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.
Business Maverick tells us the Expats are leaving Dubai and that’s bad news for the economy
It’s a choice facing millions of foreigners across the Gulf as the fallout from the pandemic and a plunge in energy prices forces economic adjustments.
“Dubai is home for me,” said Sissons, who owned a small cafe and worked as a freelance human resources consultant. But “it’s expensive here and there’s no safety for expats. If I take the same money to Australia and we run out of everything, at least we’ll have medical insurance and free schooling.”It’s a choice facing millions of foreigners across the Gulf as the fallout from the pandemic and a plunge in energy prices forces economic adjustments. Wealthy Gulf Arab monarchies have, for decades, depended on foreign workers to transform sleepy villages into cosmopolitan cities. Many grew up or raised families here, but with no formal route to citizenship or permanent residency and no benefits to bridge the hard times, it’s a precarious existence.
The impact is starkest in Dubai, whose economic model is built on the presence of foreign residents who comprise about 90% of the population.
Oxford Economics estimates the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part, could lose 900,000 jobs — eye-watering for a country of 9.6 million — and see 10% of its residents uproot. Newspapers are filled with reports of Indian, Pakistani and Afghan blue-collar workers leaving on repatriation flights, but it’s the loss of higher earners that will have painful knock-on effects on an emirate geared toward continuous growth.
“An exodus of middle-class residents could create a death spiral for the economy,” said Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst at Stratfor. “Sectors that relied on those professionals and their families such as restaurants, luxury goods, schools and clinics will all suffer as people leave. Without government support, those services could then lay off people who would then leave the country and create more waves of exodus.”
With the global economy in turmoil, the decision to leave isn’t straightforward. Dubai residents who can scrape by will likely stay rather than compete with the newly unemployed back home. The International Labor Organization says more than 1 billion workers globally are at high risk of pay cuts or job losses because of the coronavirus.
Some Gulf leaders, like Kuwait’s prime minister, are encouraging foreigners to leave as they fret about providing new jobs for locals. But the calculation for Dubai, whose economy depends on its role as a global trade, tourism and business hub, is different.
The crisis will likely accelerate the UAE’s efforts to allow residents to remain permanently, balanced against the status of citizens accustomed to receiving extensive benefits since the discovery of oil. For now, the UAE is granting automatic extensions to people with expiring residence permits and has suspended work-permit fees and some fines. It’s encouraging local recruitment from the pool of recently unemployed and has pushed banks to provide interest-free loans and repayment breaks to struggling families and businesses.
A Dubai government spokesperson said authorities were studying more help for the private sector: “Dubai is considered home to many individuals and will always strive to do the necessary to welcome them back.”
Dubai’s main challenge is affordability. The city that built its reputation as a free-wheeling tax haven has become an increasingly costly base for businesses and residents. In 2013, Dubai ranked as the 90th most expensive place for expatriates, according to New York-based consultant Mercer. It’s now 23rd, making it the priciest city in the Middle East, though it slipped from 21st place in 2019 as rents declined due to oversupply.
Education is emerging as a deciding factor for families, especially as more employers phase out packages that cover tuition. Though there’s now a wider choice of schools at different price points, Dubai had the region’s highest median school cost last year at $11,402, according to the International Schools Database.
That will likely lead parents to switch to cheaper schools and prompt cuts in fees, according to Mahdi Mattar, managing partner at MMK Capital, an advisory firm to private equity funds and Dubai school investors. He estimates enrollments may drop 10%-15%.
Sarah Azba, a teacher, lost her job when social distancing measures forced schools online. That deprived her of an important benefit; a free education for her son. So she and the children are returning to the U.S., where her 14-year-old son will go to public school and her daughter to college. Her husband will stay and move to a smaller, cheaper home.“Separating our family wasn’t an easy decision but we had to make this compromise,” Azba said.
For decades, Dubai has thought big, building some of the world’s most expansive malls and tallest buildings. From the desert sprang neighborhoods lined with villas designed for expat families lured by sun and turbo-boosted, tax-free salaries. New entertainment strips popped up and world-class chefs catered to an international crowd. But the stress was building long before 2020. Malls were busy but shoppers weren’t spending as much. Residential properties were being built but there were fewer buyers. New restaurants seemed to cannibalize business from old.
The economy never returned to the frenetic pace it enjoyed before the 2008 global credit crunch prompted the last bout of expatriate departures. Then, just as it turned a corner, the 2014 plunge in oil prices set growth back again. The Expo 2020, a six-month exhibition expected to attract 25 million visitors, was supposed to be a reset; it’s now been delayed due to Covid-19.
Weak demand means recovery will take time. Unlike some Middle Eastern countries, the UAE isn’t seeing a resurgence in Covid-19 infections as it reopens, but its reliance on international flows of people and goods means it’s vulnerable to global disruptions.
Emirates Group, the world’s largest long-haul carrier, is laying off employees as it weighs slashing some 30,000 jobs, one of the deepest culls in an industry that was forced into near-hibernation. Dubai hotels will likely cut 30% of staff. Developers of Dubai’s man-made islands and tallest tower have reduced pay. Uber’s Middle East ride-hailing unit Careem eliminated nearly a third of jobs in May but said this week business was recovering.
Dubai-based Move it Cargo and Packaging said it’s receiving around seven calls a day from residents wanting to ship their belongings abroad. That compares with two or three a week this time last year. Back then, the same number of people were moving in too. Now, it’s all outward bound.
Marc Halabi, 42, spent the past week reluctantly sorting belongings accumulated over 11 years in Dubai. Boxes line the rooms as he, his wife and two daughters decide what to ship back to Canada. An advertising executive, Halabi lost his job in March. He’s been looking for work that would allow the family to remain but says he can’t afford to hold out any longer.
“I’m upset we’re leaving,” Halabi said. “Dubai feels like home and has given me many opportunities, but when you fall on hard times, there isn’t much help and all you’re left with is a month or two to pick up and move.”
