my people to stay in our villages and that we had been living there for a long time. After four months, we had a court decision that allowed us to return and to stay temporarily. And we repaired our communities.
More than two decades on from the eviction, they are still living there – and, says his wife Um Ashraf Hamamda, their determination to remain is stronger than ever:
We are eight big families in this village. Our grandparents and our parents lived here … The occupation expelled us to Al-Tuwani village. They threw away our belongings, they dispersed us [but] we persevered. We sued them and kept striving until we reached the Supreme Court … Then when we returned to our village, the occupation continued oppressing us because they failed to expel us the first time. They poisoned our cattle so we would lose hope and leave the village. But we stayed – we did not leave! We were born here and we have to stay here.
Most of the 700-odd residents evicted in 1999 returned to their caves and other buildings after the court’s decision in March 2000. The ruling allowed the residents to return temporarily – and they have been fighting a legal battle with Israel ever since.
In recent months, however, the Israeli military has stepped up the demolition of buildings within the firing zone on the grounds that Palestinians have no permits for them. Such permits are extremely hard to obtain from Israel’s government.
Residents say they are prevented from having electricity with any solar panels they erect soon being destroyed. They have also described the authorities cutting water pipes, demolishing wells and confiscating water tanks in order to deprive them and their animals of water.
The threat of settler attacks
The threat to the livelihoods – and existence – of Palestinians in Masafer Yatta also comes from the building of Israeli settlements on land at the edge of Firing Zone 918. This land was previously used by Palestinian farmers and shepherds, who now find themselves “boxed in” between military training and the new settlements.
The settlers are all Israeli citizens of Jewish descent who have moved into gated communities in this occupied Palestinian territory. Housing in such settlements is often subsidised by Israel’s government, and different laws apply to these settlers than their Palestinian neighbours.
Since Israel started building the settlements, we now live less than one mile from them. Settlers chop our trees, burn our crops and poison our water wells … In the past when we were herding our sheep, we moved freely in our land and slept wherever we wanted. But today we do everything very quickly because we want to avoid settler attacks.
Experiences of settler-instigated violence come up regularly in the oral histories we have recorded. Hajja Nuzha Al-Najjar describes how, in 2005, she was in a field with her daughters-in-law when she was shot in the back of her leg by some Israeli settlers. Her leg is stretched out in front of her as she recalls that “my son was on the other side of the valley. When he tried to join me, he also became a target so had to crouch down and hide.”
Al-Najjar limped back to her cave and only then realised the blood was streaming down her leg. An ambulance was called but the settlers would not let it pass, she recalls, so she had to be bundled into a car and driven some way before she could be transferred to the ambulance.
The level of livestock in Masafer Yatta is now just a third of what it was in 1980 when the firing zone was first declared. Abu Ashraf Hamamda explains the reasons for this decline:
On the one hand, we cannot reach the places we used to herd in. On the other, since Oslo [the signing of the Oslo Accords], the price of animal food has increased. In less than six months, barley and wheat prices increased by 80% – I could not afford that for my sheep … We were forced to sell part of our livestock because we were unable to feed them.
While our interviewees acknowledge the support they receive from many international and national humanitarian aid organisations – including being supplied with animal food – they say this is not a desirable solution. As Ali Na’meen explains:
Today we are receiving barley from the Food and Agriculture Organisation, a UN agency, instead of producing our own crops as in the past. We graze our sheep in groups, accompanied by international volunteers to protect us … This is not the kind of life we used to have when we moved freely and produced our own food. Despite that hard life, we were still in a much better situation than we are now.
‘I need to see my future’
The traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle of this area is also threatened by societal and cultural changes from one generation to the next. Most of the elders here say that young Palestinians want to live in houses, have smartphones and secure jobs rather than following the tough path of farming and shepherding. As a result, many have moved to Yatta city in the north-west of Masafer Yatta. Others have moved to cities such as Hebron, Bethlehem and Ramallah to study or work. Somia Al-Omour, one of the project’s young researchers, explains:
I need to see my future and live a normal life. I decided to continue my education in Ramallah as a nurse and to work there. I would not have the same opportunity if I stayed in Masafer Yatta.
