China is manoeuvring to avoid being sucked into the Middle East’s numerous disputes amid mounting debate in Beijing on whether the People’s Republic will be able to remain aloof yet ensure the safety and security of its mushrooming interests and sizeable Diaspora community.
China’s challenge is starkest in the Gulf. It was compounded when US President Donald J. Trump effectively put China on the spot by implicitly opening the door to China sharing the burden of guaranteeing the security of the free flow of energy from the region.
It’s a challenge that has sparked debate in Beijing amid fears that US efforts to isolate Iran internationally and cripple it economically could lead to the collapse of the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, accelerate Iran’s gradual breaching of the agreement in way that would significantly increase its ability to build a nuclear weapon, and potentially spark an unwanted military confrontation.
All of which are nightmare scenarios for China. However, Chinese efforts so far to reduce its exposure to risk are at best temporary band-aid solutions. They do little to address the underlying dilemma: it is only a matter of time before China will have no choice but to engage politically and militarily at the risk of surrendering its ability to remain neutral in regional conflicts.
That is precisely the assessment that Iran hopes will persuade China alongside Russia and the European Union to put their money where their mouth is in countering US sanctions and make it worth Iran’s while to remain committed to the nuclear accord.
The problem is that controversy over the agreement is only one of the multiple regional problems. Those problems require a far more comprehensive approach for which China is currently ill-equipped even if it is gradually abandoning its belief that economics alone offers solutions as well as its principle of no foreign military bases.
China’s effort to reduce its exposure to the Gulf’s energy supply risks by increasing imports from Russia and Central Asia doesn’t eliminate the risk. The Gulf will for the foreseeable future remain a major energy supplier to China, the region’s foremost trading partner and foreign investor.
Initially delivering approximately 500 million cubic feet of gas per day or about 1.6 percent of China’s total estimated gas requirement in 2019, the project is expected to account with an increased daily flow of 3.6 billion cubic feet for 9.5 percent of China’s supply needs by 2022.
China is likely hoping that United Arab Emirates efforts to stimulate regional talks with Iran and signs that Saudi Arabia is softening its hard-line rejection of an unconditional negotiation with the Islamic republic will either help it significantly delay engagement or create an environment in which the risk of being sucked into the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is substantially reduced.
Presumably aware that Gulf states were unlikely to engage with Iran without involvement of external powers, Iran appeared to keep its options open by also endorsing the Russian proposal.
The various manoeuvres to reduce tension and break the stalemate in the Gulf put Mr. Trump’s little noticed assertion in June that energy buyers should protect their own ships rather than rely on US protection in a perspective that goes beyond the president’s repeated rant that US allies were taking advantage of the United States and failing to shoulder their share of the burden.
Potentially, Mr Trump opened the door to an arrangement in which the United States would share with others the responsibility for ensuring the region’s free flow of energy even if he has given no indication of what that would mean in practice beyond demanding that the United States be paid for its services.
Dr James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture
The unrest is, in turn, contributing to slower growth in the Middle East and North Africa region, alongside global trade tensions, oil price volatility and a disorderly Brexit process.
DUBAI: Unemployment and sluggish economic growth are fuelling social tension and popular protests in several Arab countries, the International Monetary Fund said Monday.
The unrest is, in turn, contributing to slower growth in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, alongside global trade tensions, oil price volatility and a disorderly Brexit process, the IMF said in a report on the regional economic outlook.
Earlier this month it lowered the 2019 forecast for the region — taking in the Arab nations and Iran — to a meagre 0.1 per cent from 1.1 per cent last year.
The IMF slashed its outlook for the region’s three largest economies — Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates.
The risks around the forecast of earlier this month “are skewed to the downside and are highly dependent on global factors,” the IMF said in its report on Monday.
“The level of growth that countries in the region are having is below what is needed to address unemployment,” said Jihad Azour, the IMF’s director for the Middle East and Central Asia.
“We are in a region where the rate of unemployment at the youth level exceeds 25-30 per cent and this requires growth to be higher by 1-2 per cent” in order to make a dent in joblessness, Azour told AFP in an interview.
The IMF report said that high unemployment was worsening social tensions in Arab countries.
“Unemployment averages 11 per cent throughout the region versus seven per cent across other emerging market and developing economies,” it said.
“Women and young people are particularly likely to be out of work, with more than 18 per cent of women…without jobs in 2018.” Violent protests have broken out in several Arab countries since early 2010 and turned into bloody civil wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya.
A new wave of demonstrations erupted over the last year in Algeria, Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon, typically demanding economic reforms and action against corruption.
