By Ian Howarth
The region that makes up the Middle East and North African is one of the most politically and strategically sensitive in the world. The reasons for this geopolitical sensitivity are broad and many. Firstly the regions vast oil reserves and the vital trade route through the Suez Canal gives it a distinct importance in foreign policy calculations. The recent and continuing effects of the ‘War on Terror’ and the ‘Arab Spring’ have brought massive political changes to Libya, Iraq, Tunisia and Egypt, countries that had until recently had reliable dictators, are no longer so open to Washington’s charms. The brutal civil war in Syria and the tensions this has revealed between Russia and the western powers as well as the continuing confrontation between the Security Council and Iran over the development of nuclear weapons possibly lay the seeds for future conflicts. Finally, there are the explosive issues that surround the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and the impact that this has on the wider Arab world.
The three key issues that I have identified and believe face all the nations of the region are managing access to water, terrorism and democratisation or liberalisation. Access to sufficient water is a basic need for any nation and in one of the driest regions on earth, the control of, and ability to access this resource is vital to national security. Democratisation is potentially destabilising due to the dangers of popular uprisings and violent counter democratic reactions from the military or the fragmentation of states into religious, ethnic, or tribal loyalties that could lead to bloody civil wars. All of these terrible outcomes have been seen in some form and continue to be in some cases since 2003.
While I recognise the dangers of stereotyping the connections between Islam and terrorism, it is undeniable that the radicalisation of Islam by extremist groups who see violence as a legitimate form of political expression is a serious threat to peace in this region. Terrorist incidents are on the rise with significant occurrences in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Iraq, with many foiled attempts in Jordan. The importance of access to fresh water in this region is hard to exaggerate. In the Sudan there have been frequent droughts that have led to the deaths of many thousands of people, and in Turkey, Iraq, Israel, Jordan and Syria the damming of major rivers is becoming an increasingly heated issue. The problem of water supplies in the middle east and the potential that it holds for conflict can be seen by simply considering Garret Hardin’s model on the effects of over-exploitation of a shared environmental resource, the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. (Baylis & Smith, 2001: 395)
This hypothetical model demonstrates how independently rational actions taken by a multitude of individuals, in this case states, can lead to a collectively irrational result which is catastrophic for all involved. In the case of water within the Middle East in particular this hypothesis could be said to be already occurring, the deserts of the region are amongst the driest places on earth and therefore the water that is present in this environment is finite. However, the nations of the region are failing to cooperate and are seeking national solutions to a regional problem ultimately at the expense of all.
President Anwar Sadat said after signing the 1979 peace treaty with Israel ‘that his country would never go war again, except to protect its water resources. King Hussein of Jordan identified water as the only reason that might lead him to war with the Jewish State’ (BBC News Website 2003). All across the Middle East and North Africa the issue’s surrounding water are growing in importance, between ‘1955 and 1990 the list of ‘water scarce’ countries in this region grew from three to eight with a further seven expected to be added within the next 20 years’.
The growth in demand for water in the region is in part due to one of the highest birth rates in the world, population growth that is entirely dependent on water either from the three great river systems, the Nile, Euphrates and the Tigris, or from vast underground aquifers that are rapidly becoming depleted. Nine nations alone rely on the water of the Nile, and the arguments over access to the water of the Euphrates between Syria and Turkey are growing more heated as the Turkish government embarks on an extensive programme of damming up stream, to support urban and agricultural growth in its dry south eastern region.
This issue of water and the right of nations up stream to damn rivers at the detriment of those states that lie down stream is causing increasing disputes. This is a situation that will only get worse over the coming decades as populations continue to grow. The support structures of these societies, food production, sanitation, and access to drinking water, will face collapse if the issue is left to the internal decisions of the separate states, each seeking the maximisation of the resource. This could potentially lead to the rivers down-stream drying up with all the terrible consequences this would result in for the stability of the nations affected. The solution probably lies in some form of water based OPEC, monitoring supply and demand and responding on a regional level, but whether the states of the region respond to this problem in sufficient time is doubtful.
The distribution of water in the region is currently a second or even third order concern amongst most external observers. However, without water there’s no life, and as the availability of water to those living downstream becomes increasingly scarce the prospect of armed conflict over access to water resources will increase. The ‘former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali warned bluntly that the next general war in the area will be over water.’ (BBC News Website 2003) Many other commentators have also stated that the wars of the 21st century won’t be fought over oil, but water. This is a problem that faces the whole world but will be at its most critical in the driest places on earth, in the Middle East and North Africa.