In Carnegie Middle East Diwan write up by Armenak Tokmajyan and Walid al-Nofal in Beyond the Line in the Sand seems to have encapsulated a situation of contentious borders of the modern states. This article highlights the human down to earth life aspects that continue unabated for millennia.
Syria’s conflict has transformed the conditions of tribal clan notables who have sought refuge in Jordan.
The social fabric on both sides of the Syrian-Jordanian border has remained similar, notwithstanding the fact that a century has passed since the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the region between Britain and France. Communities on either side of the separation line remain similar, with extended families and clans (sub-tribes or ‘ashireh) dominating the social landscape. They remain linked by family and kinship ties, as well as shared customs and traditions.
But this so-called “line in the sand”—the boundary dividing British and French areas of control drawn during World War I—has also left its mark. Relations between tribal clans and their respective states differ markedly between Jordan and Syria, both in terms of their roles in the state-building process and the space that clan notables have been given to exercise traditional authority within their societies.
With the increasing levels of violence in Syria after 2011, many Syrians, especially from the border governorate of Dar‘a, sought refuge in Jordan. Statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees show that the largest concentration of refugees is located in Amman Governorate, Jordan’s economic heartland. The second-largest is present in the northwestern border areas of the kingdom, which resemble nearby parts of Syria in their climate, geography, and even architecture. Not only is the environment similar, but many Jordanian and Syrian families have family ties and relationships from before the conflict. This helped Syrians integrate into Jordanian society after they had fled Syria.
After settling in Jordan, many refugees found that the state’s relationship with clans were different than what they had encountered in Syria. Throughout the decades of Ba‘th Party rule, the Syrian state sought to weaken tribal clan authority. Half a century of such policies prior to the uprising, along with changing ways of life, gradually reduced the role of clan notables. Still, the state used what remained of these notables’ influence for its own ends. For example, it took advantage of their authority to contain and resolve major disputes between large families and keep the peace in rural peripheries of the country.
Jordan’s tribal clans, in turn, face few of the restraints and pressures experienced by their Syrian counterparts. Instead, they remain a major power center with considerable authority and influence in the kingdom. Tribal tradition plays a crucial role in Jordanian society despite growing opposition to it. Even today, the king derives some of his legitimacy from his status as the leader of the kingdom’s tribal leaders, a historical legacy dating back to Jordan’s foundation. Despite rare bumps in ties between the state and tribal clans, especially for economic reasons, these relationships have remained essential for the stability of Hashemite rule.
The new reality in Jordan makes some Syrian notables claim that there is more respect for the clan in Jordan than in Syria. Indeed, in Jordan tribal traditions and customs similar to those in Syria are more widely practiced. This continues to strengthen the clans’ traditional authority, which gives them positions of leadership with judicial, customary, and even political roles as intermediaries between their communities and the state—far more than in Syria.
The situation in Syria has brought about deep changes in the relationship between state and society, including with clan notables. Early on in 2011, notables in Dar‘a broke with their traditional roles and were at the forefront of anti-regime protests when Brigadier General ‘Atif Najib, the head of the Political Security Directorate in Dar‘a, humiliated notables who had gone to seek the release of children arrested and tortured for writing anti-regime slogans. This is widely seen as the incident that sparked the uprising.
Tribal customs remained, and perhaps were strengthened, amid the absence of state institutions in Syria. As a result, some known personalities lost their social status as notables, while others turned the crisis into an opportunity. They gained authority and prominence within their extended families and clans and became new intermediaries with the state. These transformations are ongoing and the political role of clan notables in Syrian society today has yet to become clear. For now, many seem to have lost the roles they played before the uprising, becoming rivals and targets of the state.
The lives of Syrian clan notables in Jordan differ greatly from their lives before the uprising and from the situation of Syrians who are living in Dar‘a today. Many certainly face the hardships of being refugees and do not enjoy the same privileges as their Jordanian counterparts. Yet they live in a sociopolitical environment in which they are able to exercise their traditional authority more widely over their communities and without the fear of being targeted by the state. In that sense, despite living in exile, they are in a more favorable social and political setting than where they had been.
(Ethnic Media Services) — For generations, millions of Americans whose roots lie in the Middle East and North Africa — MENA — have essentially become invisible people because the Census Bureau has denied requests for their own racial category.
“Legally, in America, I’m classified as white,” says Dr. Hamoud Salhi, associate dean of the College of Natural and Behavioral Sciences, CSU-Dominguez Hills. “I was born in Algeria, which is part of Africa, so technically I could declare myself as African American, but I can’t.”
Palestinian-American Loubna Qutami, a President’s postdoctoral fellow at U.C. Berkeley specializing in ethnic studies, says that since MENA doesn’t have a classification of its own, it legally falls under the white category.
MENA populations have their own specific needs for health care, education, language assistance, and civil rights protection, but they have no way to advocate for themselves because numerically they are folded into the category of white Americans.
To change this, Dr. Salhi, Dr. Qutami, and other MENA leaders have been mobilizing their communities to participate in the 2020 census, encouraging people to write in their ethnicity. They spoke with other experts and activists on a May 13 two-hour video conference organized by Ethnic Media Services on the historical, linguistic and political challenges that make the MENA population among the hardest to count in California.
Geographically, MENA populations live on three continents — from the border of Afghanistan south to the tip of Africa — and in 22 nations in the Middle East alone, with numerous subgroups such as Kurds, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Armenians.
“North Africa is actually a concept that the French gave to Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, which they colonized,” says Dr. Salhi. The neighboring countries of Egypt and Libya were added later.
Because of their shared Arabic language and Islamic religion, people in the United States from North Africa were lumped together with people of the Middle East to form the MENA acronym.
For decades, the Census Bureau has turned down requests to add MENA to the official category of races, currently white, black or African American, American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian American and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander.
The result, says Dr. Qutami, artificially props up the white population count, which has been in decline, while suppressing the count of MENA residents who don’t identify themselves as white. According to the 2015 Census Bureau’s “National Content Test – Race and Ethnicity Report, “As expected, the percent reporting as White is significantly lower with the inclusion of a distinct MENA category when compared to treatments with no MENA category.”