In Lebanon, where protesters have brought the country to a standstill with demands for a full overhaul of the political system, the economy grew at a very slow pace over the past few years, Azour noted.
“The government has to act firmly and swiftly in order to address those imbalances, bring confidence back by addressing the fiscal situation, and lower expenditure,” he said.
The IMF also said that public debt levels were very high in many Arab countries — exceeding 85 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) on average, with rates of more than 150 per cent in Lebanon and Sudan.
“Having built over many years, the cost of public debt burdens has become sizeable, preventing investments critical to the region’s long-term economic future,” it said.
The IMF said that Iran, which is subject to crippling US sanctions, has entered a steep economic recession and faces a battle against spiralling inflationary pressures.
The Islamic republic’s economy is projected to contract by 9.5 per cent this year after posting negative growth of 4.8 per cent in 2018.
Iranian authorities must align “the exchange rate close to the market rate and also reform the financial sector…and try to address some of the implications of the high level of inflation,” Azour said.
As a result of the sanctions, Tehran is believed to be exporting only around 500,000 barrels per day of crude, down from over two million bpd before the sanctions.
The IMF said that oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, led by Saudi Arabia, are expected to grow by just 0.7 per cent this year from 2.0 per cent in 2018 due to lower oil prices and output.
“GCC economies need to diversify and grow out of oil and this requires them to accelerate the reforms that have been started in the last four to five years,” Azour said. Stay up to date on all the latest World news with The New Indian Express App. Download now (Get the news that matters from New Indian Express on WhatsApp. Click this link and hit ‘Click to Subscribe’. Follow the instructions after that.)
Robert Malley in this article titled The Unwanted Wars published in September / October 2019 of Foreign Affairs gives some answers to this question that has been marauding everyone for millennia. Why the Middle East Is More Combustible Than Ever, would, sarcasm apart, be a good start to try to understand the multi-layered mess of all past and passing powers. Here are some excerpts of the article.
war that now looms largest is a war nobody apparently wants. During his
presidential campaign, Donald Trump railed against the United States’
entanglement in Middle Eastern wars, and since assuming office, he has not
changed his tune. Iran has no interest in a wide-ranging conflict that it knows
it could not win. Israel is satisfied with calibrated operations in Iraq,
Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza but fears a larger confrontation that
could expose it to thousands of rockets. Saudi Arabia is determined to
push back against Iran, but without confronting it militarily. Yet the
conditions for an all-out war in the Middle East are riper than at any time in
conflict could break out in any one of a number of places for any one of
a number of reasons. Consider the September 14 attack on Saudi oil facilities: it could
theoretically have been perpetrated by the Houthis, a Yemeni rebel group,
as part of their war with the kingdom; by Iran, as a response to
debilitating U.S. sanctions; or by an Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Iraq. If
Washington decided to take military action against Tehran, this could
in turn prompt Iranian retaliation against the United States’ Gulf allies,
an attack by Hezbollah on Israel, or a Shiite militia operation against U.S. personnel in Iraq.
Likewise, Israeli operations against Iranian allies anywhere in the Middle
East could trigger a regionwide chain reaction. Because any development
anywhere in the region can have ripple effects everywhere, narrowly containing
a crisis is fast becoming an exercise in futility.
it comes to the Middle East, Tip O’Neill, the storied
Democratic politician, had it backward: all politics—especially local
politics—is international. In Yemen, a war pitting the Houthis, until not
long ago a relatively unexceptional rebel group, against a debilitated central
government in the region’s poorest nation, one whose prior internal conflicts
barely caught the world’s notice, has become a focal point for the
Iranian-Saudi rivalry. It has also become a possible trigger for deeper
U.S. military involvement. The Syrian regime’s repression of a
popular uprising, far more brutal than prior crackdowns but hardly
the first in the region’s or even Syria’s modern history, morphed into an
international confrontation drawing in a dozen countries. It has resulted in
the largest number of Russians ever killed by the United States and
has thrust both Russia and Turkey and Iran and Israel to the brink of
war. Internal strife in Libya sucked in not just Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey,
and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) but also Russia and the United States.
is a principal explanation for such risks. The Middle East has
become the world’s most polarized region and, paradoxically, its most
integrated. That combination—along with weak state structures, powerful nonstate
actors, and multiple transitions occurring almost simultaneously—also makes the
Middle East the world’s most volatile region. It further means that as long as
its regional posture remains as it is, the United States will be just one
poorly timed or dangerously aimed Houthi drone strike, or one particularly
effective Israeli operation against a Shiite militia, away from its next costly
regional entanglement. Ultimately, the question is not chiefly whether the
United States should disengage from the region. It is how it should choose to
engage: diplomatically or militarily, by exacerbating divides or mitigating
them, and by aligning itself fully with one side or seeking to achieve a sort
LOCALLY, THINK REGIONALLY
story of the contemporary Middle East is one of a succession of rifts, each new
one sitting atop its precursors, some taking momentary precedence over others,
none ever truly or fully resolved. Today, the three most important
rifts—between Israel and its foes, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and between
competing Sunni blocs—intersect in dangerous and potentially explosive ways.
