UAE’s migrant workers fret over future in coronavirus economy; that is according to my reading, perhaps about their own future in the Gulf region, particularly in the UAE during and above all after the passing of the pandemic. It must be reminded that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) successfully launched its Mars mission dubbed “Al Amal”, or “Hope”, on July 20, 2020.
In the meantime, here is the original Reuters article that covers this traumatic period in the life of those numerous migrant workers in the UAE.
DUBAI (Reuters) – When Kapil left his Nepali village for an airport job packing cargo in the United Arab Emirates, he thought he was securing a future for himself and his family.
But less than a year after arriving in the Middle East trade and tourism hub, he questions whether it was the right decision after learning there would be no work this month.
“I’m totally hopeless,” said 29-year-old Kapil, whose wife and five-year-old son are in Nepal.
The coronavirus crisis has taken a heavy toll on the economies of the oil-rich Gulf, heavily reliant on low-paid foreign workers.
They are the backbone of the Gulf economies, taking jobs in construction, services and transport, and are now facing the realities of the pandemic.
Reuters spoke to over 30 workers like Kapil in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, who all said they are now enduring hardship due to coronavirus.
Many have racked up debt and would go hungry without the help of charities as they wait for work and to be paid.
Some said they found little reason to stay without work and wanted to return to their home countries despite being owed months of wages; hundreds of thousands have already left.
The treatment of migrant workers in the Gulf has come under greater scrutiny, with human rights groups saying conditions have deteriorated because of the pandemic.
In the UAE, most attractive because of the economic opportunities it offers, there is no social safety net for foreigners, who make up about 90% of the population.
A laundry service worker from Cameroon told Reuters he had not been paid in months and was now selling fruit and vegetables on the street earning 30 to 40 dirhams a day ($8-$11).
The UAE government communication office did not respond to emailed questions about migrant worker welfare.
In May, the UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan said the Gulf state was committed to protecting the rights of all workers, state news agency WAM reported.
Those in blue collar jobs are the most vulnerable. They are paid low wages, work long hours and often live in cramped dormitories that have been coronavirus hotbeds.
Many also pay fees to recruiters in their home country, a practice common for low paying jobs in the Gulf.
Kapil, who said he paid a recruiter 175,000 Nepali rupees ($1,450) for his UAE job, is not sure when he will work again.
His employer told staff they would only be paid when they worked and it was unclear whether there would be any work next month, he said.
Kapil said he had been earning around $600 a month – six times more than his teacher salary in Nepal – working up to 12 hours a day, six days a week at the airport.
He said not working had left him stressed and unable to provide for his wife, child and elderly parents in Nepal.
Kapil, who showed his employment contract and other documents to Reuters, asked that his full name not be published and his employer not identified over fears he could face repercussions.
Arriving in the UAE last October, Kapil thought he would work at the airport for a few years before finding a better job, possibly using his teaching skills.Slideshow (4 Images)
Now he just hopes to work until the end of the year to pay back his loans.
“The global economy is getting worse and it’s affecting each and every business … I think during this time it’s hard to find any other job.”
No official statistics of how many people have left the UAE are available. But at least 200,000 workers, mostly from India but also from Pakistan, the Philippines and Nepal, have left, according to their diplomatic missions.
Sectors like construction and retail were struggling even before the crisis, which exacerbated hardship for workers already exposed to payment delays.
Mohammed Mubarak has not been paid for around 11 months for security work at a Dubai theme park.
“The company doesn’t know when they’ll be able to pay us, and we are suffering,” the Ghanaian said.
Government coronavirus restrictions that forced many businesses to shutter for weeks began to ease in May. Shopping centres, water parks, bars and restaurants – all staffed by migrant workers – are once again open, raising hopes.
Zulfiqar, a Pakistani in Dubai for 12 years, sent his family home early in the outbreak but stayed on hoping for work, sharing a room and what cash he has with a dozen other unemployed men.