The nations of the Middle East and North Africa share one distinct yet dubious quality in common, not one of them is a liberal democracy, and before the cry goes up for Israel, not all citizens of Israel are as equal as each other. By that I mean that Arab Israelis face restrictions that their Jewish or even Christian compatriots don’t, and the people of Palestine lack any true voice whatsoever in the policies of their occupier or the Palestinian Authority. The failure of democratic government to take root in this region is the result of a myriad of causes, foreign intervention, the politics of oil, colonial mismanagement, and the traditions of tribal society to name a few. Since the withdrawal of the colonial powers there have been many false dawns in the region, Nasser’s Egypt, the Shah’s Iran, and Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.
Why you might justly ask would you consider liberalisation and democratisation as a threat to the stability of the region? Well the answer is really quite simple until recently most of the nations of the Middle East and North Africa are either one of two things, an absolute monarchy or an authoritarian dictatorship following the Arab Spring we also have transitional and unstable democracies. Both the previous types are represented in the region at their worst and their most benign. In order to bring about democracy in any one of these states would require some form of political, economic, or popular movement of fairly dramatic proportions. We have begun to see this in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and can only hope for Syria. However the vast majority of the nations in the region continue to exist under largely absolute monarchies or as in the case of Iran a theocracy.
Liberal and Democracy are terms often bounded about as being synonymous with each other, although true western democracy is dependent on liberalisation, liberalisation isn’t dependent on democracy. The liberalisation of a state, its institutions, and economy can proceed without establishing democratic structures. This is best witnessed in the success of Communist China in adopting western consumer trends, and economics’ while maintaining the control of the state by the party, a process that failed in the USSR, and is having mixed success in the Middle East and North Africa e.g. Dubai & Qatar.
The level of oppression and desperation present amongst the demographically young populations of the states of this region is difficult to overstate, and the desire within Arab and North African societies for democratic representation is equally as strong. Within Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union the outcome of this process of first disillusionment, then betrayal and finally a sense of the bankruptcy of communist rule was revolution and the emergence of democratic governance. However, in the Middle East and North Africa the governments began responding to the incompatibility of their rule and the desires of their citizens for more representative government long before ‘glasnost’ in the Communist bloc. ‘Glasnost Arab style was manifest in the infitah (open door) policies of Egypt and Tunisia in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s’. (Milton-Edward, 2001: 150)
The adoption of these policies was a result of the increasing illegitimacy that nationalist and monarchical rule was being viewed by the people of the region. They were seen as a solution to the demands for greater freedoms, without the necessity of real political change at the core. Jordan, Morocco, Turkey, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have all adopted liberalising projects, following the failure of Arab nationalism during the 1970’s. Introducing private industry and free market economics, and encouraging the development of the McDonald’s, GAP and MTV culture in their societies has provided an outlet for the ambitious, and young while at the same time maintaining the elites grip on power. Actual democratisation has been resisted by making token concessions such as the establishment of people’s assemblies in Kuwait, Qatar & Oman. They are half appointed, with powers that are so restrictive as to make them irrelevant. These concessions serve the purpose of providing the theatre of democracy yet none of the substance.
Despite this theatre the process of liberalisation in these countries has been very successful civil unrest has been rare, and most of the people who live in these societies are content, failing to see that liberal economics and the ability to buy a Big Mac is not what liberal democracy means. The rulers of these countries benefit from broad public support and are seen as father like figures despite their continuing quiet actions of despotism continuing behind the scenes. The suppression of more radical opposition and overly vocal critics of their governance continues unabated. Jordan has a free press it is said, free to praise the King, the government, and the military, in that order.
In Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Algeria however liberalisation has either been non-existent or unsuccessful, largely due to the half -hearted approach of the leaders. Low economic growth or because of unstable factional rule were the ascendant liberal faction can be replaced overnight by a more conservative one resulting in crack downs and the reversal of liberal policies. This may in part explain why three out of these six nations were swept away so quickly in the storm of the ‘Arab Spring’.
The adoption of the liberalising economics of the west has meant that the associated problems with crime and corruption have also emerged. However, in these societies there is no voice through which society can express its anger with these developments. This has led to nervous societies unsure of their boundaries, and security, it is this environment that breeds the levels of contempt, fear and utter hopelessness, often externalised by their own leaders to detract from their failures. In turn it helps fuel the support for organisations like Al’ Qaeda, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The policy of placing the blame elsewhere by leaders in the region is a major cause of diplomatic tension. The Saudi Arabian royal family are both staunch allies of the United States, personal friends of the Bush family, and supporters and protectors of ‘Wahhabi Islam’. This extreme Islamic interpretation’s teachings formed the bedrock of Osama bin Laden’s philosophy. It is this connection between the failure of Arab nationalism, and a lack of democracy in the region that fuels the growth of Islamic extremism and terrorism.