current adversaries are chiefly represented by the so-called axis of
resistance: Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and, although presently otherwise occupied,
Syria. The struggle is playing out in the traditional arenas of the West Bank
and Gaza but also in Syria, where Israel routinely strikes Iranian forces
and Iranian-affiliated groups; in cyberspace; in Lebanon, where Israel faces
the heavily armed, Iranian-backed Hezbollah; and even in Iraq, where Israel has
reportedly begun to target Iranian allies. The absence of most Arab states from
this frontline makes it less prominent but no less dangerous.
those Arab states, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been nudged to the
sidelines by the two other battles. Saudi Arabia prioritizes its rivalry with
Iran. Both countries exploit the Shiite-Sunni rift to mobilize their
respective constituencies but are in reality moved by power politics, a
tug of war for regional influence unfolding in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and
the Gulf states.
there is the Sunni-Sunni rift, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE vying
with Qatar and Turkey. As Hussein Agha and I wrote in The New Yorker in March, this is the
more momentous, if least covered, of the divides, with both supremacy over the Sunni
world and the role of political Islam at stake. Whether in Egypt, Libya,
Syria, Tunisia, or as far afield as Sudan, this competition will largely define
the region’s future.
Together with the region’s polarization is a lack of effective communication, which makes things ever more perilous. There is no meaningful channel between Iran and Israel, no official one between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and little real diplomacy beyond rhetorical jousting between the rival Sunni blocs.
Gulf wealth: all that glitters is not gold. Little suggests that fabulously wealthy Gulf states and their Middle Eastern and North African beneficiaries have recognized what is perhaps the most important lesson of this year’s popular uprisings in Algeria and Sudan and the 2011 Arab revolts: All that glitters is not gold.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and to a lesser extent Kuwait have in the last decade invested billions of dollars in either reversing or hollowing out the revolts’ achievements in a bid to ensure that political change elsewhere in the region does not come to haunt them.
Qatar, in a counterintuitive strategy that has earned it the ire of the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, has sought to achieve the same goal by attempting to be on the right side of the region’s forces of change.
The irony is that both approaches, despite also involving huge investments at home in economic diversification, education, and healthcare, could produce the very result Gulf states seek to avoid: a region that has many of the trappings of 21st century knowledge states but that is incapable of catering to the aspirations of a youth bulge expected to annually increase the work force by a million people over the next 12 years.
UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, concluded earlier this year, that the region’s youth bulge was a double-edged sword. It could either pose a threat to regional stability or be an asset for development.
Turning the youth bulge into an asset “requires urgent and significant investment to create opportunities for meaningful learning, social engagement and work, all of which are currently limited, particularly for young women and the most vulnerable,” the UN agency said in a report entitled MENA (Middle East and North Africa) Generation 2030.
UNICEF arrived at its conclusion even though Gulf states have adopted grandiose plans that envision them becoming within a matter of a decade or two diversified, knowledge-driven economies that enact the social reforms needed to create opportunity for all segments of society.
The group’s conclusion applies as much to the wealthy Gulf states as it does to the Arab beneficiaries of their politically motivated financial largesse.
The problems with the flexing of the Gulf states’ financial muscle as well as the implementation of reform plans are multi-fold.
They relate as much to quality of the upgrading of services such as education as they are about how political intent shapes development efforts and how high domestic debt in countries like Egypt, where 27 percent of government expenditure goes to interest payments, and Lebanon, which spends 38 percent of its budget on debt servicing, benefits Gulf banks and stymies social and economic development.
Credit rating agency Fitch recently downgraded Lebanon’s credit rating to CCC from B- because of “intensifying pressure on Lebanon’s financing model and increasing risks to the government’s debt servicing capacity.”
“In Lebanon, just over 50 percent of the country’s bank assets are held by GCC-related banks, in Palestine this figure is 63 per cent, and in Jordan it is as high as 86 percent,” Mr. Advani wrote in a review of political economist Adam Hanieh’s study of Gulf finance, Money, Markets, and Monarchies.
Mr Hanieh argues that the bulk of the debt payments are to financial establishments whose major shareholders include Gulf institutions in a process in which “the Arab state…increasingly mediates the transfer of national wealth to large Gulf-related banks.”