In contrast, the elders of Masafer Yatta are more determined than ever to remain living in their caves and maintain their lifestyles as farmers and shepherds. But Abu Ashraf Hamamda accepts it is difficult to convince young people to carry on with this lifestyle:
Some of them are fed up living in the caves. They want to sleep in bedrooms, and they want a shower. They dream of having a closet for their clothes, not just a bag to put them in.
The unique traditions associated with life in the caves of Masafer Yatta may have lost some of their significance for the younger generation. Yet through our oral histories, we have seen bonds strengthen between the different generations. Khalil Makhamrah from Jinba village describes the profound impact of interviewing his grandmother:
That interview changed my perspective about the elderly people here, about the importance of their stories and lives. Ploughing the land was difficult for them but [I learnt] how much they enjoyed it. This is really important. When we can bring a tangible item from our past forward, it proves we own this land and it brings us closer to it. We need to protect this land that has been inherited to us, because this is the life of our parents and grandparents.
Such discussions may demonstrate to the next generation of Palestinians the value of “sumud” – steadfastness – in an area that is increasingly at risk. Ironically, the current threat of military practice within Firing Zone 918 is making young people return to the caves with their parents in greater numbers, as Taha Al-Omour, another of our young researchers, explains:
I am coming every day to stay with my father here in Al Majaz village, especially after the army started practising military training here. I cannot leave my parents in such conditions and stay in my home in Yatta city, even though I am looking for a more comfortable life that is unlike my parents’ hard life.
More than 200 young people now live permanently in the 12 Masafer Yatta villages within Firing Zone 918 – a significant increase from the recent past. Spaces have been created in each village to gather and sleep each night, in order to protect villagers from the threat of forced evictions and other harassment.
For generations, caves were the only homes for the people of Masafer Yatta, which is why there is such a strong connection to them. But these days, the caves play a further role as “safe spaces” – places to pass the traditions of the past to a new generation and to challenge the Israeli policy of expulsion. More than 200 caves in Masafer Yatta are still inhabited today, including by Abu Younis and her family:
Through the years, caves have enabled us to maintain life in Masafer Yatta’s villages and protected us from the occupation. Now, again, as our buildings and communities are being demolished, it is the last safe space for us. Not only do they protect us from the hot and cold weather, they protect us from harassment – so we will keep preserving them.
This story is part of Conversation Insights
The Insights team generates long-form journalism and is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects to tackle societal and scientific challenges.
Oxford archaeologists discover monumental evidence of prehistoric hunting across the Arabian desert.
They have found over 350 Monumental Hunting Structures labelled and since then known as ‘Kites’ In Northern Saudi Arabia And Southern Iraq Using Satellite Imagery.
Evidence of Prehistoric Hunting across Arabian Desert
Distribution of kite structures in the Levant and in northern Arabia. White: previously documented kites. Red: kites recorded by EAMENA.
Archaeologists at the University of Oxford’s School of Archaeology have used satellite imagery to identify and map over 350 monumental hunting structures known as ‘kites’ across northern Saudi Arabia and southern Iraq – most of which had never been previously documented.
Termed kites by early aircraft pilots, these structures consist of low stone walls making up a head enclosure and a number of guiding walls, sometimes kilometres long. They are believed to have been used to guide game such as gazelles into an area where they could be captured or killed. There is evidence that these structures may date back as far as 8,000 BCE in the Neolithic period.
Kites cannot be observed easily from the ground, however the advent of commercial satellite imagery and platforms such as Google Earth have enabled recent discoveries of new distributions. While these structures were already well-known from eastern Jordan and adjoining areas in southern Syria, these latest results take the known distribution over 400km further east across northern Saudi Arabia, with some also identified in southern Iraq for the first time.