Since September 11th the developed world has been concerned with international terrorism. However, terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa is an ever present and far from new threat. In recent years bombs have been going off in Saudi Arabia, set by Islamic extremist opponents of the House of Saud, opposed to its relationship with the west and the United States in particular. Israel frequently experiences suicide bombings by Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, and Iraq since the 2003 invasion has seen unprecedented numbers of attacks by suicide bombers. Morocco and Tunisia have also faced similar problems.
The issue of terrorism is not a clear cut distinction between states versus the terrorist, in most of these cases the terrorist groups themselves either has their roots in state security services, or is funded by other rival states. Two good examples of this can be demonstrated through the Syrian regimes support of Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel, and the suspected involvement of Iranian forces in Iraq.
Foreign policy in the Middle East is dominated by the importance of military strength, with inter-state cooperation a rarity. The desires of various leaders to re-unite the whole Islamic world mean that issues of personality also play a significant role. ‘Democratic peace theory suggests that Middle East wars are, in part, a function of the regions democratic deficits which prevent publics from holding leaders accountable or constraining their foreign adventures’ (Hinnebusch 2003: 141). There are no attempts by the nations of this region to include liberalisation or democratisation agendas in their foreign policies, with issues of state governance and security on this level being restricted to the power of their militaries. The most concerted form of inter-state interference in the nature and structure of another states governance can be found in the use of security services, which play a key role in not only maintaining domestic security, but in inciting instability in competing jurisdictions.
The use of terrorism by security services to further political goals, and discreetly continue conflicts is best illustrated by Syria and Iran. Syria has for decades funded and supported Hezbollah and Hamas in its continuing fight with Israel, a policy that reached its height in the Lebanon during the 1980’s with Syrian military units in rebel or Lebanese guise engaging Israeli forces. Libya’s use of terrorism in its foreign policy is infamously known through the Pan Am airline bombing over Lockerbie in 1989.
The most influential foreign policy decisions regarding liberalisation and democratisation in the region are coming from outside. The ambition of Turkey to join the European Union is having a significant effect on its political and economic structures with nothing short of true democracy being acceptable for European Union (EU) entry it is likely that Turkey will effect such change within the current decade. Already Turkey is a far different nation than ten years ago, although events unfolding in the streets of Istanbul as I write seem to be setting the nation back, and the reactions of the government and police have been far from democratic.
Within North Africa the influence of the EU is also bringing about significant changes, Morocco harbours desires to be more closely integrated with the EU and is therefore making reforms of its own, although these have been far less dramatic than those of Turkey. In the Middle East the EU is less of a force although financially vital to the Palestinian Authority it could push more vocally for change.
It is the United States that is having the biggest effect on the liberalising agenda in the Middle East. It has been actively pursuing as part of its foreign policy the promotion of free market economics and democracy although the latter is probably more gloss than reality. Its stated intentions in the region have become more complex since September 11th, and the invasion of Iraq. It is the demands of the United States that have probably proven as much an influence on the liberalisation of Middle Eastern economies, as domestic pressure. It is for this reason that countries like Jordan and Morocco have at least played at the theatre of democracy, recognising that only the language of democracy is truly legitimate in the post-cold war world.
Despite the shared language, religion and culture of these nations the borders that divide them are real and peace and stability in the region is as fragile as ever. With civil war in Syria there is an ever present danger of a regional war breaking out dragging Lebanon, Turkey, Iran and Israel into conflict. It may well be the case that in order to gain a more lasting peace in this region a period of instability will first be required.
Baylis, John. Smith, Steve. (2001) ‘The Globalization of World Politics’ 2nd Edition Oxford University Press, Oxford p395
BBC News Website: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/2949768.stm ‘Middle East Water Wars’ & http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/2789233.stm ‘Saudis Jailed for Al-Qaeda Plot’
Gilbert, Martin (1999) ‘A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume Three: 1952 – 1999’ Harper Collins, London
Hinnebusch, Raymond (2003) ‘The International Politics of the Middle East’ Manchester University Press, Manchester p141
Milton-Edwards, Beverley (2001) ‘Contemporary Politics in the Middle East’ Polity, Oxford p150-151
Weaver, Mary Anne. (2003), ‘Revolution from the Top Down’ National Geographic Magazine, March, p84 – 105
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development Website: http://www.johannesburgsummit.org/html/basic_info/unced.html
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