Mr Advani warned that “indebted governments are compelled to intensify a politics of austerity, further trapping these societies in cycles of debt. Investments in social programs or infrastructural developments are often stalled. Popular movements are unable to realize their demands at the state level due to the requirements of foreign creditors and domestic capitalists. The ensuing scenario is one where alternative politics are asphyxiated and increasingly circumscribed by an atrophied status quo.”
That may well be the purpose of the exercise with economic diversification efforts in the Gulf being driven more by the need of autocracies to upgrade their autocratic style and create opportunity for a restive youth in a bid to ensure regime survival rather than by the acknowledgement of a government’s responsibility to serve the people.
The result is a flawed approach to all aspects of reform.
In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 economic and social reform plan that calls for greater private sector involvement has turned into a top down effort that emphasizes state control with the government’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) as the key player.
A combination of depressed oil prices and the recent replacement of energy minister Khalid al-Falih as chairman of the board of Aramco by PIF head Yasir al-Rumayyan, a close associate of Prince Mohammed, raises questions about the state oil company’s positioning in advance of a much-touted initial public offering.
Ellen Wald, an energy analyst and author of a history of Aramco, the kingdom’s main source of revenue, noted that at PIF Mr. Al-Rumayyan had overseen investments more geared towards speculative gains than the sustainable growth of Saudi wealth.
Nonetheless, Ms Wald cautions that Mr Al-Rumayyan’s appointment “doesn’t necessarily bode well for Aramco, which is a different kind of company. It has to make stable decisions for the long term,” she said.
By the same token, UNICEF warned that poverty, violent conflict, restrictive social norms, patriarchy, rights violations and lack of safe spaces for expression and recreation were limiting opportunities as well as civic adolescent and youth engagement.
Gulf emphasis on geopolitical dominance, regime survival and return on financial investment produces short term solutions that often exacerbate conflict, produce little trickle-down effect and few prospects for long-term stability.
“As a result, adolescents and youth in MENA (the Middle East and North Africa) feel disillusioned, with girls and young women, refugees, those with disabilities and the poor being particularly marginalised and underrepresented,” the UNICEF report said.
“Youth unemployment in the region is currently the highest in the world. Education systems are failing to prepare adolescents and youth for the workplace, and markets are not generating urgently needed jobs,” the report warned.
Gulf wealth glitters but if the UNICEF report is anything to go by, it has yet to demonstrate that it can produce the gold of a development that is sustainable and benefits not only all segments of Gulf societies but also of those across the region that have become dependent on it.
Dr James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.
“When I was carried through the hospital doors last June, nobody thought I would live to tell this story,” remembers Adba Saleh Mubarak. “The nurses took one look at me and motioned my daughter to take me away. They thought I was dead,” she recalls. Her daughter, however, insisted that the nurses take a closer look, and thanks to medical treatment, Adba recovered from an acute case of cholera.
While the disease is endemic in Yemen, the last few years have seen infections spike to a scale not witnessed in living memory. The destruction of water infrastructure due to the conflict, plus aquifer depletion, are largely to blame. With freshwater extremely scarce and sewage disposal systems in disrepair, more and more people are using water of dubious quality.
A still visibly frail Adba suspects she contracted cholera from water from Sana’a’s wastewater treatment plant. The overwhelmed plant is spewing poorly treated wastewater into the canal that runs through the Bani Al Harith District, where Adba lives with her daughter and three grandchildren. Many people here – mainly women and children – use this unsafe water to grow vegetables for their own consumption and to sell in the capital’s markets.
“This area used to be our own little Garden of Eden. We grew all sorts of vegetables,” Adba remembers. She learned the hard way about the risks of bacterial-laden water or food and now avoids contact with it. Yet, even though farmers and families have been warned about the dangers of using water from the canal, the supplies of this precious resource are too hard to come by – and the need for food too great – so these warnings often go ignored.
Seeing this problem, FAO partnered with Japan to install small-scale wastewater treatment facilities that can produce safe water for irrigation.
The treatment plants use the power of gravity to cycle the water through the various stages of cleaning; this means that the facilities are both cost effective and easy to manage. The rigorous 26-day treatment process involves sedimentation, filtration and aeration that utilizes direct sunlight to kill the microbes and ensure treated water meets the standards required for use in agriculture. At optimum working capacity, each plant can treat 150 cubic meters of wastewater per day.
The vast majority of water in Yemen – as much as 90 percent – goes towards irrigation. To improve water use efficiency, the FAO-Japan project is also rolling out modern drip irrigation systems on an estimated 75 hectares of cultivated land. This system ensures the sustainable and responsible use of treated water for farming.