With the “Oil for Protection” pact with the United States in 1945 and the contribution of petrodollars, Wahabism took off. It was exposed outside the kingdom, notably to Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. This export was a defence system against the ideological incursions of neighbouring republics states, all friends at the time of the Soviets, and sworn enemies of the Saudi monarchy. The MENA countries of today are still divided along the same lines of governance; those of republics versus monarchies. One thing though ties all the countries is the autocratic reality that underpins all systems. These stem fundamentally from the following.
Wahabism is the school of religious thought initiated by Md Ibn Abdel Wahab in the 18th century, itself derived from the Hanabalite current of thought. This school advocate a return to the religious precepts of the time of the prophet and does not tolerate any other interpretation of the sacred texts other than those disclosed by the first caliphate.
During the Cold War and to counter the Soviets in Afghanistan, the U.S. trained Islamists extremist militants in resistance and guerrilla methods. Saudi bin Laden came to be known as the head of an organization of freedom fighters against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The cold war ended with the Berlin wall collapsing bringing the end of the USSR and thus the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan. From then on, the U.S. was a dominant power in this part of the world with later, a visible presence in the Middle East’s Gulf region. The experts in U.S. geopolitics then discovered a new enemy to manage, that is Iraq and eventually Iran. But many terrorism victim states pointed the index at Saudi Arabia’s Wahabism, denouncing it as the spiritual support and backer of these terrorist organizations. It is an undeniable fact that the Wahabi Islam has done great harm to the Islamic world as much as to Islam itself. On the other hand, the cultural vacuum operated by authoritarian socialist regimes in most of the republic states in the MENA region was an ideal breeding ground for the implantation of ideologies imported from the Arabian Peninsula.
It would, on the other hand, be more accurate to talk about shared responsibility between the Arab states and the U.S. rather than to focus it on Arabia alone. Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) wants to reform Arabia but with the excellent advice of the U.S. and its ally, Israel. With the terrorist strikes of the nine-eleven 2001, the Americans had apparently decided to tackle the source of the evil, i.e. the Saudi Wahhabism that they had supported themselves before.
Trump and his allies have turned a blind eye to MBS’s notorious behaviour which by opening the country to “emancipatory” Western ideas and certain financial benefits in the medium term, looked like promoting the “right path” of Saudi society first, then of the entire Umma, i.e. the Muslim world community, after that. A programme that is best to start by emancipating women. The woman as guardian of traditions needed to be able to contribute and to do this, the first and most obvious idea: unveil it. The Saudi woman should live according to the Western model, the American style of preference, libertine, and more spendthrift. From this perspective, the concept of the two-parent family (father, mother, children) that is protective, and guardian of moral values should be banned. It is true that women in these Middle East countries still live under the dictates of an oppressive, repressive, and reductive secular mentality due mainly to pre-Islamic ancestral practices rather than to the religious fact as divine precepts.
Arab News tells us How Middle East’s coronavirus crisis threatens the environment too. Let us see what all is this about. How different is it to North Africa, say to Libya?
The importance of hygiene has led to an exponential increase in use of disposable plastic products
COVID-19 may have set the world back on a slippery slope with regard to overuse of plastic products
DUBAI: The COVID-19 pandemic has set the world back on the slippery slope of plastic overuse, just when it seemed as if plastic reduction was becoming an achievable goal, experts fear.
The priority of hygiene to combat the spread of the virus has led to a sharp increase in the consumption of disposable plastic products — gloves, single-use water bottles, cutlery, packaging and medical supplies — across the world.
In some Gulf cities, many dine-in customers are being served up to three plastic plates, cups and sets of cutlery for a single three-course meal.
“It’s a disaster,” said Tatiana Antonelli Abella, founder and managing director of the UAE-based green social enterprise Goumbook. “The pandemic has undoubtedly impacted every aspect of our lives, from work to school and our daily tasks.
“It is unfortunate that sustainable practices that have taken a lot of work to implement have now been replaced, due to sanitization (requirements), by the use of single-use plastic bottles, cutlery and crockery in restaurants and delivery services.”
Last year, some communities across the UAE banned plastic use in restaurants, while supermarkets planned to charge customers for their plastic bags. Almost overnight, the initiative has taken a back seat.
“It is a contentious matter, as many would argue against any evidence that using reusables, if sanitized correctly, could in any way be dangerous,” Abella told Arab News.