California mirrors the challenge to the MENA population of geographic size and diversity, says Emilio Vaca, deputy director of the state’s Complete Count Committee, which directs census outreach. The Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey reported that 11 million of California’s 40 million residents, about 27 percent, are immigrants.
“That’s equivalent to the entire state of Georgia,” Vaca emphasized. At home, most of those immigrants speak one or more of 200 languages other than English.
Homayra Yusufi, from the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, broke down the face of diversity in just one San Diego neighborhood that her organization serves: “We have 45 different national origins — from MENA, Asia and Latin America — who speak more than 100 languages in the 6.5-mile City Heights district, a distinct community of refugees and immigrants.” Educating and motivating these groups to participate in the census is a way to engage them in the civic life of the wider city.
Historical necessity — what specific immigrant groups have done to survive — also plays a role in the MENA undercount. Up until the mid-20th century, only whites could own property, and only “free white immigrants” could become American citizens.
To survive and advance, Middle Eastern immigrants successfully petitioned the federal courts to be allowed to identify themselves as white in 1920. North African immigrants, as members of the MENA population, got pulled along and found themselves legally classified as white as well.
The discriminatory policy for citizenship and property ownership favoring whites-only ended with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. But even then, MENA communities found it difficult to raise funds and mobilize calls for action to address their needs. They didn’t know where their fellow compatriots were located and couldn’t raise official numbers to request funds and resources.
“We were helpless. In many instances, we had to generate our own data,” says Dr. Qutami.
Over the years, the Census Bureau has never clearly answered why they’ve refused to include the MENA classification, despite concluding, in a 2017 report, that “the inclusion of a MENA category helps MENA Respondents to more accurately report their MENA identities.”
The bureau again turned down the 2018 request for the 2020 census. Karen Battle, chief of the bureau’s population division, announced in a public meeting on census preparations that “We do feel that more research and testing is needed.”
MENA advocates believe filling out the 2020 census is the only way to avoid another undercount. Without doing this, Yusui says, “our communities will continue to be invisible and left in the margins because data really matters.”
Gaining services customized to MENA’s needs is only part of what’s at stake. So, too, argues Yusufi, is building power. MENA populations then can elect individuals “who reflect the needs of our communities and hold lawmakers accountable” when they stigmatize MENA communities.
Kathay Feng of the nonpartisan watchdog Common Cause emphasized that participation in the census is the first step to representation. In America, resources and rights are accorded by representation based on the number of residents at all levels, from the state down to the municipality, in proportion to the total population.
“Everyone is counted, regardless of immigration status or whether they are registered voters or not,” Feng said, “because all residents pay taxes in one way or another, and most immigrants would eventually become citizens in the long run.”
Every 10 years, immediately after the decennial census submits population data, electoral districts are redrawn. In California, which has been at the forefront of redistricting reforms, the old practice of allowing legislators to draw district lines based on which populations are sure to vote them back into office — known as gerrymandering — was replaced in 2009 by independently selected commissioners. Nine other states have followed California’s lead.
But, Feng emphasized, to be effective and to ensure their voices are heard, residents have to be engaged at the local level. And this year, there is a danger that anti-immigrant forces will restrict the residents who count in redistricting to voters only.
“In the city of El Cajon, San Diego, we faced a lot of discrimination, especially when the Syrian refugees arrived. Our children got bullied in school but the schools didn’t want to adopt any bullying policy because we don’t have representation,” said Dilkhwaz Ahmed, executive director of License to Freedom. “Representation is very important to us as a Kurdish community, as refugees, and as immigrants.”
Emilio Vaca is optimistic that California can meet the undercount challenge: “As of May 11, California has a self-response rate of 59.6 percent, which is above the national average of 58 percent.” This is all the more impressive, Vaca noted, given how the pandemic has affected outreach.
Many of the speakers on the call testified to the ongoing efforts to shift to virtual outreach and “drive by” caravans and taking the census to where the people are.
“We had a food bank event for the Middle Eastern and Muslim community in south Sacramento that attracted more than 2,000 families who came by cars, and we actually engaged with them about the census in every single car,” said Basim Elkarra, executive director of CAIR in Sacramento. “Many were recent refugees.”
The 2020 census form doesn’t include the MENA racial category, but Question 9 allows respondents to write in “MENA” and their specific ethnicities such as Lebanese, Palestinian, Algerian or Kurd.
Being visible in the 2020 census, the speakers agreed, will lay the foundation for the next few MENA generations to build on what this generation has started.
This article originally published in the May 25, 2020 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.
The Peninsula, Qatar’s Daily Newspaper of 21 May 2020 reports that ILO lauds Qatar’s efforts to protect health, rights of domestic workers. Qatar has about2.6 million inhabitants as of early 2017, the majority of whom (about 92%) live in Doha, the capital. Foreign workers amount to around 88% of the population, with Indians being the largest community numbering around 1,230,000. It will host the Football World Cup of 2022.
Doha: The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has lauded the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs (MADLSA) for launching SMS campaign to protect health and rights of domestic workers during COVID-19 crisis.
The series of messages in 12 languages was developed by the MADLSA with the support of the ILO Project Office for the State of Qatar, Migrant-Rights.org and the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), said ILO in a report on its official website.
The messages provide helpful tips not only on how to prevent COVID-19 transmission but also how to protect the health and rights of domestic workers at home during this challenging period.
“Domestic workers play an essential role in ensuring the health and safety of the families for which they work, from cleaning and cooking, to supporting teleworking parents, caring for children, the ill and the elderly,” said ILO Technical Specialist Alix Nasri.
“It is vital that they have access to up-to-date information on COVID-19 precautionary measures in languages they understand. At the same time this campaign reaches out to employers so they support the health and welfare of domestic workers in their homes during the COVID-19 lockdown, when their services are being so heavily relied upon.” Messages for domestic workers include basic information on the symptoms of COVID-19 and what to do if they have symptoms, advice on hygiene and sanitation, sending money home via online services as well as keeping in touch with family back home.