Through already established Water Users’ Associations, the project is also intensifying public awareness campaigns regarding safe water use in agriculture, food processing and preparation. Farmers are being educated on the perils of untreated wastewater on human and animal health. The campaigns also focus on the environmental dangers that contaminated water poses to the soil and ecology.
Rania Ahmad Handhal, head of the Women Sector in Ahdaq Water Users’ Association and a participant in the awareness raising effort, says women are particularly at risk. She herself also contracted and recovered from cholera last year. “Getting cholera, however, strengthened my resolve to continue raising awareness among women in our village because they are the ones who farm and use water more extensively than the men,” she says.
Every day Rania tirelessly goes from door to door talking to women about cholera and how to avoid it. “I do my best in trying to save the lives of my people. I am very optimistic and hopeful that with better information and projects such as this one, we can beat cholera and women can earn much more from growing and selling vegetables,” she concludes with a smile.
The FAO-Japan project will save thousands of families living in Sana’a who rely on vegetables from this region. While this project has done a lot to mitigate the spread cholera, it is, however, not enough to cover the irrigation demands of the population. FAO is thus proposing to scale up interventions through a new phase, which will see new plants constructed covering the remaining 320 hectares available. This will allow farmers to expand their vegetable production while ensuring that untreated water is not used to irrigate vegetables in Bani Al-Hareth.
Water, food, health: the basics that everyone should have. FAO and its Member countries are working toward the Sustainable Development Goals, with this project particularly focusing on Zero Hunger (SDG 2), Good Health (SDG 3) and Clean Water (SDG 6), to ensure that people worldwide have access to these basic human rights.
According to the world banking institutions, it would require some $5.47 bn in investments for MENA economies’ advancement as elaborated on the ESI of July 23, 2019. There are related Economic and Governance Risks as everybody knows but it remains as solvable as anywhere else in the world.
The World Bank responded to strong demand from the Middle East and North Africa Region (MENA) during the financial year that ended on 30 June 2019, with $5.47 billion in new commitments to invest in people, expand the private sector, and set a course for digital transformation.
Along with the financial commitments, the Bank delivered a wide range of analytical products in support of development goals of MENA countries.
In addition, there were $67 million in new committed grants for the West Bank and Gaza during the past financial year.
The World Bank’s knowledge services included support for the region’s high-income countries through its Reimbursable Advisory Services. The programme, which reached $56 million during the past financial year, supported efforts to diversify economies and promote private sector development, along with supporting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in anticipation of their upcoming G20 chairmanship.
“While the region has stabilised following the dual economic and social shocks caused by collapsing global commodity prices and a wave of social unrest, many countries have yet to enact the deep structural reforms necessary to achieve economic transformation that yields sustainable, inclusive growth,” said Ferid Belhaj, World Bank Vice-President for MENA.
Belhaj added: “These reforms are ever more urgent if the region is to seize the opportunity that its rapidly growing, highly educated and tech savvy young population represents. We have been working with governments to unlock this immense potential, channelling our support towards efforts to transform the region’s economies and embrace digital technology as a path to growth and opportunities.”
New strategy for the MENA region
In March of this year, the World Bank Group launched an enlarged strategy for the MENA region.
It provides a new and positive vision for the future of MENA with a focus on investments in human capital, leveraging the benefits of digital technology, and mobilising private financing for development while remaining committed to addressing the root causes of instability and responding to immediate needs.
All eyes will be on the region as Saudi Arabia takes over the presidency of the G20, Egypt chairs the African Union, and Morocco hosts the Annual Meetings in Marrakech in 2021.
Over the past financial year, the Bank worked with countries in the region to seize this momentum, turn these new priorities into reality, and project the region on to the global development stage, with a set of concrete goals to be achieved by 2021, in time for the Annual Meetings.
These efforts included a number of major financing programmes. In Jordan, a $1.45 billion financing package was launched to support the country’s plans to improve its business and investment environment and improve fiscal sustainability.
In Egypt, a $1 billion programme was launched to help sustain the momentum of Egypt’s reform program and capitalise on improvements to macroeconomic stability.
The programme helped launch the next generation of reforms focused on creating opportunities for Egyptians and raising living standards by promoting the private sector and improving government performance.
In Morocco, a $700 million programme was launched in support of the government’s efforts to leverage digital technologies to transform the country’s economy into a more inclusive and innovative driver of growth.
In Yemen, the Bank launched a new country engagement strategy and committed $540 million during the financial year to maintain the provision of services and support economic opportunities, bringing the Bank’s active portfolio to over $1.7 billion.