“Dish-washing machines, high temperatures and dish soap have always been 100 percent efficient (as sanitizers) and always will be. And most of the plastic used is also not fully recyclable.
“Unfortunately, if plastic is not properly washed and cleaned, it is considered contaminated and will end up as general waste in landfills.”
Other sustainability experts concur. “If restaurants clean their tableware and cutlery with hot water and detergent after every use, there is no need for single-use items,” said Amruta Kshemkalyani, a UAE-based sustainability adviser and founder of Sustainability Tribe.
“Restaurants just need to pay extra attention to their tableware cleaning process. COVID-19 shouldn’t be used as an excuse to create unnecessary waste and harm the environment.”
Peter Avram, director of the Dubai-based Avani Middle East, which produces disposable packaging solutions and compostable plastic alternatives, said there had been a surge in the use of disposables during the current pandemic.
“Regrettably, due to the current economic situation, plastic is being preferred to the eco-friendly options simply because of costs,” he said. “Eco-friendly disposables are 20 to 30 percent more expensive.”
The UAE consumes an average of 450 plastic bottles of water per person per year – or more than four billion bottles annually.
“It hurts to see so many years of hard work from environmental organizations going ‘to waste’,” Abella said. “The relaxation on the [consumption of] single-use plastics, even if temporary, could quite likely have long-term consequences on consumer behavior.”
When Kshemkalyani started a zero-waste lifestyle in 2015, almost no restaurants and cafes in Dubai were aware of the concept of serving food and drinks in reusable containers.
The environmental cause is expected to return to the foreground when the crisis passes.
Peter Avram, Director of Avani Middle East
Since then, the #zerowasteUAE social initiative and Sustainability Tribe have made tireless efforts to bring awareness to the community on waste issues.
“Now, in the name of hygiene and convenience, if the disposable culture gets popular again, it will be a big hurdle in society’s progress towards sustainable habits,” she said, especially when there is no evidence that a switch to single-use items is imperative during COVID-19.
Kshemkalyani questioned whether restaurants are recycling their plastic waste or just dumping it. “We do not want more waste in landfills that will further contaminate and pollute our land, water and air,” she said.
“Restaurants can start using their reusable serving sets and intensify the right cleaning and hygiene procedures. Instead of spending on single-use items, they have an opportunity to keep their manpower and use it wisely for intensified cleaning – this would also help employment.”
Kshemkalyani also recommended that restaurants allow customers to bring their own plates, cutlery and glasses. “Restaurants can also use environmentally friendly disposables, like palm leaf and wood [cutlery], as a temporary measure,” she said.
According to Abella, “It is important to keep the conversation going to use your consumer power to campaign for these changes.”
Although some outlets are seeking to offer alternatives, consumers should also vote with their wallets and ask restaurants to use sustainable alternatives, she said.
She said: “We should try to cook more at home and, if need be, choose restaurants that make an effort to serve their food in eco-friendly packaging.”
She pointed to the trend of people ordering more items than usual during the lockdown, with many of the items delivered in plastic containers, “wrapped in plastic and bagged in more plastic.”
Avram said that sustainability and recycling efforts must continue, pointing to the uptick in home composting procedures that many residents have begun to undertake to dispose of eco-friendly takeaway items.
“That has been very encouraging,” he said. “It is expected that the environmental cause will return to the foreground when the crisis has passed.”
Shams Hasan, air quality and corporate environmental responsibility expert at Envipro Consulting in the US, told Arab News: “The COVID-19 pandemic has created strange problems. Plastic items that were being phased out are at least temporarily back in use. The … fear is that during any crisis, society will start looking at an easy way out and apply ‘band-aid’ solutions instead of working on long-term strategies and solutions.”
Kristin Hughes, director of Global Plastic Action Partnership and a member of the executive committee, World Economic Forum, pointed to the challenge facing the world.
“We stand at the junction of two diverging paths,” she said. “One is a stop-gap solution that puts us solidly on track toward a not-so-distant future in which there is more plastic in the ocean than fish. The other is a sustainable model of living and working that will benefit us long into the future – one that will create a healthier, more equitable and more livable future for all.”
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.
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.
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