There is also information reminding domestic workers of their rights and responsibilities – at all times – according to Qatar’s Law No. 15 of 2017 on domestic work. Messages for employers highlight the need to support the mental and emotional health as well as physical well-being of domestic workers. There are reminders about domestic workers’ rights relating to working hours, rest periods, days off, and the importance of being paid on time. Employers are also encouraged to help domestic workers open bank accounts and transfer their salary online, as well as provide access to the internet and other forms of communication.
Director of MADLSA Recruitment Department, Fawaz Al Rayis stressed the importance of reaching out to domestic workers and their employers. “Raising awareness about precautionary measures, providing useful advice, and recalling rights and obligations is key to ensuring both domestic workers and employers are protected during this pandemic. This campaign is an effective way to quickly and widely share important information with domestic workers and their employers, similarly to what has been done in other sectors,” said Al Rayis.
Humans are amazing creatures, in that they have shown they can live in almost any climate. Think of the Inuit who live in the Arctic or the Bedouins in the deserts of North Africa. But a new study suggests humans, like any animal or plant, have a preferred climate or environmental niche in which they thrive – and climate change will shift billions of people out of this comfort zone.
For now, Climate change does not seem that high enough on the agenda of most countries of the MENA region and yet if there were a region that is closer to the hearth, it is this region as illustrated b this map of the world.
Mark Maslin, UCL asks “Will three billion people really live in temperatures as hot as the Sahara by 2070?” Here is his reply.
The study, published in the journal PNAS, was written by international team of scientists led by Chi Xu of Nanjing university. They first showed that for the past 6,000 years a majority of people have lived in regions where the average annual temperature has always been between 11˚C (roughly equivalent to London’s climate) and 15˚C (Rome or Melbourne).
Future climate change will affect this average temperature, and at its most extreme would mean 3.5 billion people would be outside their current climate niche. In fact one in three of us would experience annual average temperatures of more than 29˚C – a climate currently experienced by humans in only a handful of the hottest desert settlements.
The human niche
At the centre of this thought experiment is the concept of the human “climate niche”, or the environmental range in which modern humans thrive. And this range has changed over time. As humans evolved from primates in Africa, our ancestors’ climate niche was controlled by their own physiology. Modern humans are most comfortable between 21˚C and 27˚C, and our ancestors lived in regions of Africa with this average annual temperature.
But this climate range then expanded massively as early humans learned to domesticate fire, to store and transport drinking water, and to make clothes and build shelters. As I found in my own research, these developments eventually allowed us to settle on every continent except Antarctica.
Our climate niche narrowed again with the invention of agriculture, starting around 10,000 years ago. The domestication of animals and plants occurred at the end of the ice age and appeared independently in at least ten places round the world including Asia, the Americas, and Africa. From each of these areas the new agriculturalists spread out, competing with the indigenous hunter-gathers and pushing them on to marginal lands. Today, 75% of the world’s food is generated from 12 plants and five animal species that were domesticated during this first wave.
As the agriculturalists expanded from the warmer regions into more temperate lands, their productivity increased significantly. Increased food production led to an expansion of the human population and hence the modelled human climate niche follows where our domesticated crops and animals thrive.
A more detailed look at the new PNAS paper reveals that today there are in fact two distinct human climate niches with two populations peaks between 11-15˚C and 20-25˚C. The latter is largely down to the huge populations who live in the extremely fertile SE Asia monsoon regions.
Our future climate niche
As climate change warms up the planet, the average annual temperature of each region will increase. The new study suggests that extreme climate change would mean 3.5 billion people theoretically would have to move if they wanted to remain under the same climate range as today. Even if strong climate policies were to keep global temperature increase to 2˚C they argue that 1.5 billion people would still theoretically have to move.
What is disappointing about this study is that the focus is mainly on the worst case scenario, which due to changes in energy generation and efficiency is thankfully no longer realistic.
If you dive into the 23 pages of the supplementary material the authors have looked at other future scenarios where global warming is less severe, but who does this except science geeks like me? I would have expected a more balanced presentation, especially as more realistic warming scenarios are still scary enough.
The study also does not take account of the dynamic and adaptable nature of human technology and society. As the climate zones shift it will be possible to transfer the knowledge of societies currently living under a warmer climate to the new region.
Constraints on outside work
The study does, however, make an important point about food security. Half of the world’s food is produced by smallholder farms with most of the energy input from physical labour carried out by the farmers.
As the world warms there will be more and more days when it will be physically impossible to work outside, reducing productivity and food security. Climate change has already created areas of the world where heat and humidity are too severe for humans to tolerate. The Lancet climate commission has shown that more than 150 billion work hours were lost in 2018 due to extreme temperature and humidity. This could double or even quadruple depending on how many people stay working in rural agriculture.
Reservations aside, this is a brilliant thought experiment. Using the historic and current human climate niches shows us just how many people in the world, between 1.5 and 3.5 billion, will be shifted out of their current climate range due to global warming. It also highlights that the people most affected by shifting climate zones are the poorest and those that most rely on food that is produced by smallholders working outside.
ZAWYA’s ECONOMY on 7 May 2020, elaborated on IMF reveals how COVID-19 could disrupt Arab economies. Here is how the COVID-19 pandemic by bringing unprecedented challenges, and strict lockdowns in some parts of the MENA region, could make it even worse for those petro-economies of the Gulf, the obvious object of this article.
Governments responded quickly to the pandemic and Arab youth will play a major role in economic recovery.
The Arab economies are facing a multi-level shock from COVID-19 despite the prompt responses by many governments in the region, the regional head of the International Monetary Fund has stated.
Low oil prices will not only further distress producers but will also impact non-oil Arab economies, said Dr Jihad Azour, Director of the Middle East and Central Asia Department at the IMF.