The World Bank also continued its support to Syrian refugees and the communities hosting them in Jordan and Lebanon through projects with the Global Concessional Financing Facility, a multi-donor vehicle which has leveraged over $2.5 billion in MDB financing to date.
The Bank also delivered a range of analytical products to support evidence-based policies and hosted regional knowledge-sharing events to promote coordinated approaches to the region’s development challenges.
“In line with the goals of the World Bank Group’s historic capital increase announced last year, our programs have focused on scaling up support to meet the aspirations of people in MENA by focusing on the opportunities that digitisation, entrepreneurship and innovation and greater regional coordination can bring,” said Anna Bjerde, World Bank Director of Strategy and Operations for the Middle East and North Africa.
Foreign Policy‘s VOICE on Europe’s Future will be decided in North Africa elaborates on mainly the potential impact of Algeria’s current political instability on not only the region but also on the European Union.
Meanwhile, today July 19, 2019, is the twenty-second Friday of street demonstrations, were it not coincidentally for the Africa Cup of football happening the same day in the evening, would have been no different. Street demonstrations in all towns and villages of Algeria have become by now a sort of run of the mill. They are chasing a fundamental change of regime and not some epidermic exercise of the type that prevailed for decades.
The United States should stop treating the region
as secondary to the rest of the Middle East.
When I first came to Washington in the
1990s, people who worked on North Africa were few and far between. It was
considered a backwater; no one ever came to Washington to solve the Western
Instead, U.S. foreign-policy strivers
made their way to the Beltway to ensure the security of the Persian Gulf’s
shipping lanes, to write cheesy lines about the appropriateness of Wahhabism’s
austere creed arising from such a harsh landscape, and to chase the whitest of
white whales—peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It is a narrow view of
the region that continues today, which is unfortunate because North Africa is
far more important to U.S. interests than the Middle East obsessions—old and
new—of the policy community.
A long look at the map will tell you
almost everything one needs to know about North Africa and its importance to a
core American interest—the stability and security of Europe. Of course,
the region is important to the millions of people who call it home, but their
neighbors across the Mediterranean Sea have long been and will continue to be a
focus of U.S. foreign policy. There are only 146 miles separating the Tunisian
coast and the Italian coast and 286 miles from Libya to Greece. Algeria’s
beaches are 469 miles from those of France—about the distance from Washington
to Charleston, South Carolina. Morocco and Spain are separated by a mere 9
miles. Proximity and colonial legacies have shaped the region in such a way
that at least the northern rim of the Maghreb seems to share more culturally
with Southern Europe than it does with sub-Saharan Africa. Add to this Europe’s
economic pull, a steady flow of migrants from African countries, a bevy of
extremist groups, and copious energy resources.
It would be an exaggeration to suggest
that as goes North Africa so goes Europe but not by much. The United States
still has a compelling interest in a Europe that, in the words of the late
George H.W. Bush, is “whole and free.” And among policymakers in Washington,
there is increasing concern about Europe’s vulnerability because so much of its
natural gas comes from Russia. But 11 percent comes from Algeria. That might
not sound like a lot, but some individual European countries are more
vulnerable than others. Spain, for example, gets 52 percent of its natural gas
from Algeria. The North African giant is also Italy’s second-largest gas
supplier. If Algeria descended into violence—not out of the realm of
possibility—and its gas supplies were somehow disrupted, Europe would have a
If Algeria descended into violence—not out of the
realm of possibility—and its gas supplies were somehow disrupted, Europe would
have a significant problem.
Could the continent make up the difference
from other sources? Libya has a lot of gas, but it is in the midst of a civil
war. Egypt also has tremendous amounts of gas, but it doesn’t have the capacity
yet to make up any shortfalls that Europe might experience. The Israelis would
love to sell gas to Europe, but the pipeline to Europe they envision may not be
Then there is migration, an issue that
has vexed Europe’s leaders, caught as they are between the European Union’s
liberal cosmopolitanism and a virulent nationalism that a united, democratic,
and prosperous continent was supposed to make irrelevant. Of course, migrants
arriving on European shores via North Africa did not create Europe’s right-wing
nationalist and neo-fascist parties, but they did give them a boost—and the
effect on Europe has been devastating. Setting aside developments in Austria,
Hungary, and Poland, the leaders of the Brexit campaign and the Alternative for
Germany (a far-right party) fed off Europe’s migration crisis in 2015 to
advance their ruinous and dangerous agendas. The destabilization of the United
Kingdom and the prospect of German political polarization are deeply troubling
and a strategic setback for the United States. If Washington has a true partner
in this world, it has been London. Meanwhile, a successful, democratic Germany
is a bedrock of European stability and prosperity.