Dr Fradley said: ‘The structures we found displayed evidence of complex, careful design. In terms of size, the ‘heads’ of the kites can be over 100 metres wide, but the guiding walls (the ’strings’ of the kite) which we currently think gazelle and other game would follow to the kite heads can be incredibly long. In some of these new examples, the surviving portion of walls run in almost straight lines for over 4 kilometres, often over very varied topography. This shows an incredible level of ability in how these structures were designed and built.’
Evidence suggests considerable resources would have had to be coordinated to build, maintain, and rebuild the kites over generations, combined with hunting and returning butchered remains to settlements or camps for further preservation. The researchers suggest that their exaggerated scale and form may be an expression of status, identity and territoriality. Appearances of the kites in rock art found in Jordan suggests they had an important place within the symbolic and ritual spheres of Neolithic peoples in the region.
From the design of the kite heads to the careful runs of guiding walls over long distances, these structures contrast markedly in scale with any other evidence of architecture from the early Holocene period. The researchers suggest that the builders of these kites dwelt in temporary structures made from organic materials that have left no trace visible on current satellite imagery data.
Desert kite research is a very active field just now – Michael and colleagues explore a significant extension to their distribution pattern, which has major implications for our understanding of the relationship of the kite builders with new mobile pastoralists and the occupation of the region.
Bill Finlayson, Director of EAMENA and Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Oxford
These new sites suggest a previously unknown level of connection right across northern Arabia at the time they were built. They raise exciting questions about who built these structures, who the hunted game were intended to feed, and how the people were able to not only survive, but also invest in these monumental structures.
In the context of this new connectedness, the distribution of the star-shaped kites now provides the first direct evidence of contact through, rather than around, the Nafud desert. This underlines the importance areas that are now desert had under more favourable climatic conditions in enabling the movement of humans and wildlife. It is thought the kites were built during a wetter, greener climatic period known as the Holocene Humid Period (between around 9000 and 4000 BCE).
The largest number of kites were built on the Al Labbah plateau in the Nafud desert, where the absence of later Bronze Age burial monuments suggests that a shift into a drier period meant some of these areas became too marginal to support the communities once using these landscapes, with game species also potentially displaced by climate change.
Whether the patterns of kite construction over space and time represent the movement of ideas or people, or even the direction of that movement, remain questions to be answered.
The project, supported by the Arcadia Fund, is now extending its survey work across these now arid zones to further develop our understanding of these landscapes and the effect of climate change.
The study Following the herds? A new distribution of hunting kites in Southwest Asia is published in The Holocene.
All MENA countries, derived from the XIX and early XX centuries, acquired this capability when policing their citizens, identifying any person protesting their government without due process. The same applies to interstate relations where transboundary resources and interests of any kind envenom and more often inflame situations. So, at this conjecture, is it not the opportune time to at least try unlocking a Peace Ministry in the Middle East?
Unlocking Peace Ministry in the Middle East: Announcing the Middle East Consultation 2022
Everything is affected whenever peace is missing. Absolutely everything! Conflict has a way of harming all areas of the human experience. We all know too well the pain and confusion undermining peace throughout our nations, our communities, and our own souls in regrettable ways. It disorients and forces us to grapple with the seemingly overwhelming gravity of sin and the depth of its consequences. For this reason, God really, really cares about peace.
Seeking peace is essential to God’s story for humanity. Scripture demonstrates the extent to which conflict infects a fallen world while also declaring the length God goes for the sake of peace. This didn’t happen without sacrifice; Jesus Christ endured the extreme weight of conflict as he hung on the cross. And it was on this journey to the cross that he shared eternal words with his disciples: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). This is a perplexing type of comfort. Jesus is perfectly aware that our hearts will face trouble and fear in an uncertain world, but he assures us that the only kind of peace that can suffice is an otherworldly peace. Because of this, we have hope amid the storms of strife.
It can feel like the Middle East invents ever creative ways to undermine peace as people across the region deal with struggling societies, mounting insecurities, dirty politics, violent factionalism, destructive ideologies, and wave after wave of crisis. The problems fill headlines and reports throughout ceaseless cycles of bad news. Residents struggle through chronic frustration and disillusion, and growing numbers are joining a migration outflow seeking better fortunes in new locations.