“Starting with long-term structural problems, Arab countries will have difficulties addressing the direct impact of the ongoing slowdown,” said Dr. Azour, adding that one thing that helps in the recovery in Arab countries is that they have young populations.
Two-thirds of the Arab population in the region is less than 30 years old, and this human capital advantage would play a key role in speeding up the regional economic recovery in the post-COVID19 market, he said.
Dr Azour expects Arab countries to continue their technology adoption programs as the economic recovery would depend on the efficiency of such initiatives.
What is needed, he noted, are dedicated efforts to implement what Arab governments and international organizations know are essential reforms to the structure and emphasis of Arab economies.
Oil producers in the Arab world should continue their economic diversification drive, he said, adding that ongoing COVID-19 pandemic should prompt countries in the Middle East and North Africa to focus on public health and social security. “The countries must work towards reducing trade barriers, decreasing financial vulnerability and avoiding high costs of armed conflicts.”
Dr Azour was answering questions in a webinar last night hosted by Khalil E. Jahshan, who is the executive director of Arab Center Washington DC.
In Tuesday’s IMF podcast on Arab economies, Dr. Azour said all countries in the region were affected by the COVID19-led economic crisis and most of them have introduced a certain number of measures to protect life and livelihoods and also to protect certain sectors in the economy.
“Most challenging moments”
“If we compare to the last hundred years, this is one of the most challenging moments in economic history for both Central Asia Caucuses as well as also for the Middle East and North African countries,” he said.
The IMF’s Middle East head believes the oil exporting countries in the Arab world will face the impact of the shock on their revenues and fiscal situation.
Countries with ample buffers could use them to mitigate some of the repercussions of the shock, but the economic management is going to be more complicated for the nations with less buffers. Oil importing countries will be impacted due the fluctuations in the levels of remittances, capital flows and investment coming from the oil producers, he said.
During the Arab Center webinar, Dr. Azour also provided some global perspective on the impact of COVID19 pandemic.
The current economic crisis caused by COVID19 is not like that of 2008-2009 since it has precipitated a deeper and wider shock to the economies of individual countries as well as to the international economy at large, he said.
What also specifically differentiates the current economic crisis is the degree and level of uncertainty associated with it. He said the international community and organizations knew what instigated the 2008 financial crisis; however, the severity and impact of the current one remains unknown, thus addressing its effects is still indeterminable.
He stressed that the IMF’s current policy, which includes loans and advisory services, is to give breathing space so that “emerging economies and low-income countries are not left behind” in this period.
He predicted that there will be a new globalization effort that may try to address the deficiencies of the former international economy. The international economy, he argued, will have to determine how to address challenges to growth and to make sure that this growth is equitable between low income and developed countries.
(Reporting by Atique Naqvi; editing by Seban Scaria)
Associated Press on May 03, 2020, released this account on Hard-to-count Arab Americans Urged to Prioritize Census. It is about an easy to notice a change in the US population that is taking time to translate into an administratively operational procedure of systematically acquiring and recording information about the members of the newly established community originating mainly from the Middle East.
DEARBORN, MICH. – At a Michigan gas station, the message is obvious — at least to Arabic speakers: Be counted in the 2020 census.
“Provide your community with more/additional opportunities,” the ad on the pump handle reads in Arabic. In the fine print, next to “United States Census 2020,” it adds: “To shape your future with your own hands, start here.”
As state officials and nonprofit groups target hard-to-count groups like immigrants, people of color and those in poverty, many Arab Americans say the undercount is even more pronounced for them. That means one of the largest and most concentrated Arab populations outside the Middle East — those in the Detroit area — could be missing out on federal funding for education, health care, crime prevention and other programs that the census determines how to divvy up.
That also includes money to help states address the fallout from the Coronavirus.
“We are trying to encourage people not just to fill it out because of all the reasons we had given before, where there’s education and health care and all of that, but also because it is essential for the federal government to know who is in Michigan at this point more than ever before,” said Rima Meroueh, director of policy and advocacy with Dearborn-based ACCESS, one of the largest Arab American advocacy nonprofits in the country.
The Arab American community checks many boxes that census and nonprofit officials say are hallmarks of the hardest-to-count communities: large numbers of young children, non-English speakers, recent immigrants and those who often live in multifamily or rental housing.
Arabs arrived en masse to the U.S. as the auto industry ramped up and worker demand grew. By the time those jobs began to decline in more recent decades, communities with strong Middle Eastern cultural roots had been firmly established in the Detroit area. It has remained a destination for people from across the Middle East fleeing conflict, reconnecting with family or simply seeking a better life. Even those who resettle elsewhere often first make their way to Detroit and surrounding cities.
Advocates have pressed ahead with “get out the count” campaigns despite restrictions designed to curb COVID-19. The pandemic has forced the Census Bureau to push back its deadline for finishing the 2020 count from the end of July to the end of October. It’s also asking Congress for permission to delay deadlines next year for giving census data to the states so they can draw new voting maps.
With the changes, ACCESS is stepping up its social media effort, mirroring it to focus as much on the once-a-decade count as their offices, which had been plastered with census posters, Meroueh said.
“If you check out our social media, it’s very census-heavy,” she said.
But groups face a hurdle after the Trump administration decided not to include a category that counts people from the Middle East or North Africa as their own group. The Census Bureau recommended the so-called MENA box in 2017 after years of research and decades of advocacy.
The decision to scrap the choice angers many Arab Americans, who say it hinders representation and needed funding. Democratic U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, an Arab American representing part of Detroit and several suburbs, expressed her displeasure while questioning Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham on Capitol Hill in February.
“The community did it right — they went through the process,” she said. “You’re making us invisible.”
Dillingham said the form would have a write-in box, allowing people to describe their ethnicity. It falls short for Tlaib, but Matthew Jaber Stiffler, a University of Michigan lecturer and research and content manager at the Arab American National Museum, said it’s better than nothing. Advocates will have to push harder to get people counted, he said.