For almost two decades, Washington’s
focus has been on combating al Qaeda and then the Islamic State in Afghanistan,
Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Extremism in North Africa seems to be an afterthought. It
should not be. Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia all have terrorism problems
that have affected Europe in frightening ways.
Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia all have terrorism
problems that have affected Europe in frightening ways.
In the 1990s, Algerian extremists bombed the
Paris metro and hijacked an Air France flight in an attempt to force the crew
to fly the plane into the Eiffel Tower. More recent terrorist attacks in Europe
have been homegrown affairs, but that does not mean that Europe is safe from
North African extremism. In Tunisia in 2015, extremists killed European
tourists on a beach and in a museum. That is why the French have thrown their
lot in with would-be Libyan strongman Gen. Khalifa Haftar—he promises to kill a
lot of bad guys. President Emmanuel Macron may be wrong in his assessment of
Haftar’s capabilities, and French policy may be making things worse, but his
sense of where the threat comes from is clear. Algeria and Libya are huge
countries that border Chad, Mali, and Niger, which are themselves confronting
extremist violence. The prospect of groups linking up or merging in this region
is a significant security challenge for Europeans.
Finally, it is not just North Africa’s
old colonial powers—France and Italy—that are active there. Russia has a
long-standing defense relationship with Algeria, but it has also become more
active in Libya. It should be clear by now that President Vladimir Putin wants
to weaken and divide Europe. He has already forged an arc of Russian influence
around the Mediterranean, stretching from Ankara in the north, through Damascus
and Cairo, and then heading west from there into Benghazi. The latter is in
Haftar’s territory and the part of Libya where the bulk of the country’s oil
reserves are located. Putin doesn’t need to collect allies at the expense of
the United States per se—he just needs to give Russia a base from which he can
continue to sow discord and confusion in Europe.
Given how energy, migration, extremism,
and Russia’s ambition coincide in North Africa to threaten European stability,
it does not seem wise for U.S. policymakers to continue to treat the region as
an afterthought. Peace between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as democracy
in the Middle East, would be nice, but given the limits of American power, it
makes more sense to devote Washington’s resources to places that matter more to
U.S. interests. And North Africa matters. If you don’t believe me, look at a
The alliance is the brainchild of Moaz Fine, an Israeli professor at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University, who invited marine experts from the countries that border the Red Sea to collaborate at a new research centre. The team will comprise representatives from Israel, Eritrea, Jordan and Egypt, with scientists from Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen and Djibouti, which do not recognise Israel.
The countries have put aside political differences in the interests of protecting the natural world they share.
Coping with stress
Scientists, ecologists and oceanographers will come together at the new research centre, based in Bern, Switzerland, to study the impact of bleaching on the Red Sea reefs.
Bleaching occurs when coral reacts to changes in sea temperature, light conditions or nutrients. As global warming increases water temperatures, the delicate balance of reef ecosystems is disrupted, forcing coral to eject the algae that live and feed on them.
What is coral bleaching?
The stressed coral turns white and although it isn’t dead at this point, if the algae loss is prolonged it becomes vulnerable to disease and can eventually die.
But it’s not just coral that is affected when bleaching occurs, as algae forms the foundation of multiple food chains. When algae disappears, creatures higher up the food chain disappear too, turning bleached reefs into underwater deserts.
As well as hosting millions of plant and marine species, reefs often support employment and tourism in coastal communities. The Red Sea reefs attract diving enthusiasts from all over the world, attracted by colourful marine life and indigenous red and black corals. Their loss could have devastating environmental and economic consequences for current and future generations.
It is hoped that the new research centre will help develop more resilient corals, which will protect reefs and the livelihoods of people who depend on them.
How Saudi Arabia and Iran could make peace and bring stability to the Middle East, if it were up to them only, would not be an impossibility as clearly demonstrated here bySamira Nasirzadeh, Lancaster University and Eyad Alrefai, Lancaster University. It would in our opinion, be made even more reachable if both countries manage to transition off their hydrocarbon-based economies and into more diversified ones.
Saudi and Iran: how our two countries could make peace and bring stability to the Middle East
Relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran have rarely been worse, regarding the attacks on the oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman – for which both sides blame each other. Nevertheless, in the history of relations between the two countries, there have been regular shifts between tension and rapprochement – and things can change for the better once again.
As an Iranian and a Saudi, working as research fellows for peace studies, we believe it is time that our two countries seek to manage the conflict, improve their dialogue and begin the peacebuilding process. And we are hopeful that this could happen.
But how? Peace cannot be achieved overnight; it requires a range of factors to strengthen diplomatic ties and decrease the level of enmity between the two states. First, we suggest both states’ politicians soften the language in their speeches, altering the hostile rhetoric to a more moderate one. This would open new paths towards a direct and constructive dialogue, reducing the tensions that are affecting the two countries, the region and, potentially, the world.