Christ followers across the Middle East face their own flavors of conflict. Egypt encounters layers of challenges as churches and Christian groups serve amid rapidly changing times. In Algeria churches struggle to forge faith communities against the grain of a suppressive government. Christians of Iraq continue to navigate decades-long strife while trying to nurture one another and serve their neighbors. In Palestine, occupation and oppression hinder the most basic areas of human life and fuel hardships of many kinds. Sudan’s believers are dealing with rapidly changing political situations after years of regime change and upheaval. And in Lebanon, new layers of crisis pile upon old, unresolved conflicts to destabilize a state and its people. Unfortunately, these are only brief samples of the range of conflict raging across the region. It can all seem so overwhelming, and in the darkest moments cries go out, “Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalms 10:1).
Though it doesn’t come easily, we must insist on recognizing the profound ways God’s people can and do faithfully minister peace amid challenging situations. Churches, organizations, and individuals of faith are ready vessels for extending Christ’s peace; they possess the potential by the Spirit to alter situations and write new stories for people and places. Is this not what it means to take hold of the peace that Christ leaves? This among the many questions the Middle East Consultation 2022 aims to ask on September 21-23 during Peace I Leave with You: Theories and Practices for Peace Ministry in the Middle East.
Practicing effective peace ministry requires us to imagine peace in ways that conform our thoughts and attitudes to the person of Christ in service of others. Biblically, peace ministry can be understood as the work of unlocking human potential by moving people, communities, and nations into healthier dynamics of shared life. Such outreach proceeds from deep convictions that the gospel is a holistic response to any situation where sin inflicts strife, oppression, hatred, and mistrust- everything antithetical to the restorative work of God.
Paradigms for peace ministry can help us recognize how peace involves multidimensional expressions (peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peacebuilding) working across levels of the human experience, including the personal, group, and national. The following grid, which MEC 2022 will adopt as a basic working framework, helps conceptualize this dynamic:
Such a framework is helpful, but it certainly cannot convey the complexity of engaging conflict. There are no simple explanations or quick solutions to the problems plaguing the Middle East. Each unique context in the region carries assorted variables that require us to ask a proper set of questions. Worldly logic may say peace is an elusive dream or unattainable ideal, but authentic faith in Christ compels us to take hold of the gospel’s promises of peace as we seek to discover how God is active and alive in the world. Our eschatological hope for the future moves us to action as we relish the words of Isaiah 9:7: There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore.
God is working through conflict for redemptive purposes, and everyone has a role to play in this. This means embracing the invitation to partner with God in living out Christ-honoring works of peace and continually exploring new ways to think about the theories and practices of peace ministry.
When Reuters reported that Europe is facing a sharp rise in power bills driven by sky-rocketing gas prices, and all governments are looking for convoluted ways of relieving their respective populations from any pains this coming winter, Atlantic Council comes up with why brown-to-green subsidy swaps in MENA are long overdue. However, MENA states may be able to meet their green ambitions.
Brown-to-green subsidy swaps in MENA are long overdue. Here’s why.
Despite the many improvements on many social, political, and economic fronts over the past few decades, there is significant work—in areas such as wasteful and socially unjust fossil fuel subsidies, air pollution and environmental degradation, youth unemployment, and gender inequalities—to be done in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. While there are significant inter-country or even intra-country variations regarding some of these issues, from a high-level macro perspective, one can identify strong links between these specific issues in the greater MENA.
$2.27 trillion. This is the amount of explicit fossil fuel subsidies paid by MENA governments between 2010 and 2020. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), MENA economies—led by Iran and Saudi Arabia—accounted for 50 percent of the world’s $4.57 trillion fossil fuel subsidy payments in this period (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Share in total global explicit fossil fuel subsidies between 2010 and 2020 (Percentage)
127,000. This is the number of annual pre-mature deaths in MENA related to ambient air pollution—around 7 percent of all deaths in the region. An important factor contributing to the region’s air pollution is the wasteful usage of fossil fuels, which is incentivized by massive fossil fuel subsidies in the region (Figure 2). Post-tax estimates of fossil fuel subsidies that take into account explicit and implicit costs—social, health, forgone taxation, and environmental costs—hover around 16 percent of the region’s GDP or about $5.4 trillion for the 2010-2020 period.