“The onus is on community organizations, and local and state governments to get the people to complete the form, because it doesn’t say, ‘Are you Middle Eastern or North African?'” Stiffler said. “We’ll get really good data if enough people fill it out.”
Even though the MENA option isn’t there, Stiffler says census officials did preparatory work for it. If someone writes “Syrian” on their form, for instance, Stiffler has been told that the census will code that within the larger MENA ancestry group.
That’s precisely what Abdullah Haydar did when he filled out his census form electronically, which he said took five minutes.
“I definitely filled it out as soon as I got it. I believe in representation,” said Haydar, a 44-year-old from Canton Township, Michigan, who works in LinkedIn’s software engineering department.
But support for the census isn’t unanimous. Some in the Arab community have raised concerns about government questions over their citizenship status if they participate, though that is not part of the form. Many have reported extra scrutiny since the Trump administration issued a ban on travelers from several predominantly Muslim countries in 2017 — creating an overall chilling effect when it comes to interacting with the government.
“They don’t trust the current administration. They don’t trust what they’re going to do with the information. And when you look at the the so-called Muslim ban that was put in, people don’t want to be on the government’s radar,” said Haydar, who assisted some elderly relatives in filling out their forms.
“I just told them, ‘Look, yes, there may be abuses. There’s always a risk of that. This administration seems to be pushing boundaries. But at the end of the day, this is the basis of our system of government, for people to count,'” he said.
The continued sharp decline in working conditions due to the Covid-19 outbreak means that nearly half of the global workforce stand for having their livelihoods changed to the worse, warns the International Labour Organization. In effect, workers of all countries’ informal economy are the most vulnerable of the global workforce, without welfare protection or access to good healthcare. All MENA region countries especially the heavily populated ones tend to have large informal economies. North Africa and countries of the Levant literally owe it to these workers for their citizens’ daily life. These workers, accounting for more than half of all manpower handle more than 40% of the economies of their respective countries. But let us hear the ILO addressing the issue as reported by the WEF, i.e. nearly half the global workforce at risk of losing their livelihood.
The International Labour Organization has warned that nearly half the global workforce are at immediate risk of losing their livelihood because of coronavirus.
Informal workers are at particular risk as they lack welfare protection, access to healthcare, or means to work from home.
Some 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy, representing nearly half of the global labour force, are in immediate danger of losing their livelihoods due to the coronavirus pandemic, the International Labour Organization (ILO) said on Wednesday.
The U.N. agency’s latest report sharply raised its forecast for the devastating impact on jobs and incomes of the COVID-19 disease, which has infected more than 3.1 million people globally, killed nearly 220,000 and shut down economies.
“It shows I think in the starkest possible terms that the jobs employment crisis and all of its consequences is deepening by comparison with our estimates of 3 weeks ago,” ILO Director-General Guy Ryder told a briefing, foreseeing a “massive” poverty impact.
Already, wages of the world’s 2 billion informal workers plunged by an estimated global average of 60% in the first month that the crisis unfolded in each region, the ILO said.
Informal workers are the most vulnerable of the 3.3 billion global workforce, lacking welfare protection, access to good healthcare, or the means to work from home, it stressed.
“For millions of workers, no income means no food, no security and no future. Millions of businesses around the world are barely breathing,” said Ryder. “They have no savings or access to credit. These are the real faces of the world of work. If we don’t help them now, they will simply perish.”https://open.spotify.com/embed-podcast/episode/6jNDKwt8zdtcQn8sWLBeVi
‘Protect the vulnerable’
The ILO said prolonged lockdowns and office and plant closures are now expected to lead to an “even” worse fall in total working hours worldwide in the second quarter than what was forecast just three weeks ago.
Worst-hit sectors are manufacturing, accommodation and food services, wholesale and retail trade, and real estate and business activities.
Total working hours in the second quarter are expected to be 10.5 per cent lower, equivalent to 305 million full-time jobs, than the last pre-crisis quarter, the ILO said, with biggest declines forecast for the Americas, Europe and Central Asia.
The previous ILO estimate on April 7 was that disruptions would wipe out labour equivalent to the effort of 195 million workers, or 6.7% of hours clocked worldwide.
About 436 million enterprises – businesses or self-employed – face “high risks” of disruption, the agency added.
The long-term panorama was unclear.
“The eventual increase in global unemployment over 2020 will depend substantially on how the world economy fares in the second half of the year and how effectively policy measures will preserve existing jobs and boost labour demand once the recovery phase begins,” it said.
As governments splurge unprecedented cash to counteract the crisis, the ILO urged them to speed procedures for unemployment benefits, extend support to independent workers, and fast-track small and informal businesses’ access to credit and loans.
“As the pandemic and the jobs crisis evolve, the need to protect the most vulnerable becomes even more urgent,” Ryder added.Share
. . . their authoritarian controls and surveillance as per Matthew Hedges, Durham University who elaborates on how the Gulf states use coronavirus threat to tighten authoritarian controls and surveillance. To help put things in their context and, before going into the author’s, here are in a few words, some details of recent happenings.
The Reporters Without Borders (RSF) treated the North African region as made of states accustomed to a lower ranking in its yearly World Press Freedom Index. Thus, in terms of press freedom, Saudi Arabia which still drags the story of Khashoggi, Iran, Egypt or Iraq did not reach their expected levels. Algeria’s ranking, which registers the largest decline in the North African region, responds to not only a conflicting political and social context but also to the recent prevailing lock-down. That situation has been characterised, through a yearlong peoples’ movement, by a campaign of intimidation and pressure on journalists, some of whom have been arrested for their coverage of popular demonstrations. These attacks on press freedom have also recently targeted online media that have been censored in disguise through a proper blockade by the authorities. This is the case of Maghreb Emergent made inaccessible for a few days to the Algerian public. These are “liberticide” procedures. In this regional picture, which is representative of the rest, Tunisia, which retains its 72nd position, is first in the MENA region.