Direct dialogue between the two regional actors could launch negotiations that may lead to more stability in the region. The existing regional turmoil has had a detrimental impact on relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran over Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen. The [Yemen war], which has caused a [dramatic humanitarian crisis], remains one of the main areas of conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but it also offers ground for talks between the two states.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran agree that the conflicts in Yemen and Syria can only be ended through the implementation of political, rather than military, solutions. If Saudi Arabia and Iran can take steps toward political compromises in Syria and Yemen, this subsequently will reflect positively on the trust building process.
While Saudi Arabia relies on its strategic Western allies and its ever-increasing military expenditure, Iran, which has been isolated by the US, prefers a more regional approach. Indeed, Saudi Arabia may have to ignore US protests to sit down at the negotiating table with Iran.
But the will for closer ties is, perhaps, there. Indeed, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, declared on March 13, 2018:
We believe that security of our neighbours is our security and stability within our neighbourhood is our stability. I hope they [Saudi Arabia] have the same feeling and I hope that they come to talks with us for resolving these problems. There is no reason for hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, we tell the Saudis that you cannot provide security from outside of the region.
Adel Al-Jubeir, the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, also recently stated in an interview that his country “does not want war with Iran, but will not tolerate what it considers hostile Iranian activity in the Middle East”.
Suspicions clearly remain, but such pronouncements could be viewed as a pause in hostilities, a turning point that could bring both sides closer together to resolve tensions.
There are also domestic reasons for a reduction in tensions, with both states building strategic plans for the future. Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has embarked on an ambitious socioeconomic plan to diversify the country’s economy by curbing its historic dependency on oil and challenging conservative social constructs and norms by unshackling society from some past constraints. In a state where most of the population is under the age of 30, Vision 2030 serves as a mega project that will lead the country to modernise economically and socially.
The same goes for Iran. The country has adopted a promising strategic plan called the 20-Year National Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran which has social, economic, and political objectives. But to be successfully implemented, both countries’ strategies will need stable societies and vibrant economies which cannot be attained in a hostile neighbourhood. Integration and cooperation will be essential.
Diplomacy is the solution
It is evident that Saudi Arabia and Iran will benefit more from direct dialogue than hostile rhetoric. Through discussing and working together on domestic, regional and international issues, it is in the interests of both states – and the wider region – to reduce conflict and increase cooperation through diplomatic ties.
The gradual shift from hostile to inclusive rhetoric by politicians is a helpful first step, but it is also necessary for Saudi and Iran to take practical action in their bilateral relationship.
It is expected for states to compete in their sphere of influence, but pragmatism must prevail if both countries want to put an end to their conflicts in the region.
Muscat Daily on June 12, 2019, commented on Oman Fourth Most Peaceful Country in MENA as “Peace in the world’s least peaceful region (MENA) improved marginally last year, based on improvements in 11 countries.” Oman Fourth Most Peaceful Country in MENA is not alone for Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE preceded it in the ranking.
Oman has been ranked fourth among the MENA countries and 69th in the world on the Global Peace Index (GPI) 2019. Oman earned 1.953 points this year.
The report has been published by the Australia-based Institute of Economics and Peace. Iceland remains the most peaceful country in the world, a position it has held since 2008. It is joined at the top by New Zealand, Austria, Portugal, and Denmark.
Bhutan has recorded the best improvement and is now the 15th most peaceful nation in the world. According to the report, Qatar made the next best improvement. Economic strains can increase the risk of unrest by fomenting internal divisions and civil and political unrest, the report stated.
According to the report, Afghanistan is now the least peaceful country in the world, replacing Syria, which is now the second least peaceful. South Sudan, Yemen, and Iraq comprise the remaining five least peaceful countries.
Peace in the world’s least peaceful region (MENA) improved marginally last year, based on improvements in 11 countries. The regional average improved in all three GPI domains in 2019, with reductions in population displacement, political terror, terrorism, deaths from internal and external armed conflicts, military spending, and armed services personnel.
In the 2019 GPI, 86 countries improved while 76 countries deteriorated, with the global average GPI score improving by -0.09 per cent. The 2019 GPI finds that the world became more peaceful for the first time in five years, with the average level of country peacefulness improving slightly by 0.09 per cent.
Of the 23 GPI indicators, eight recorded an improvement, 12 had a deterioration, with the remaining three indicators not registering any change over the past year.
This is the thirteenth edition of the GPI, which ranks 163 independent states and territories according to their level of peacefulness.
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