Figure 2. Change in energy use (kg of oil equivalent) per $1,000 GDP between 1990 and 2014
62 percent. This is the share of total fossil fuel subsidies households in the top two income quintiles receive in the MENA region. Fossil fuel subsidies are ineffective in reducing poverty and inequality and can, in fact, lead to more inequality and poverty in an economy by shrinking fiscal space of governments, increasing budget deficits, and heightening inflation rates.
According to a 2015 International Monetary Fund study, MENA households in the top quintile received about 40 percent of all fossil fuel subsidies, while only 9 percent of these subsidies reached those in the bottom quintile.
Fifteen out of one hundred. This is the share of MENA’s entire female population that have formal jobs. It must be noted that, in many MENA economies, women’s labor participation and employment in informal sectors are larger than the formal sector. Gender-related inequalities in many MENA countries represent themselves in many forms and have deep roots in the region’s culture. While there are significant inter-country variations—for example, female labor force participation rates between the ages of fifteen to sixty-four range from 6 percent in Yemen, to 23 percent in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, and 58 percent in Qatar—overall, the remaining cultural biases against female participation in the labor force and the type of industries and jobs deemed “appropriate” for women to work in have translated to significantly less employment opportunities for women, especially young women, across the region.
Only 10 percent of female youths participate in the formal labor market (Figure 4). Even then, 47 percent of female youth are without a job (Figure 5). In other words, only 5.3 percent of female youths in the MENA region are working compared to 30 percent of male youths (Figures 4 and 5). This is especially worrying, as women’s very low participation rate in MENA’s formal labor force—18 percent for females fifteen and above—has meant that less than half of the region’s adults actively participate in the region’s formal labor market. This creates a significant drag on the economy, especially as the region’s population ages in the next few decades.
Figure 4. Labor force participation rates by gender, MENA vs. World (Percentage), 2020.
Figure 5. Unemployment rates by gender, MENA vs. World (Percentage), 2020.
5.7 million. This is the number of net full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs that could have been created in MENA if half of the region’s 2010-2020 explicit fossil fuel subsidies was channeled to the renewable energy sector. Studies show that redirecting $1 million from fossil fuel subsidies towards the renewable energy sector will create five net FTE jobs in an economy. Considering MENA’s immense solar and wind potential, this number is on the conservative side for the region.
Therefore, if only half of 2010-2020 explicit pre-tax fossil fuel subsidies ($1.14 trillion) were directed towards subsidizing the renewable industry in the region, it could have created 5.7 million net jobs in the region over the past decade, according to my calculations. These millions of extra jobs would have been the jobs of the future: all green and the majority in high tech. This would have helped jump-start the region’s high-tech startups, employ the educated and tech-savvy youth of the region, and reduce overreliance on public sector employment. This is critical because, with limited revenues and rapidly rising populations—two-third of the region’s population is below the age of thirty-five—and expenditures, many governments in MENA—especially those in larger countries—have failed to keep up with the growing demands for jobs, resulting in high unemployment rates, especially among the youth.
Channeling all or a portion of fossil fuel subsidies towards the renewable energy sector—also known as brown-to-green subsidy swaps—will not only create much-needed jobs in the region, but will also promote energy efficiency and reduce air pollution and the many costs associated with it, including illnesses and premature deaths. The positive social effects of such massive job creation in MENA’s green and high-tech sector will also be significant. For one, the renewable energy industry is more gender equitable. Available data suggests that, globally, women account for 22 percent of the oil and gas industry workforce, while this number jumps to 32 percent in the renewable energy industry.
This impact would be more pronounced in MENA because almost the entire oil and gas industry in the region is male-dominated. Hence, subsidizing the oil and gas industry simply translates to subsidizing industries that are overwhelmingly male-dominant and less female-friendly, exacerbating and reinforcing the cultural barriers for female employment in the MENA region. Therefore, reducing fossil fuel subsidies and increasing the growth of the renewable energy sector in MENA would translate to even more employment opportunities for young women in the region compared to world averages.