Governments across the Middle East have moved to upgrade their surveillance capabilities under the banner of combatting COVID-19, the disease linked to the new coronavirus.
Overtly repressive policies have been commonplace across the Middle East for years, notably in Egypt, Iraq and Syria, where violent measures have been taken to control populations.
As a result of technological advances, an increase in political engagement and changes of leadership, the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – have also upgraded their form of authoritarianism in recent years. This has seen policies of partial economic liberalisation and market-based reforms used to obscure an increase in repression and surveillance, for example by containing the work of civil society groups.
Following the pattern in which authoritarian states tend to exploit common threats, some of the GCC states are now manipulating the current pandemic to enhance their social power and control – as I’ve explored in a recent article as part of a contribution for the Project on Middle East Political Science at George Washington University.
In Dubai, nationwide curfews have been put in place and enforced by the security services and surveillance. Authorities in the UAE have also introduced criminal penalties for the dissemination of information about the virus deemed to be false. Meanwhile, Bahrain introduced electronic tags for patients who had tested positive for COVID-19. In Saudi Arabia, people have been arrested for violating strict curfew laws.
Beijing’s recent admission that more people had died than originally reported in Wuhan, the original epicentre of the pandemic, shows the fragile nature of information and truth within authoritarian states. Likewise, it’s difficult to assess the scale of who has been affected so far across the GCC. According to official government statistics as of April 21, there were 10,484 reported cases in Saudi Arabia and 103 deaths from COVID-19. The UAE had reported 7,265 cases and 43 deaths, Qatar 6,105 ases and nine deaths and Kuwait 2,080 cases and 11 deaths.
China’s handling of its own early COVID-19 whistleblowers showed how authoritarian states often react promptly to the dissemination of news which could undermine their authority. Of course, the curtailing of “fake news” during this time is important to prevent hysteria and panic.
But from my own experience of being forcibly detained for six months and falsely accused of spying charges in the UAE, I know full well how these laws can be abused and twisted for ulterior purposes. The real test will be to see if all of these preventative laws are relaxed once the pandemic is under control.
The inherent weaknesses of GCC states are also being further exposed through this pandemic. GCC citizens only inadvertently hold the power of accountability over their monarchies, due to the lack of formal political mechanisms that generate and provide legitimacy in democracies. In essence, the monarchs hold power until they don’t.
In response, Middle Eastern states have introduced programmes in recent years that emphasise cultural traditions in an attempt to further centralise power using key figures within their regime. A recent anti-corruption drive in Saudi Arabia, which climaxed with the Ritz-Carlton incident in which more than 30 elite figures were detained in a luxury hotel, highlighted the ascendancy of Mohammed Bin Salman, the crown prince.
In the UAE, the security state has been intensified through the creation of conscription programmes which emphasise national identity under the patronage of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
Central to the current messaging around COVID-19 is the heightened value of “purity” within the nation. This notion has been promoted through the prism of the family, with the region’s rulers extending the meaning to include the nation in an attempt to retain cohesiveness. In the current context, for example, only one member of a family is allowed to pick up food during the lockdown in some Gulf states, and there have been greater protections imposed for nationals than non-nationals, many of whom have been deported.
But this comes at a moment when the so-called purity of the family unit is under threat as dowry costs, marriages to foreigners and divorce rates are all increasing across the GCC. This has helped maintain a heightened significance of the family within GCC politics. As a result, issues such as homosexuality, marriage to foreigners and now even COVID-19 are seen as a threat which has the potential to dilute the national gene pool.
The GCC states are also capitalising on a new vein of conservative nationalism across the region that is highly personalised and driven by security concerns. An era of assertive foreign policy from Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha is now playing out as a matter of principle and survival. As a result, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have fortified their political and military engagements. Their closer ties with regional players such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar and pro-government Yemeni forces have helped keep these conflicts alive within a reduced footprint.
Back home, the GCC states have exploited the underlying threats of the virus to bolster their own survival strategies. In the past, authoritarian states such as the former Soviet Union often relied on crude illustrations of force alongside state propaganda. But the modern authoritarians in the GCC take a more co-optive route to manage their populations. They have been able to enact policies which undermine civil liberties, perpetuating their current political designs and generating no protest from their populations. So it’s crucial to understand how these practices are maintained, why they have the population’s consent, and upon what basis they will continue to be applied.
As the coronavirus pandemic hits jobs and wages in many sectors of the global economy that depend on migrants, a slowdown in the amount of money these workers send back home to their families looks increasingly likely. These international remittances will be crucial in transmitting the unfolding economic crisis in richer countries to poorer countries. They will fundamentally shape how, and the pace at which, the world recovers from coronavirus.
Remittances shelter a large number of poor and vulnerable households, underpinning the survival strategies of over 1 billion people. In 2019, an estimated 200 million people in the global migrant workforce sent home US$715 billion (£571 billion). Of this, it’s estimated US$551 billion supported up to 800 million households living in low- and middle-income countries.
The majority of remittances are small sums of money, spent by recipients on everyday subsistence needs including food, education and health. The World Bank projects that within five years, remittances will outstrip overseas aid and foreign direct investment combined, reflecting the extent to which global financial flows have been reshaped by migration.
But the social distancing and lockdown measures used to contain the spread of coronavirus have led to a global economic slump, with the International Monetary Fund predicting the global economy will contract by 3% in 2020. Three issues make this looming crisis particularly salient for the migrant workers who generate remittances.
Migrant workers at risk
First, as the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank illustrated in a recent briefing, migrant workers tend to work in sectors that are particularly vulnerable at times of an economic downturn and have less employee protections. They are also more likely to be self-employed.
Second, the access migrant workers have to public funds is – with some exceptions – specifically restricted as a condition of their visas. So it’s uncertain whether they will be able to access the already limited government interventions to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. For example, the South African government’s initiative to help small- and medium-sized businesses is only available for those with South African citizenship.
Third, and as a result of this, migrant workers adopt a series of strategies or tactics to cope. They often continue to work in compromised circumstances, such as in jobs with lower wages, poor working conditions and, in the current crisis, exposure to infection. They also restrict their spending – and contemplate a return back home.
In the UK, some migrants are hyper-visible NHS doctors and nurses. Their labour has been somewhat belatedly acknowledged by the government, and their importance to the health service demonstrated by the Home Office’s decision to extend all visas of health workers coming up for renewal by a year.
But many more migrants are hidden and largely unsung heroes who continue to work in so-called semi-skilled or unskilled jobs in sectors such as food manufacturing and delivery, social care and cleaning. High rates of infection among Somali migrants in Norway, for example, are partly attributable to their concentration in these “close-contact” professions where home working is not an option.
The 2008 financial crisis
The 2008 financial crash and recession provide some indications of how this crisis in migrant work may affect remittance flows. Between 2008 and 2009, remittance flows declined by 5.5% globally. Some parts of the world saw even more marked declines. Transfers to Latin America and the Caribbean, most originating from the US, decreased by 12%. Migrants remitted smaller amounts, more infrequently, or in extreme cases, stopped altogether as they were laid off and faced uncertain future employment prospects.
Early predictions of the impact of coronavirus on remittances detail significant declines. One study by the Inter-American Dialogue estimated there would be a 7% decline in remittances from the US, which will fall from by US$76 billion to US$70 billion, with receiving households from Mexico and Central America being most affected. According to another study by BBVA Research, remittances to Mexico could fall by 17%.
With the global economy slowing down even before coronavirus, and the pandemic affecting different parts of the world over different timelines, long-term recovery prospects are unclear. The particular vulnerability of poor countries is apparent with the World Bank pledging US$160 billion over the next 15 months to aid both immediate health priorities and longer term economic recovery.
It remains unclear whether that US$160 billion is adequate and will reach vulnerable households, particularly given the negative impact the World Bank and IMF’s historic structural adjustment programmes, in which strict spending conditions were attached to aid, had on the healthcare systems of many developing countries.
In contrast, remittances – often known as aid that reaches its destination – constitute a significant safety net for vulnerable households. Our own research shows that remittances don’t just reach immediate household members but are also distributed among extended family and friends. They also support local economies through family payments to shopkeepers and construction workers. In regions such as the Horn of Africa, where 40% of households are heavily dependent upon remittances, any disruption in flows sent by the Somali diaspora will further exacerbate food insecurity.
How richer nations respond to the current crisis will have significant economic ramifications for countries dependent on remittances. Richer nations must adopt inclusive economic policies which both protect the livelihoods of migrants and reduce the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic. Their jobs are linked to the survival of millions of others.
High unemployment rates, oppressive regimes and a desire for better education are some of the reasons cited by Arabs who express a desire to leave their countries.
The Arab world has seen a lot of its youth move in search of better opportunities for employment, freedom of expression, in addition to escaping from social and cultural norms they find oppressive.
According to an August 2019 poll by the Arab Barometer company, titled “Youth in the Middle East and North Africa,” the daily living situation in the region is far from ideal.
Noting that youth between the ages of 15 to 29 comprise about 30 percent of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries, the Arab Barometer finds a significant number of them dissatisfied with their economic prospects.
They are also not happy with the education system. Moreover, “less than half say the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed”. Then there’s the high unemployment rates and widespread corruption.
This is why, Arab Barometer suggests, youth in the MENA region are more likely to consider emigrating from their country than older residents. The preferred destinations are varied, including Europe, North America, or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.
Another survey by Arab Barometer, titled “Migration in the Middle East and North Africa,” published in June 2019, notes that across the region, “roughly one-in-three citizens are considering emigrating from their homeland.”
The surveys were conducted with more than 27,000 respondents in the MENA region between September 2018 and May 2019 in face-to-face interviews.
According to the Arab Barometer’s findings, there had been a decrease in people considering emigrating from 2006 to 2016. Yet since 2016, the trend is no longer in decline but has shown an increase “across the region as a whole.”
The Arab Barometer finds that citizens are “more likely to want to leave” if they are young, well educated and male. The survey has found more than half of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 in five of the 11 countries surveyed want to leave.
While older potential migrants are more likely to cite economic factors as the primary decision, the survey suggests, younger ones “are more likely to name corruption, for example.”
As for the desired destination countries, they vary according to the homeland of potential migrants. Among those living in the Maghreb countries of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, Europe is the favoured destination.
Whereas migrants from Egypt, Yemen and Sudan point towards Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The survey has also found that those from Jordan or Lebanon prefer North America, notably the US or Canada.
The survey also notes that while most would only depart if they had the proper paperwork, young males with lower levels of education who may not see a positive future in their homeland have said they would be willing to migrate illegally, “including roughly four-in-ten in six of the 11 countries surveyed.”
In a blog post for Unesco’s Youth Employment in the Mediterranean (YEM) published in January 2020, Sabrina Ferraz Guarino observes that “Migration is a coping mechanism based on the assumption that moving to another country is the best and most efficient investment for their own and one’s family future” and that improving people’s lives in their home countries will likely result in less desire to migrate.
Guarino says the unemployment rates in the Mediterranean region affect youth the most: “Unemployed youth are the highest in Palestine (45%), Libya (42%), Jordan (36.6%) and Tunisia (34.8%), while Morocco (21.9%) and Lebanon (17.6%) fare relatively better.”
She adds: “Viewing this together with the share of the youth that is not in education, employment or training (NEET), reveals how the challenges of youth employment remain self-compounding. The youth NEET rates tally around 14% in Lebanon and 21% for Algeria, but progressively increase across Tunisia (25%), Jordan (28%), Morocco (28%), and Palestine (33%).”
In its MENA report published in October 2019, the World Bank says growth rates across the region are rising but are still below “what is needed to create more jobs for the region’s fast-growing working-age population.”
The World Bank recommends reforms “to demonopolise domestic markets and open up regional trade to create more export-led growth.” Source: TRT World
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