Moreover, reducing fossil fuel subsidies would have tremendous savings for the MENA region in terms of environmental, health, and other implicit costs associated with subsidizing fossil fuel usage. For example, reducing 2010-2020 explicit fossil fuel subsidies by half would have resulted in about $2 trillion in savings for MENA economies—or about 6 percent of the region’s total economic output in 2010-2020.
Poorer households would be the major beneficiary of these savings; studies show that poorer populations depend more on the environment for their livelihood and shoulder the lion’s share of the health, economic, and environmental costs of fossil fuel subsidies.
Thus, in the medium to long run, reducing fossil fuel subsidies will benefit the poor much more than it can hurt them, leading to improvements in MENA’s increasing levels of multidimensional inequality. In the short run, any reforms to fossil fuel subsidies will lead to price increases across the economy, negatively impacting the poor. In response, governments must enact targeted social protection policies that would mitigate negative short-run impacts of fossil fuel subsidy reductions or removals.
To conclude, reforms in fossil fuel subsidies can help address many challenges and could result in many benefits for the MENA region. However, such reforms have faced serious obstacles in the region and have often led to social unrest and public resentment in various countries. Social unrest and violent protests in Iran in November 2019 and Lebanon in 2021 are cases in point. On the other hand, in 2006, Indonesia successfully eliminated most gasoline and diesel subsidies and channeled the resulting savings to finance economic and social development.
Considering their many environmental, economic, and social benefits, following Indonesia’s model of brown-to-green subsidy swaps could help reduce public resistance against such reforms, while also paving the path for a more energy-secure future in MENA and other regions. Of course, this will not be an easy reform process, but leaders in the MENA region must take it seriously and start looking into the details considering the specific political-economic environments of their countries.
Figure 6. Potential benefits of reducing/eliminating fossil fuel subsidies
Amin Mohseni-Cheraghlou is a macroeconomist with the GeoEconomics Center and an assistant professor of Economics at the American University in Washington. Follow him on Twitter: @AMohseniC.
Abdulmajeed Albalawi, smart city programme director at Madinah Regional Authority, explains how the Saudi Arabian city is harnessing innovation to not only solve urban challenges, but promote Madinah’s cultural and historical heritage to citizens and visitors alike.
Madinah’s status as a holy city means a lot of the activity in the city is centred around the Holy Mosque
Madinah is primarily known as a holy city – where do your smart city ambitions intersect with that identity?
Abdulmajeed Albalawi: We’re mainly focused on solving city challenges and improving quality of life for our citizens. In that way, there’s no contradiction between Madinah as a holy city and Madinah as a smart city. We see our smart city strategy as an enabler to meet the needs of the city and its people, and to create positive experiences for those people.
Our aim is to become more holistic and to introduce more tools that will serve our citizens. That extends to the holy elements of the city and people’s lives and will make the city more suitable for those needs.
Our objectives are to improve city life for all citizens and create new jobs and economic opportunities – for example, around start-ups and technology. These are the driving forces behind the projects that Madinah has taken on so far, and as we see it, one influences and helps to solve the other – improving quality of life leads to better opportunities and a better urban economy.
As part of this work, we’ve designed an engine to capture the challenges the city faces so we can more easily connect together the issues and needs with solutions, with a view to meeting our main objectives.
When are some of the primary challenges that Madinah is facing?
AA: We have challenges split into two sections – business and operational. In terms of business challenges, we’re aiming to reduce the unemployment rate in the city through the projects we launch, and improve the digital skills of the workforce as part of that.
On the operational side, we’re looking at how we break down siloes between departments and promote a more open mindset. It’s a clear challenge for a lot of cities that needs to be solved, and for Madinah we want to overcome it to ensure that everyone can work towards our smart city objectives in the right way.
We see our smart city strategy as an enabler to meet the needs of the city and its people, and to create positive experiences for those people
There are other challenges out in the city that we’re facing, too. Madinah’s status as a holy city means a lot of the activity in the city is centred around the Holy Mosque, both for residents and visitors from around the world. As a result, there is a constant flow of people in and around the mosque which we need to manage to cope with crowding in the centre of the city. To deal with this challenge, we have launched an incubator in partnership with universities, experts and start-ups from around the world.
The incubator will be dedicated to solving further urban challenges in Madinah, too, identifying and defining the issues being faced and then engaging in a continuous problem-solving process with experts to overcome them. It’s a unique proposition for the city to work in this way and to have potential solutions being recommended on a continual basis from international experts.
What kind of technology-based solutions is Madinah looking to deploy to solve these challenges to become a smarter city?
AA: Our technology partners are crucial in achieving our goals as a smart city. We’re currently working with FIWARE and using their technology to create our own smart city platform. Madinah is the first middle eastern city to make use of FIWARE’s platform. We chose FIWARE’s open platform because our objectives call for us to view Madinah from a ‘city as a system’ perspective, and to solve problems based on what the system is telling us.
The smart city strategy seeks to improve city life for all citizens and create new jobs and economic opportunities
There’s no contradiction between Madinah as a holy city and Madinah as a smart city, said Abdulmajeed Albalawi
We’re now creating our city as a system via the FIWARE platform, meaning we’re connecting the dots between Madinah’s services, operations and departments, and beginning to break down siloes to identify the right solutions to issues at the right time. We’re collecting data from all over the city and connecting it together to enable data analytics, which will be really important in how we work out the kinds of solutions we require.
The main benefit of breaking down these operational siloes is being able to better define issues and challenges, as we have much more context on the city and its operations as a whole. It’s crucial for Madinah to be able to work in this way, and the challenge with crowds at the holy mosque illustrate why; we need to understand where the problem originates so we can solve it at the source.
Another benefit is that Madinah’s city departments have been able to collaborate more often and more easily. In turn, that has meant we have been able to push towards our primary objectives more collectively.
Outside establishing the smart city platform through FIWARE’s technology, we’re now looking into smart lighting. We see connected streetlighting as the beginning of a nervous system for the city, able to gather data about the city and monitor pedestrian and traffic flow, as well as air quality. We’re also exploring how we can use the same infrastructure to promote messages and information to citizens through digital signage. The streetlights and all associated monitoring will feed back into the smart city platform to give us a more holistic view of the city and how it is operating.
We have recently signed an agreement to build a full-scale digital twin of Madinah using satellite imagery, becoming the first city in the Middle East to do so
Coming back to the crowd challenges around the holy mosque and the central area of the city, we’re also developing a simulator to model those crowds. We’re currently designing the model and later will deploy sensors in the city to gather data to be able to monitor crowds and simulate scenarios. This won’t necessarily be a full digital twin of the mosque, but will be a mirror for the movement within and around it, including parts of the city infrastructure and operations that have an impact on movement and crowding.
We have recently signed an agreement to build a full-scale digital twin of Madinah using satellite imagery, becoming the first city in the Middle East to do so. We’ll use the 3D model digital twin for urban planning, traffic management, crowd management and urban analytics across the entire city, not just the centre and the holy mosque. We anticipate that we’ll have a digital twin of the city in the next three months.
How can innovation help to protect and promote Madinah’s history and culture?
AA: Through all of this smart city work, it’s important that we also look to promote the city’s culture and history, so we’re assessing how we can use technology to bring that history back to life. Here, Madinah is looking to use a combination of augmented reality and digital twin technology to illustrate our history in a more dynamic and modern way, both for the benefit of citizens and visitors.
I think innovation is all about how to open doors to experiences and the city’s unknowns. Technology is a great enabler for Madinah’s heritage and culture and can help to show everyone in the city how its identity has developed to become what it is now. We’re not designing the city around technology, we’re designing it around experiences, and how those experiences can create stories to be shared among people. Madinah’s culture flows through that process and innovation just helps us to draw it out.
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